Thirteen fishing regions in the gulf produced an average of 11,500 tons of mangrove-derived fish and blue crab a year between 2001 and 2005, generating nearly $19 million for local fishers, the study found.
Worldwide, mangrove benefits have been estimated at $1.68 billion.
"Up to now, mangroves have only been recognized for their aesthetic value for high-end tourism and development," said Miguel Àngel Vargas of Pronatura Noroeste, the regional arm of the Mexican conservation organization Pronatura.
"Now we know they form the base of the region's fishing industry as well," Vargas said.
Acre for Acre
The country's mangroves, which currently encompass 2.2 million acres (886,760 hectares), are being lost to development at a rate of 25,000 acres (10,000 hectares) annually, according to the environmental group Greenpeace Mexico.
In an attempt to slow the destruction, Mexican President Felipe Calderón approved changes to the national General Wildlife Law in February 2007 that prohibit the "removal, refilling, transplant, pruning, or any project or activity that affects the integrity of the hydrologic flow of the mangrove, of the ecosystem and its zone of influence."
Conservationists applauded the change. But the country's powerful tourism industry—which has billions of dollars invested in future resorts sited on or near mangroves—is taking legal action in hopes of being granted exemptions from the law, according to news reports.
The Scripps study has broad implications for coastal conservation policy in Mexico, according to the paper's authors, who say it will give communities new ammunition to defend their fishing grounds from development.
"So far the fishery sector has not spoken out about the value of the mangroves," said Octavio Aburto-Oropeza, the study's lead author and a marine biologist at the Scripps Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation in San Diego.
"It's very important that they come to the discussion table to start saying how important mangroves are for food production and economic benefits for families," Aburto-Oropeza said.
The authors suggest that if mangroves are to be converted for development, then fishers dependent on the resources should be paid.
Mexico's National Fisheries and Aquaculture Commission (CONAPESCA) does not offer compensation to communities that lose fishing resources when mangroves are razed.
Ral Villaseor is deputy director of regulations for CONAPESCA.
"CONAPESCA recognizes the environmental services of the mangroves, but it is not able to compensate coastal communities for their protection," he said, "given that the mangrove is not itself a fishing resource."
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