DUC president Jim Couch gains new perspectives on
North American wetlands from Mexico’s mangroves
About the same time every evening, the sputtering beat of mopeds and tuk tuks would filter through the open window in my room. When the drivers cut their engines, I could hear the soft thud of boots walking along the wooden dock and stepping into boats headed into the estuary behind the John E. Walker Research and Training Center.
They were locals on their way to fish. It was a daily ritual that gave me a whole new perspective on North America’s wetlands.
As a prairie boy who grew up in the heart of rural Saskatchewan’s pothole region, I feel pretty connected to wetlands. My family used the marshes on our property to hunt, and we always ate what we harvested. But wetlands weren’t essential to our livelihood. They were important, no doubt, but we didn’t depend on them in the same ways I was witnessing here in Mexico’s mangroves.
The research and training center is next to the 150,000-acre Ria Celestun Biosphere, a large coastal wetland reserve and wildlife refuge on the Yucatan Peninsula, about an hour and a half west of the city of Merida in Mexico. I was one of about 20 people hosted by Ducks Unlimited de Mexico (DUMAC), Ducks Unlimited Canada’s sister organization to the far south. We were taking part in an event called the Mangrove Experience.
We spent our mornings in the classroom, taking in presentations about DUMAC’s conservation work and learning about the biology of mangrove ecosystems. In the afternoon we set off, hats and sun protection in hand, to explore the land, water and wildlife.
Aside from a flock of scaup we saw in the estuary, the sights and sounds were nothing like what you’d find in our Canadian wetlands. A sea of coral coloured American flamingos entertained us with their “flamingo dance,” using their feet to dig up food from the mud. In a freshwater bay, we watched from the safety of a boardwalk as a wily crocodile slipped into the water. Instead of floating through cattail stands, we meandered under thick, twisted canopies of red, black and white mangroves.
One familiar aspect was the threats these wetlands face as demands for land and space change. Not unlike Canada, economic development is creating conservation challenges.
In Mexico, urban populations are growing, road construction continues and commercial shrimp farming is taking off. But because this country faces some socio-economic challenges, development is often viewed exclusively as progress.
It’s taking a toll on the health of the mangroves, which are also essential to Mexican lives and livelihoods.
Case in point: the estuary behind the John E. Walker Research and Training Center is slowly dying. Construction efforts that have built up a nearby highway are blocking the estuary’s daily exchange of fresh and salt water. This intermixing that happens with the flow of the tides is essential to mangroves, and DUMAC is trying to raise funds for the installation of culverts to bring back this ecological function. For Canadians, this seems like a pretty easy solution. But in a country where many areas lack even basic necessities, water management structures like these don’t come easy.
The fact that resources are so scarce in Mexico makes DUMAC’s more than 40 years of conservation work remarkable. Cumulatively over the years, DUMAC has restored and enhanced more than 1.9 million acres throughout Mexico and classified 27 million acres of wetlands and uplands as part of the Wetlands Inventory Program.
Having an annual operating budget of just $3-4 million DUMAC staff operate with tremendous efficiency.
As I was packing to leave the John E. Walker Research and Training Center and reflecting on my time at the Mangrove Experience, I couldn’t help but think again about the fishermen who would visit each day and the troubling irony of their situation. The highway they drove in on, which provides access to the estuary and the fishing opportunities they depend on, is exactly the kind of infrastructure and development communities so desperately need. But at the same time, it’s damaging the ecological values that support these economic opportunities.
Balancing environmental sustainability and economic success is a challenge everywhere in North America. Thankfully, organizations like DUMAC are not easily dissuaded, and the mangroves they’re working hard to protect and restore are resilient. Both will flourish in an environment supported by people who believe it can and must be done.
Jim Couch is Ducks Unlimited Canada’s 42nd
president. His passion for conservation is matched
by his love for dogs and the picturesque Canadian
prairies where he makes his home near Saskatoon.