Oscar López (The Guardian) writes about environmental protection efforts in Roatán, which he calls “a gold mine for tourism and fishermen.” Those protecting the reef want tougher laws to turn the area into a no-take zone but they face a great deal of resistance in this Central American-Caribbean island:
I’m like one of those old-school gangsters,” says Ralston Brooks, a park ranger on the island of Roatán off the coast of Honduras. “If you’re going to do it, do it. Pop a cap.” The 37-year-old boat captain says he faces regular death threats from local fishermen because of his work patrolling the island for illegal fishing. “I have a lot of enemies. But you’ve got to suck it up: if we don’t do this, the reef will be gone.”
In the 17th century, the island was once fiercely contested by pirates and the English and Spanish navies, but these days Roatán is a tourist haven. The lush tropical island, far from the murder-plagued mainland, is home to dozens of resorts and receives more than a million visitors every year. But the fight for Roatán, which forms part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef system, is far from over. Local residents, conservationists and dive shops are battling to protect the island’s pristine coral reef from the threats of mass tourism, illegal fishing and the effects of climate change.
“The reef is what brings the economy to the island,” says Brooks, who works for the Roatán marine park (RMP), a grassroots non-profit organisation founded by a coalition of dive shops in 2005 to patrol and monitor the reef. “People come here to see the reef, the colour, the amazing life.” With dozens of scuba stores across the tiny island, diving is one of Roatán’s main attractions, and with good reason – according to a report from the Healthy Reef Initiative (HRI), Honduras has the highest coral cover of the whole Mesoamerican system.
Yet tourism is a double-edged sword. The same HRI report found that Honduras had the highest levels of macroalgae (a kind of fleshy algae often produced by untreated wastewater that can suffocate the reef) and concluded that “the rapid pace of tourism growth in Honduras … has led to unsustainable practices that deplete resources and destroy important habitats”.
In a country where environmental regulation is limited and funding is scarce, maintaining a healthy reef can be challenging work. “Politicians understand the reef is a resource to be protected because it’s a goldmine,” says Jenny Myton, associate program director for the Coral Reef Alliance. “But the government just doesn’t have the funds or capacity to help.” Protecting the reef in the face of mass tourism and overfishing has thus been largely left to local community groups like the RMP, supported by international non-profit organisations. “It’s like a river that needs to be directed in the right path,” says Ian Drysdale, who works for the Healthy Reef Initiative in Roatán. “International NGOs make the river bank to direct the flow.”
With support from international organisations, the RMP has been able to not only monitor and protect the reef from illegal fishing, but also improve marine infrastructure, setting up dive moorings and channel markers to prevent boats from anchoring on and damaging the reef. To reduce the pressure of legal fishing, the organisation has also developed honey production on the island. “It’s a way to give the local community an economic alternative to fishing and improve their quality of life,” says Eduardo Rico, RMP’s executive director.
The Bay of Islands Conservation Association (Bica) is another local non-profit group working on reef conservation. Founded in 1990 by a group of concerned islanders and foreign residents, Bica co-manages the island’s marine reserve in partnership with the RMP, the municipal government and other smaller NGOs. Yet as well as protecting the reef itself, Bica increasingly focuses on education, leading workshops and presentations at island schools. [. . .]
[. . .] But in a country where more than 60% of the population lives in poverty, such initiatives can be difficult to accept for many locals who depend on fishing to survive. Like Brooks, the park ranger, Arch says his conservation work has made him deeply unpopular. “There are towns that I don’t even go to because I have had so many threats,” he says. “‘We’re going to cut your guts out,’ they say. I have to take a 9mm handgun out with me on patrols.”
Still, for Roatán’s hardcore conservationists, such risks are worthwhile. “I love doing what I do,” says Brooks. “It’s not going to benefit me, but maybe my grandchildren, so they can still see turtles, sharks, conch. It’s like I tell my rangers: we’re defending mother nature.”