Protecting isolated reefs off the Gulf of Mexico

Protecting reefs is becoming increasingly important for regions like the southern Gulf of Mexico where tourism and population is rising. In the past, at first glance, isolated reefs in particular seemed to be relatively safe from the harmful impacts of man-made industry, being cut-off compared to other reef systems. However, in recent times, is this still the case, particularly in areas that have been unprotected?

Fabio Favoretto is a marine ecologist who conducted ecological research at isolated reefs off the coast of the southern Gulf of Mexico. The research team went diving with underwater measurement tools, counting and measuring the marine life in isolated reefs. Some isolated reefs are protected from the dangers of over fishing, however some are not. Fabio and the research team made some striking discoveries about how the states of protected and unprotected reefs compare.

Large predators like this large grouper are a sign of good health of a reef when in high abundance. Large fishes are the main target of fishermen. Photo credit: Mares Mexicanos, Diego Gamero. All rights reserved.

Q & A - Fabio Favoretto

Please tell us about your background and how you began to specialize in marine ecology.

While diving I always wondered why things are where they are, why that coral is in that particular position? Why in some places do you see only some species of fish? These kinds of question lead me to study marine ecology. Now those questions just became more elaborated, but it is really an endless pursuit to satisfy curiosity that makes you want to be a scientist. I graduated at the University of Trieste in Italy in Marine Ecology and then I moved to Mexico in the Gulf of California to do my PhD in Marine Seascape Ecology. In the Gulf of California, the beauty and the biodiversity of the seascapes inspired me to use my research to improve monitoring tools and help inform stakeholders and the government for improved conservation strategies.

Why are reef environments in the southern Gulf of Mexico important to study and protect from over fishing and environmental damage?

The southern Gulf of Mexico is a land of legends, pirates, and beautiful beaches. Today, this area is a huge tourist destination. Population increased and as a result, there has been increased interest in eating more and consuming more of what the ocean and its reefs can give. However, there are some places that have not yet been compromised so much beyond the point of no return, where you can still see glimpses of the majesty of pristine nature. The immense biodiversity of the second largest coral reef system in the world is not only a hot spot to defend for the beauty of it, but also because, on it, depends the livelihood of millions of peoples directly and all of us on the planet indirectly. Over fishing cause immense disruption, it can turn coral reefs into wastelands, complicate the relationship human beings have with nature and between themselves. The environmental damage is more obvious when we see the direct damage caused, such as with polluted river discharge and the changes in coastal areas made to make room for hotels or industries. All these can cooperate in a dreadful concerto that we can stop only by giving nature its space and time to recover by defending the last pillars of wilderness.

Why have you focused on isolated reefs in your recent study, as opposed to only studying coastal reefs?

Isolated coral reefs are considered to be so far away that human activity does not affect them. In particular, they are considered safe from over fishing because are dubbed too far for being over exploited. However, in our study we show that due to the technological improvement of the fisheries (e.g. better engines, boats etc.) even those once pristine places are under direct threat. So, we wanted to compare two isolated reefs system, one protected by a Marine Protected Area where fishing is regulated or prohibited, against another reef system that was under no protection and fishery could be unregulated.

Beautiful coral reef seascape in Alacranes reef full of life. Photo credit: Mares Mexicanos, Diego Gamero. All rights reserved.

What tools did you use to help you monitor reef systems? Was remote sensing involved?

We didn’t use remote sensing technologies in our study, all we did was go diving, and with underwater slates and transects, manually counted and measured fish, invertebrates (corals, sea urchins etc.) and algae. With that data we can use statistical techniques that allow us to estimate overall biomass and cover of key organisms that we use as environmental indicators.

Please explain the first part of your recent publication’s title: “Being isolated and protected is better than just being isolated.” How does your research justify this statement?

In our study we compared two isolated (i.e. remote) reef systems: one is The Alacranes Reef, protected by a Marine Protected area where fishery is regulated; the other the Bajos del Norte is not protected and fishery is not regulated.

We show in our study that the non-protected reef showed much less fish biomass and less coral cover than the protected sites, thus indicating that protection was helping in maintaining a higher ecological health. Therefore, in the Anthropocene, no place on earth is safe from our impacts and we need to defend those last places before it is too late.

A seascape in “Bajos del Norte” with very low fish abundance and higher algae cover, a sign of lower reef ecological health. Photo credit: Mares Mexicanos, Diego Gamero. All rights reserved.

Final thoughts

The importance of protecting reefs was made crystal clear in Fabio’s study. The research team found that the reefs that weren’t protected had much less fish biomass and coral cover than the protected sites - showing that even those areas that seem to be cut off enough to be safe from human impacts, can be harmfully depleted when not protected.

Fabio encourages us to consider that even places that seem ‘cut-off’ from the outside world may not be entirely free of human impacts, particularly in modern times as
technology advances.


I’m a Professor of Oceanography and Geographic Information Systems at the Autonomous University of Baja California Sur, Mexico and Chief Scientist coordinator of the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation (CMBC) based in La Paz, Mexico. My research focuses on the ecological processes that governs coastal and marine habitats and how we can improve the tools to protect their health and the services these systems provide to humans.


Google Scholar: Profile link
Twitter: @FabioFavoretto

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