A few miles north of Honduras’ Caribbean coast, the Bay Islands are becoming a Mecca for sport divers and holiday makers. Beautiful views, reefs and the possibility of a whale shark encounter draw in the tourists all year round. The islanders rely principally on fishing and tourism for their income, but years of over-fishing and an influx of demanding newcomers is taking its toll on the people and the natural environment in which they live.
Lobster and conch are two of the most sought after creatures in this part of the Caribbean, and just a generation ago they could be found in abundance, swimming distance from the shore. As they became more valuable to foreign markets and the increasing number of tourists, their populations declined so dramatically that fishermen now have to spend weeks at sea, diving on outer reefs to catch animals that are far smaller and worth far less than those they were catching a few years ago. The balance of the ecosystem has been upset, and everything suffers as a result. Lobster and conch feed on waste products. Without them, there is an increase in nutrients in the water and algae cover escalates, smothering the coral which is not able to defend itself against the augmented competition.
Coral reefs provide an habitat for an enormous variety of life, and they are dying out. Human beings are very much a part of this ecosystem, and the health of the reefs is reflected in the health (physical, social and economic) of the people who depend on them. Smaller, less valuable fish and lobster mean lower incomes. This, and rising living costs are forcing people to travel further to find work which is sometimes dangerous. One of the biggest problems here results from altered fishing methods. Fishermen now dive for lobster using SCUBA gear with no knowledge of safe diving practices, diving to depths of 40m or more 6 or 7 times a day with no breaks and low quality equipment. Almost everyone is related to someone who was killed, or has been permanently injured whilst diving.
There are many contributing factors to the decline of the world’s coral reefs of which over-fishing is just one. The overriding issue that envelopes all environmental problems is that natural resources are for the most part viewed as being only as interesting as their immediate economic value. The bigger picture is forgotten in favour of survival (for local populations) or profit (for the larger business community)
I spent 4 months with a not-for-profit organisation working to protect the coral reef ecosystem of the Bay Islands, and assist local communities in the development of sustainable fishing practices and an improved infrastructure. Diving twice a day, taking a census of coral, fish, algae and invertebrates on the reefs, the aim is to map the Bay Island area and provide the Honduran government with the information required to set aside protected areas, and devise sustainable management plans for these valuable resources. At the other end of the scale are the islanders who depend directly on their immediate surroundings.
Government regulation is one thing but for a community who are physically and culturally isolated from the rest of the country, it doesn’t mean much. The people need to feel that they have control over their livelihoods. There are gaps in their knowledge scientifically speaking, but they have generations of experience in the sea and a much greater sense of being part of the environment than the powers that be’. It is for this reason that work on the community level is paramount to the success of any central initiative. The project I was involved in also worked with local fishermen to develop alternatives to the destructive and dangerous fishing practices used today. Lobster farming and the regulation of fishing according to breeding seasons are two of the proposals, the important factor being local ownership. The role played by the external organisation being advisory and not controlling, to provide information and assistance, but not to take over.
This particular project has mapped over half of the reefs surrounding the Bay Islands, and part of the coastline is already under consideration by the Honduran government as a Marine Protected Area. On the island of Santa Helene, a rubbish collection system is being implemented to reduce the serious environmental impact of waste products. Traditionally, waste has been left on the floor or burned. The new initiative is providing bins (made from disused oil drums obtained from a local power company) which will be emptied regularly into a managed landfill site. Plans for an incinerator are also being considered.
The future is with the children, and work with local schools is helping to improve awareness of the natural environment and its importance. Snorkeling trips on the reef and rubbish collection competitions are two of the ways used to develop an enthusiasm in the young for the home they take for granted.
Money for simple but life changing projects like these is difficult to obtain however. Donations from well-meaning foreign donors are great, and not-for-profit companies like the one I volunteered with do an essential job on a small scale, but if there is ever going to be effective long term development, it needs to be supported by much larger financial institutions with the money and the resources to make a continued commitment. Volunteer work has proven to be very successful all over the world, but the temporary nature of the staff and volunteers can lead to a lack of continuity and hinder progress. Very few people can afford to work for free indefinitely. The emphasis needs to be on commitment from large institutions advising and employing local people to assist in their own development.
My time in Honduras was an excellent experience, educational, challenging and enjoyable, and I would recommend it to anyone. Just remember, it’s not a holiday it’s an expedition, and you only get out of it as much as you put in!