PUNTARENAS PROVINCE, Costa Rica – Artificial coral reefs are proving key to the recovery of marine life in Costa Rica, helping to maintain a diversity of fish communities, prevent erosion and serve as part of a broader protective corridor.
One of these reef projects is located at Playa Blanca, a beach in the Pacific province of Puntarenas that has earned a five-starred Blue Flag for its clean water and outstanding environmental management.
A total of 14 bell-shaped artificial reef structures weighing between 250-600 kilograms have been installed there and currently are serving as habitat for a wide range of marine species.
The structures were created with marine cement, which contains additives that promote oxygen availability and balance pH levels to create an eco-friendly habitat for algae, conch and mosses.
“Costa Rica has more blue territory than green, and there have been recurrent reforestation campaigns. But in the blue part we have a debt with the ocean. We have two wonderful coasts and we thought it was time to look toward the ocean and now we want to do it by ‘reforesting’ the oceans, Cesar Vargas, corporate relations manager at Hotel Punta Leona, the company carrying out the project, told EFE.
According to experts, the productivity of rocky areas has suffered alterations in recent years due to climate change, sediment movement and overexploitation of fishing resources.
These types of initiatives thus mark a step toward their recovery because they create refuges; increase substrate availability for the adherence of algae, small mollusks and crustaceans, which serve as food for many marine species; and help ensure the ecosystem’s lasting health.
“The advantages of these type of corals are that they provide stability in the substrate due to their bell shape and weight, promote a high diversity of fish that makes them a tourist attraction and also help with sedimentation,” said Carlos Perez, a biologist at the state-run National Learning Institute who is contributing to the project.
The goal of the initiative is to install a total of 200 structures and thereby create a type of marine biological corridor that enables species to move among the area’s existing natural reefs. The next stage to be carried out as a parallel initiative is the cultivation of corals for the purpose of reef restoration.
In addition to promoting and maintaining biodiversity, the project will serve as a springboard for boosting environmental education and promoting sustainable tourism.
The idea is for visitors to enjoy recreational activities such as snorkeling or diving while at the same time learning about the functioning of the ecosystem, the fragility of the marine habitat and the negative impact that ecologically unfriendly practices in cities have on coastal areas.
Diving experts say endangered parrot fish, which are crucial to ecosystem balance because they eat algae with their beak-like teeth and prevent them from growing uncontrollably on reefs, can be found in that marine zone.
Also present are lobsters, octopuses, scallops, white tip reef sharks, and hawksbill, green and Olive Ridley turtles, all of which are clear signs that the ecosystem’s health is being restored.
“When the people go into the water, it creates an awareness that there’s another world, that the colors are different. Time moves in a different way,” said David Astudillo, a biologist and diving instructor with Dive Costa Rica.
Costa Rica, a country whose marine territory is 10 times that of its terrestrial one, is known internationally for its efforts to promote sustainable tourism and environmental protection.
A total of 13,030 square kilometers of Costa Rica’s mainland and island territory, or 25.5% of the total terrestrial territory, have been set aside as protective parks and reserves. And the goal is to increase that level to 30%.
But the country protects just 15,500 sq. km of its marine area, or 2.7% of the total, a level that falls far short of its international commitments through 2020.
This artificial reef project, being carried out as a public-private partnership that also includes the participation of the MareBlu environmental conservation organization, has marked a step forward for the country in terms of marine research and its process of maintaining and protecting the natural wealth of its oceans.
The positive response to the project and its clear benefits also have allowed the National Learning Institute to unveil an artificial reef protocol with guidelines for its installation based on technical-scientific studies.
Costa Rica attempted a similar project in the 1990s but at that time lacked an ideal raw material. Other similar projects have been carried out in the country involving sunken ships or the use of porcelain structures, but those using marine cement are unprecedented at the national level.