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Adapting to climate change in the Mesoamerican Reef

Mesoamerican Reef

The Mesoamerican Reef is the Atlantic Ocean’s largest coral reef – stretching 1,000km from the northern tip of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and the Caribbean coasts of Belize and Guatemala to the Bay Islands in northern Honduras.

Why is it important?

The reef is home to some of the most diverse coral reefs in the western Atlantic: barrier, fringing reefs, as well as atolls, patch corals, lagoons, sea grass beds, and mangrove systems.

The reef’s massive structure provides an important defence against storms and coastal erosion. This is critical to the survival of plant and animal species, including sea turtles which feed and nest along the nearby shoreline.

There are over 65 species of stony coral and 500 species of fish living in and around the reef. The largest fish in the world lives here, the mammoth whale shark. There are also groupers, snappers and spiny lobsters.

More than two million people live on the coast and are heavily dependent on fishing and tourism to survive.

Direct and indirect threats and challenge

Rapid population growth and tourism have increased the exploitation of resources in the area, threatening the health of the reefs, mangroves and other coastal and marine ecosystems. Declining or depleted fisheries, habitat degradation or loss, and declining water quality are among the main concerns.

Climate change presents another significant threat to the reef and the people who depend on it for their livelihoods. Coral reefs are particularly sensitive to climate change. Sea water temperatures need only to increase by one to two degrees Celsius over relatively short periods of time for coral bleaching to occur.

Reefs are also damaged by storms. Extreme weather (such as hurricanes), warming seas and increased sea levels are predicted to become more frequent with climate change, making the future of reefs very uncertain. Coastal communities occupying low-lying areas along the reef are extremely vulnerable to rising sea level s and hurricane threats.

Coral reefs and mangroves play an important role in shore-line protection, helping to buffer against storm surges and high winds. They therefore play an important role in protecting coastal communities around the world against some of the effects of climate change.

WWF in action

WWF is working to reduce the vulnerability of the Mesoamerican reef’s ecosystems and coastal human populations to the negative effects of climate change.

To achieve this long-term goal, WWF and its partners are employing a three-fold strategy based on: continued science-based monitoring of climate change impacts on biological and social systems, field level implementation of strategies that help the reef and its people to adapt to climate change  (including better management practices), and raising awareness of the impacts of climate change and lobbying for climate change issues at local and national level to be included into national policy efforts.

As part of these efforts, WWF is giving local people in coastal communities along the reef a chance to communicate their concerns and ideas on how to adapt to climate change.

Useful links

Latest reports


Meso-American Reef project brochure

Coastal Capital: Belize