February 13, 2014

The Roatan Marine Park: The Little Nonprofit That Could

Continuing with this third and final installment of marine eco-friendliness, it is now turn for the Roatan Marine Park’s (RMP) fresh and resourceful environmental activism to be showcased on this here website. Since 2005, this grass roots, nonprofit organization has been the island’s undisputed champion on the marine conservation front. They have performed a significant number of actions with the aim of reducing man’s carbon footprint on Roatan’s most precious natural resource and number one tourist attraction, its coral reefs. This section of the Mesoamerican Reef (MAR) engulfs all of the Bay Islands with amazing splendor and magnificent biodiversity, converting this Honduran archipelago into one of the most popular dive hubs in the entire western hemisphere. Year-round, hoards of divers from all over the world rack up countless frequent miles just to come face to face with this marvel from the sea. 

the rustic confines of theROATAN MARINE PARK
theLIONFISHin the MAR, a true space invader
However, like many of these underwater habitats around the world, the Bay Islands coral reefs are continually being threatened by a number of natural and man-made hazards. The list is depressively long and a real challenge for any organization in charge of implementing adequate reef handling and management guidelines. Human behavior such as overfishing, plastic debris and industrial wastes pollution, oil pollution, oil exploration, deforestation, erosion, fertilizer runoff, and sewage, are just some of the dangers posed to a reef already enduring the wear and tear of consecutive and intense tourist seasons. Clearly, exposure to these risks comes as a consequence of unplanned urbanization, lack of education, and/or regulations; however, climate change has had its fair share of responsibility too, as it is constantly altering the chemistry and temperature of the world’s oceans resulting in considerable negative effects on a much broader scale. Many destinations like Roatan should also factor in careless human impacts brought on by recreational use and overcrowding of the reef by common leisure activities like diving/snorkeling, fishing, and boating, which if performed without the proper guidelines, can be just as harmful. Add an invasive foreign species like the lionfish to make an already unbalanced ecosystem worse, and the reef may very well be on the path to extinction.

In short, these are the present conditions found in the Bay Islands. If these existing and emerging threats are not handled properly, the reef will inevitably succumb to a slow and agonizing death, transforming itself from a once colorful landscape brimming with life, into a desolate white colored wasteland.

getting up close and personal with theMARINE RESERVE 
It is only through Sustainable Tourism practices that a country like Honduras will be able to fulfill its economic needs while still limiting its sociocultural and environmental impacts to a minimum.  The key here is Sustainability ­– that worn-out buzz word found in the tourism lingo which by itself means virtually nothing, but with an organization like the RMP behind it, it can be a real game changer. Over the years, this group of environmental enthusiasts has displayed a steadfast commitment to sustainable development by initiating and supporting several measures which have been designed to promote tourism in the area, while always favoring the protection of Roatan’s most valuable tenant and marine resource – the reef. It all dates back to its humble beginnings (circa 1988), when the local community from Sandy Bay proposed the delimitation of the marine reserve which would encompass a protected area extending from Sandy Bay all the way out to West End. It wasn’t long before these local activists joined forces with the neighboring dive shops and other businesses in the area and a valuable partnership began.

Patrolling the open waters quickly became one of their top priorities as a means to curve one of the most serious threats to the survival of the reef – the illegal poaching of fish (more on sustainable alternatives provided to local fishermen later on). Remember that the coral reef together with its fish inhabitants have a synergistic relationship where the coral reef provides a living habitat for the fish, while they graze on the algae that corals compete with for space and cycle nutrients back into the system.

focus on theCHANNEL MARKERSthey are there!
garbage on its way up during aCOASTAL CLEANUP
Just as important for reef health, has been the installation and maintenance of an extensive mooring system of buoys brought on by a recent surge of heavy boat traffic. Tracking the status of this vast ocean infrastructure is not an easy task, so attune with its grassroots philosophy, the RMP has requested assistance from the community in reporting damaged or lost buoys. The Park also hosts several clean-up activities throughout the year, where they organize volunteers to help pick up trash in and around the beaches of the Bay Islands. Of course, the cleanup is not just on the surface, it also takes place underwater, which provided me with the perfect opportunity to go on a free dive with a collaborating dive shop, Enomis Divers, in order to take photographs and in return provide some added publicity to the event (click here for more details).

This is however, just the tip of the iceberg, as far as the Marine Park’s militant environmental activism is concerned; I was amazed to learn about far more elaborate projects, first hand from two of their dedicated staffers. Christianne and Marta were both very helpful in providing deep and comprehensive insight into these alternative and highly creative plans they have put into action.

LOBSTER...back when I did not know any better
One such program is called The Bay Islands Responsible Seafood Guide, which deals directly with creating awareness throughout the community, restaurants, retailers, and consumers about making responsible seafood choices. Its aim is to steer people away from over exploited or endangered species like the lobster, grouper, or shark, and provide more sustainable alternatives, for instance, the tuna or the highly prevalent lionfish – that invasive species which has reproduced so uncontrollably as of late, that it has reached plague-like proportions.

learn toDIVE&PROTECTyour pride!
Protect Our Pride, is a different innovative solution which has been set up to train and convert local individuals into PADI certified, dive instructors, as a way to provide those who would otherwise turn to illegal fishing with an alternative and sustainable livelihood; and what a better way to make a living than to teach others to admire the beauty of the reef fish in their natural habitat, instead of on a lunch or dinner plate! From SCUBA diving to apiculture, the RMP has been quite the busy bee, organizing the Corozal Bee Project – another sustainable program which aim is to help the members of a particular fishing community, to gain a separate skill set and thus a different source of income derived from the manufacture of all-natural bee products.    

Continuing with the lionfish outbreak, the RMP is issuing a hunting license specifically designed to lessen the negative effects brought on by the invasion of this foreign specie. It is important to note that spear fishing on the islands is illegal, however the RMP have been given the green light by the local fishing authorities to create a specific workshop which has been curtailed for just about anyone, including tourists, where they gain best practice instructions on how to properly spear hunt and help curve the lionfish population without damaging the environment. As a result, the participants receive a regulated spear gun registered with its own individual serial number which they can use to hunt lionfish and lionfish only. This has been combined with an annual event called the Lionfish Derby, where the dive shops organize groups of divers to go on a massive lionfish hunt which is then followed by the Lionfish Cook-Off, a cooking competition of lionfish delicacies, most notoriously tacos, where the day’s catch is distributed to several restaurants which compete in creating the best tasting and most original lionfish dish.

There is no denying that with these projects, the RMP has set in motion a shift from common everyday practices towards more sustainable alternatives that have benefited both the individuals as well as the environment. Although their actions are few and numbered, these have slowly materialized into concrete results which have certainly contributed to improved reef conditions in Honduras as suggested by the 2012 Report Card for the Mesoamerican Reef, a scientifically credible and well respected biennial report card on ecosystem health, issued by the entity in charge of tracking reef health in this part of the world – the Healthy Reefs Initiative (HRI). They utilize a single, user-friendly indicator as a measurement tool which is displayed in a map that contains all of the 193 sites that make up the MAR. It is important to note that the western side of Roatan had the highest agglomeration of sites with a 4 out of 5 rating, in the entire Mesoamerican region – where 1 represents the worst reef health, and 5 is considered the best reef health. Exceptional results if you compare to the lower ratings found in more renowned places like Belize or the Mexican Riviera.

On a much lighter note, I would like to add the proverbial "cherry on top" to this environmentally packed entry with a greatly satisfying but casual conversation I recently came across with, which I feel is my duty to share with the folks from the Roatan Marine Park and my usual blog readers.

While carousing with friends and drinks on a Saturday night, one of my friends, who happens to come from England, explained how his dad, who is also a Briton, came back to Roatan during the holidays after a 5 year absence. His Dad offered very gratifying, and clearly objective remarks upon his return to the land of sun, sea, and coral reefs. Paraphrasing his words, it went something like this…

the reef in Roatan was better than ever; incredibly, it was full of life and much healthier than the last time I was here

I can only hope that although brief, this previous sentence can summarize the job done by the Roatan Marine Park and put all of their hard work into perspective!