Off Quintana Roo, Mexico, Banco Chinchorro Biosphere Reserve houses the largest barrier reef system in Mexico and the Caribbean, stretching 115 kilometers long and spanning over 114,000 hectares. Within this coral network lies an atoll, its namesake Banco Chinchorro, where diversity in habitat and species flourishes. Such a pristine reef is often prone to overexploitation: not Banco Chinchorro. Rather, this community has actively pursued sustainable management and utilization of the marine resources. As a United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) biosphere reserve (designated in 1996), just 3 cooperatives are authorized to fish lobster by free diving in the waters. These fishermen, the only ones who live on Banco Chinchorro, have developed close relationships with authorities and scientists alike, enabling conversations and actions pertaining to the conservation of the region.
Along with developing bonds with other stakeholders, the fishermen of Banco Chinchorro also have fostered a unique relationship with the resident crocodiles. Boasting more than legendary reefs, the atoll also maintains lagoons that thrive genetically distinct American crocodiles. These endangered crocodiles support a burgeoning tourist industry for Chinchorro, acting as the muse for many photographers and divers from around the world. However, unlike across the rest of Latin America where the crocs face habitat loss and the demand for its skins, the Banco Chinchorro population have benefited from its designation as a Biosphere Reserve. Not only is fishing non-threatening to the species, but the fishermen feed and take care of the crocodiles, allowing the population to recover from hunting prior to 1996.
To better protect their resources, the local community is teaming up with researchers and local authorities to continually upgrade their fishing gear as well as adjust rules and quotas in pursuit of conservation. Scientific monitoring is done year-round to better grasp the nature of the island, its ecology, and its vulnerabilities and strengths. Meanwhile, the community must also battle poaching, climate change, and invasive species in the coming years. With continued interdisciplinary efforts and education, the community of Banco Chinchorro acts as guardians of the reserve, successfully maintaining responsible fishing and tourism. These crocodiles are more than just a commodity: they provide insight into the species and are the fishermen’s companion, demonstrating the harmony between people and environment.