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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Artificial Reef

Air Date: Week of

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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Coming up and coming soon, a new album of music from a band of pachyderms. But first, Acapulco was once the leader in Mexican tourism, but in recent years, the beach resort has lost out to places like Cancun and Cabo. The economic downturn is inspiring new schemes to attract tourists and their dollars. One plan involves the sinking of an old battleship. But, as Kent Paterson reports, the idea first has to get by some ecological concerns.

(Heavy metal music)

PATERSON: Mexican youth rock out to the heavy metal group Resorte at this recent festival held to celebrate the sinking of an old Canadian warship in Acapulco Bay. The idea was to open a new tourist attraction by sinking the boat and creating an artificial reef. Promoters contend that like other artificial reefs around the world, the one in Acapulco will benefit marine life by creating a new micro-environment in which organisms can flourish and attract other sea creatures. But things did not quite work out as planned.

(Traffic, music, voices)

PATERSON: Down the road from Metal Head Madness is Acapulco's Malecon, a waterfront area where tourists stroll amid loud music, departing bay cruises, and diving kids seeking spare change. Docked nearby is the Restigouche, a Canadian destroyer that once saw action in the Persian Gulf. Since arriving in Acapulco last November, the Restigouche has been the object of publicity and protest. Last December, scuttling work on the vessel was suspended by Mexico's Attorney General for Environmental Protection. The reason: the Restigouche's owners did not have an approved environmental impact statement.

BALLEZA: [Speaks in Spanish]

PATERSON: In an Acapulco office, Miguel Balleza points to places on a map of the bay that show possible sites for the artificial reef. Balleza is the president of the College of Environmental Consultants of the state of Guerrero. He's acting as an advisor for the sinking of the Restigouche. Balleza says the proper site should have the following features.

BALLEZA: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: The ideal depth should be between 90 and 108 feet. It should have a sandy ocean floor with light or minimal slopes. There shouldn't be any type of black coral or pebbles or any banks of oysters, sea snails, and starfish, among other things. There shouldn't be any marine life that is displaced when the ship is sunk. There should be a permanent underwater current so that the marine life attaches itself 100 percent to the walls and exterior parts of the ship in a period of a year and a half.


PATERSON: Marine scientists say artificial reefs can be beneficial for humans and marine life. Fast gaining in popularity, there are now thousands of artificial reefs across the globe, built with sunken ships, tires, and even beer cans. They are being used for everything from growing lobster habitat to serving as recreation sites for divers. Supporters of an artificial reef say it will be an economic boon to Acapulco, generating revenues of up to three million dollars a year from an estimated ten thousand visiting divers. While the projected income is a small fraction of some seven billion dollars Mexico brings in every year from tourism, it's enough to cause some local enthusiasm.

SIERRA: [speaks in Spanish]

PATERSON: The prospect of extra money and jobs is attractive to long-time residents like beachfront worker Jesus Sierra, who have watched Acapulco's number one Mexican tourist status get snatched away by Cancun and other trendy destinations. Sierra says the Restigouche could be a new maritime wonderland of eye-grabbing sea life.

ESCOBAR: [speaks in Spanish]

PATERSON: But because public money from an anti-poverty program was used by a private Acapulco association called APROMAR to purchase the Restigouche , the ship itself has become a long-running controversy. Lawsuits, embezzlement charges, and press polemics have accompanied the boat to Acapulco. Some, like Nellie Escobar, say the money is ill-spent.

ESCOBAR: [speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: There are many families here that don't have any income, houses, or paved streets. They can't make it with reefs.

PATERSON: Environmental, fishermen, and civic groups, have helped stall the sinking on the grounds that there is not yet an approved environmental impact statement to address the Restigouche's effects on the local flora and fauna. Opinions have been divided over where and when the ship should be sunk. Complaints have been filed with Mexico's Attorney General for Environmental Protection, and letters have been sent to President Vicente Fox.

FLORES: [speaks in Spanish]

PATERSON: Miguel Flores operates a local restaurant and is a member of a fishing cooperative.

FLORES: [speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: Any foreign body that enters an ecosystem is not a good thing. It is not good for the ecology if everyone throws junk into the sea. Nevertheless, years later, the ship could have marine life and be an artificial reef.

PATERSON: But Flores is willing to support the project as long as environmental standards are upheld.

FLORES: [speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: The majority of us who are engaged in fishing don't see the reef project as a bad thing per se. What's going on is that certain rules have to be followed.

STRAITH: One of the issues that was raised as under NAFTA, the deal between the United States, Canada, and Mexico, is we are to, on environmental issues, take the highest standard of the three of them, is what is acceptable.

PATERSON: Jay Straith is the president of the Artificial Reef Society of British Columbia, the nonprofit group that brokered the sale of the Restigouche to APROMAR . Standing on the deck of the Restigouche , Straith says he is puzzled by the fuss, especially since he obtained the proper export permits from the Canadian government.

STRAITH: The Canadian government wanted written assurances and received the assurances from APROMAR and the people down here that the ship would, at the very least, meet the same environmental criteria for being free of all metals and pollutants, i.e., hydrocarbons and diesel fuel, things like that, that a ship being sunk in Canada would meet. So we want to work towards the highest possible standard among the three countries.

PATERSON: Straith says the Canadian navy removed all the PCBs before the Restigouche left Canada. And his own group drained much of the oil that could leak into the ocean. But a change in political climate in Mexico, including a new federal government and a growing environmental consciousness, contributed to the pressure for a thorough environmental impact statement approved by Mexican authorities.


PATERSON: While the Restigouche's owners await an approved environmental impact statement from Mexico's National Ecology Institute, they will also now have to seek permits from several other Mexican government agencies. Meanwhile, the sinking of the vessel is weeks behind schedule. For Living on Earth, I'm Kent Paterson reporting.

(Surf up and under)



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