Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease in Cozumel - Nadia Rubio, Marine Biologist and Island Conservationist

Island Conservationist, Nadia Rubio talks about saving the coral reefs of Cozumel Island

Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD) was first identified in Southern Florida in 2014. The disease targets certain species of stony coral resulting in death. This year we’re celebrating International Women’s Day with this one-on-one interview with Island Conservationist and Marine Biologist - Nadia Rubio. In this interview, Nadia shares with us how SCTLD has affected the island of Cozumel, her current and future outreach strategy to help protect the reef, and her advice to any female wanting to work in the conservation field. 

Can you share a little about Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD) and how it’s changing the reef landscape of Cozumel?

Nadia: Cozumel's Marine Park and Marine Protected Area are facing the Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD). The disease is spreading on reefs that have historically provided ecosystem services to humans. About 3 million tourists visit Cozumel yearly to enjoy the natural landscapes and 1.8 million directly interact with aquatic activities in the Marine Park. For some of Cozumel's reefs, the SCTLD disease has increased and spread by 50% since December 2018, killing diverse species of reef-building corals. The National Commission of Protected Natural Areas (CONANP) ordered a temporary closure in October 2019 on Palancar, Colombia and El Cielo Reefs (popular reefs for tourists). However, the reefs have since reopened for tourism activities.

As a human in love with nature, this disease is radically changing the way reefs look. It breaks my heart how we humans have contributed to this loss of biodiversity and, in general, to a loss of human heritage for future generations. In Cozumel, this disease has expanded rapidly. It is devastating to see many corals that have been part of the reef for many years (even hundreds depending on the species) completely gone.

What advice can you give to tourists or people planning to visit Cozumel?

Nadia: Always take the time to be informed about ecological threats of the natural environment you are planning to visit. Be aware of the good environmental practices that exist when interacting with the marine environment.  Although not always distributed properly, informative brochures exist for many regions and you should take the time to do some research before visiting.

Do not touch marine plants or animals, do not take (or buy) marine fauna, always wear reef safe sunscreen, practice marine safe diving techniques like controlling your buoyancy, and do not feed the fish.

Can you share with us your latest project in Cozumel? What are you currently up to?

Nadia: Currently, I am actually taking some time off from being a full-time scientist. The 2019 grant I received from the Women Divers Hall of Fame allowed me accomplish one of my long-term goals of becoming a professional scuba diver. I had always set this aside because of work and grad school. As part of my diving grant, and with the support of the Idea Wild Foundation, I now have some underwater photography gear.  So, one of the best parts about this current project is that I have been able to start an environmental education campaign (Mar Sustentable) where I share visual material weekly with people via social media.

Why is the Mar Sustentable project important to you and what is the ultimate goal of the project?

Nadia: I have a special interest for science communication. I believe scientific knowledge needs to be expressed in different forms in order for various audiences to have access to relevant information and help improve our environments. This is especially critical nowadays with so many environmental disasters are happening around the world.

My underwater documentation of reefs in Cozumel aims to generate human awareness around the threats the Mesoamerican Reef System is facing. We share short underwater videos via social media with the goal of allowing someone to take a moment in their busy agenda to enjoy and sense the beauty of underwater nature, while also encouraging them to reflect on human interactions and how we can improve conservation efforts of coastal areas.

By creating short informative stories about coral reefs and their inhabitants we are able to share our passion and raise awareness for marine conservation.

Besides global marine conservation, what other goals are you working towards with your research?

Nadia: In 2020, I will be initiating a new project where I can document human reef interactions over time. I have previous data from my research in Holbox Island and Bocas del Toro, Panama, where I have recorded people’s interactions and perspectives of the environment.  I would like to put together a documentation via filmography to study how human interactions with nature have evolved over time.  We hope to use these results to generate recommendations for improving our conservation and outreach methods to protect reef landscape.

And in honor of 2020 International Women’s Day, can you share a little about your experience as a female in the marine biology field?

Nadia: I truly believe in women empowerment and in the power of sharing experiences for the success of younger generations. I have worked with diverse women in science who have shown me how to celebrate the good times and endure the bad. For example, going through episodes where my job/grant proposals were accepted, and times when they were rejected. I lived abroad for a decade and have been shaped by very perseverant, strong, and open-minded women that accepted my diversity. You can learn a lot about different styles of collaboration and how uniting efforts can lead you to achieve conservation goals. I now try to apply this behavioral knowledge with younger generations that I collaborate with, like students or interns. I always enjoy learning new things from them.

Any advice you have for women wanting to get involved in similar research or the conservation field in general?

I would tell them to follow their dream. As in every profession things are not easy, and you have to work really hard. But I think that is part of the deal. I would advise you to not allow anyone to discourage you when you have an idea. Sometimes people do not agree, but follow your gut! Sometimes it is tough, and sometimes you have to play deaf or blind (figuratively speaking) to situations you do not agree with, and just keep moving forward. There will always be someone willing to help and give you a solid piece of advice…I would say, look for those people!

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Nadia Rubio, Marine biologist and island conservationist in Cozumel Mexico, Snorkeling in cozumel, diving in cozumel, underwater photography cozumel mexico, stony coral tissue loss disease

Nadia poses with her underwater photography gear in our sustainable swimwear.  The gear was provided to her from the Women Divers Hall of Fame and Ideas Wild Foundation grant. To shop her look visit our page here.

Photography by Conie Suarez Bravo.


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