Two of my favorite pastimes are visiting art museums and exploring new underwater habitats. But combining the two can be environmentally risky. That’s why there are a couple of things that concern me about Jason deCaires Taylor’s project in Cancun, Mexico, that has placed 500 statues as an underwater tourist attraction. Here are a couple questions I asked myself after hearing about the site.
1. How does it help ocean health?
The artist, Jason deCaires Taylor, mentions that his statues at Museo Subacuático de Arte (MUSA) are being covered with coral and algae, but this does not necessarily mean his statues are helping the ocean. When implementing artificial reefs, the placement of human-made structures onto the seafloor, you need to have biological goals in place. This ensures that your artificial reef, or 500 statues in this case, contains organisms that can co-exist in a way that mimics the natural food web over time instead of throwing it out of balance.
2. Are the statues secure?
Artificial reefs can unintentionally damage surrounding sensitive marine habitats during storms. In the U.S., strong storms can move old, sunken naval ships across the seafloor, creating deep scour depressions and plowing through live bottom habitat. Mr. Taylor’s work has been damaged by storms and part of it collapsed. What happened to those collapsed pieces? Did they move or, worse, damage a nearby sensitive habitat? Without proper monitoring, you won’t know if you’re making progress towards your biological goals or if you’ve accidently damaged nearby habitats.
3. What is the conservation goal, and is it actually being fulfilled?
Currently, about 750,000 people visit MUSA annually. Mr. Taylor states that his exhibit serves as a conservation effort by drawing divers and snorkelers away from the Mesoamerican Reef. This is Mr. Taylor’s assumption since there’s no mention of monitoring or surveys to gauge if visitors are linking their visit to his statues with a visit to the Mesoamerican Reef. Without some type of monitoring, it is difficult, if not impossible, to say with certainty that few of MUSA’s visitors are swimming in the Mesoamerican Reef. MUSA could even be drawing more people to the Mesoamerican Reef.
Artificial reefs must have carefully thought-out objectives over a long timespan and be designed appropriately to achieve those objective. Additionally, there must be monitoring in place to measure progress towards the set of objectives. Otherwise, artificial reefs could inadvertently further damage the ocean that we love.
The main threats affecting the Mesoamerican Reef are climate change, fishing, shipping traffic of oil tankers, pollution from municipal waste contamination, sedimentation from inland deforestation, agricultural runoff, growing coastal development, tourism and aquaculture.
I think tourism will continue to grow in the Mesoamerican Reef, which is why our business choices are extremely important. Tourists can reduce impacts to the reef by supporting environmentally friendly businesses. This requires doing your research, which can be time consuming, but very rewarding when you’re helping the ocean you love. Check out these resources to get you started in planning an ocean-friendly exploration to the Mesoamerican Reef: