Michael Marangos

Honduran fishermen and their fight for sustainable use of marine resources

In Central America and across the globe, artisanal fishing communities and NGOs are battling the effects that climate change, overfishing, and pollution have on our seas.

When you think of how most fish, lobster and other shellfish end up on plates around the world, what likely comes to mind is large scale industrial trawling, raking in catches by the tonnes.

The truth is, about 35% of the world’s fish comes from artisanal fishermen in small sailboats, motorboats, or canoes – and although a lot of their catch is sold locally – a lot of it too, sustains the planet’s commercial seafood markets.

A Honduran fisherman in Triunfo de la Cruz, on the northern coast.

Blue Economy is an umbrella term for economic activities related to the seas, where marine resources provide food and livelihoods for hundreds of millions of people worldwide, many of whom live in vulnerable coastal communities.

According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, almost 80% of the world’s fish stocks are now fully exploited, overexploited or depleted. Climate change, overfishing, increased pollution and the destruction of ecosystems seriously threaten the sector, causing major social and economic consequences across the globe, particularly in nations highly dependent on their waters.

One such nation, is Honduras.

Fishermen in Triunfo de la Cruz prepare fuel for their boat.

Having doubled its population since the 1980s, and with more territory in the sea than on land, living off the water is a lifeline for many. Fish and seafood account for more than 9% of total exports, with at least 350 thousand Hondurans depending on the waters for their income.

So how does a sharp decline in the health of marine life affect those so dependent on it? What’s being done to preserve these ecosystems, and who’s doing it?

Fishers in Triunfo de la Cruz launch a motorboat into the sea.

Roatán is one of three Bay Islands off the northern coast of the country, and due to its location on the 600 mile Mesoamerican Reef, the second largest reef in the world, the island receives a lot of tourism.

From 900 visitors in 1970 to more than 1 million in 2010, Roatán’s massive increase in popularity – largely fueled by the scuba diving and the cruise ship industries – has led to major infrastructure development and population growth.

This, coupled with a dramatic increase in the demand for fish, has taken a toll on the reef, as well as the communities who have depended on it for generations.

The indigenous Garifuna people in Roatán’s East End struggle to find an alternative to fishing.

“Back then we had plenty of marine life, and we didn’t have freezers. You only took from the sea what you could eat that day,” said Mr. Sherman Arch, a native on the island for over 60 years.

In the 1970s, many Hondurans started to come to Roatàn from the mainland with hopes to live off of the growing tourism industry. An increased population and the electrification of the island made freezing facilities available, leaving behind the days of walking out to the reef to pick a lobster for dinner.

Fishermen on Roatán are unable to fish the waters as they used to.

“We need to take care of what we have or it will be gone,” says Mr. Arch, who also runs an iguana sanctuary. “The goal is to teach people that a live turtle and a teeming reef are worth more than a turtle soup.” 

The Roatán Marine Park, an organisation established by a collection of local dive shops, has worked towards declaring the Bay Islands either protected areas (where only hook and line fishing is allowed) or replenishment zones (where no fishing is to take place).

The issues boil down to livelihood availability. Can people still make a decent living from the water, and if so, how? 

Today, shifting from fishing to tourism is seen as the most sustainable choice. As long as the reef is teeming with life, tourists will keep coming.

A spear fisherman prepares to catch lobster and conch in a small canoe.

On the northern coast of the mainland, in Barras de Cuero y Salado, a stunning area where the Cuero and Salado rivers meet the sea, different issues yield similar consequences.

These wetlands are home to one of the best preserved mangrove forests in the northern region of the country, providing a safe haven for endangered animals like manatees, howler monkeys, and over 190 bird species.

A ranger in the Cuero y Salado wildlife refuge on a patrol.

Communities here had settled over time to work on commercial coconut plantations, but after the area was declared a wildlife refuge in 1987, they turned to fishing instead.

Today, here too, locals voice their concerns that marine life is deteriorating, and that there are less fish in their waters. They point to illegal fishing and the destruction of mangrove as primary causes.

Mangrove gives shelter to fish, protects the coast, and absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere – but the area has seen a lot of deforestation, mainly for cattle grazing and palm oil plantations, which cause sedimentation and chemical run-off in the water.

Using small mesh nets to catch fish that haven’t yet reached maturity, illegal fishers come to the refuge from neighboring areas like Tela and La Ceiba, where the waters are more depleted.

Fishing with these nets catches all fish indiscriminately, preventing younger ones from being able to mature and reproduce, stifling the population’s ability to replenish, and threatening the ecosystem as a whole.

Locals in Cuero y Salado say there are less fish in the water, and that it’s becoming more difficult to make a living.

Together with Fundación Cuero y Salado, an NGO that manages the refuge, locals play an integral role in making decisions and strategies to protect their habitat from further harm.

“They know that their livelihoods depend on the health of the ecosystem, the relationship between the fish and the mangrove,” says Ivany Argueta, Director of Fundación Cuero y Salado. “Their knowledge has been so valuable for us in creating appropriate strategies to halt further damage.”

Having fishermen from nearby areas come together to set up APROCUS, an organisation that allows them to decide how resources are managed, has been one of the most effective ways to promote restoration in communities that might otherwise be reluctant to change.

Only hook and line fishing is allowed in the refuge now, and most locals agree with the restrictions, seeing that change is necessary, but some still feel it’s their right to harvest their resources as they have always done.

Irregular weather patterns and inadequate rainfall make it hard for communities to diversify away from fishing.

Patrols with armed Navy officers aim to stop any illegal fishing or deforestation taking place in the area, but conservation requires a lot of trust between the fishermen and the NGO.

Locals who support the NGO will sometimes report the illegal activities of a neighbour, which if they’re found out, can cause problems.

This is not uncommon. In Roatán too, a ranger in the East End has been receiving regular threats for his work with the Roatán Marine Park, becoming a steward of the sea can put one at odds with the rest of the community.

The protected areas and replenishment zones are patrolled by NGO boats with armed Navy officers.

To the east of the coastline, sharing a border with Nicaragua and a far cry from their compatriots in the north and west, indigenous people in the La Moskitia region live without electricity or running water.

With little to no help from the government, the area is plagued by issues similar to those faced by many developing nations. Poor, remote, and in some sense cut from the world, fishing is a lifeline for Miskito people, and they’ve been doing so since anyone can remember.

The Miskito Keys are a mix of salt and freshwater lagoons where small villages consist of houses on stilts.

Fishers here don’t have access value chains, and struggle to commercialise their product. Reach to outside markets is inhibited by their ability to transport fish while keeping it fresh and safe for consumption, so they’re limited to selling locally at a much lower price.

A lack of formal education and adequate training often hinders people here from making progress with other business ventures too.

“Our fathers taught us fishing. We have no formal education, they didn’t teach us about business,” says Electereo Colomer Blucha, president of the Kruta Fishermen’s Association.

Two boys in the La Moskitia region fishing in a traditional canoe.

The Miskito Keys are not a protected area, the indigenous population is proud of their ancestry, and don’t want to relinquish their traditional practices.

As a result, artisanal fishers here compete with industrial trawlers, who should be restricted from fishing within 3 nautical miles of the shore, but often ignore these limitations. There’s no enforcement mechanism to protect these waters, being remote and with little economic activity, the government doesn’t send the Navy.

Members of the Kruta Fishermen’s Association meet in the La Moskitia region.

For GOAL, an Irish NGO that has been working in the area for over 17 years, the challenge is to establish and diversify links to outside markets, especially those in developed countries like the United States.

An improvement in local infrastructure such as electricity for refrigeration, is vital. Another challenge is to comply with international standards and sustainability certifications. GOAL’s work with small scale fishers in the region, helps to strengthen mechanisms for good governance of their territories, resources, and supply chains.

“We provide institutional support to fishermen’s associations, promoting access to fair markets and market niches. Species that were previously considered to be of low value can now be profitable, thereby reducing the overexploitation of popular species, and reducing pressure on the ecosystem,” says Luigi Loddo, Country Director for GOAL in Honduras.

Fishermen in the La Moskitia region meet with GOAL.

In addition, guiding investments not only towards infrastructure issues, but also towards the development of human capital, is fundamental to improving the livelihoods of fishers and their families.

One woman, Isabel Vanessa Mercado Padilla, has established a jellyfish collection point where fishers drop their catch to be cleaned, salted, and prepared for export to the Chinese market.

For such a remote business, links to international markets are impressive. Now Isabella offers seasonal employment to more than 20 neighbors, allowing them to improve their livelihoods as well.

Women working at a jellyfish processing plant in the La Moskitia region.

GOAL also supports the Cooperative of Fishermen of Puerto Cortés (COOPESPCOL), which was founded by fishers in the Laguna de Alvarado wetland area.

Starting in 2017, COOPESPCOL began training fishers to establish more lucrative business relations. By putting together their expertise and resources, members of the cooperative saw an increase in the volumes and diversity of fish they could sell.

“Before, our daily retail sales were 40 pounds per day, and we could sell up to 200 pounds to wholesalers per month. At that time, we could only lend our cooperative members a maximum of 5 thousand lempiras,” says José Manuel Borjas, President of COOPESPCOL.

Fishermen of COOPESCOL in Puerto Cortés prepare fuel for an early morning fishing trip.

With the financial backing granted by MiPesca, a GOAL project funded by Nordic Development Funds and IDB Lab, these fishers were able to improve their processing facilities and buy higher quality equipment.

“We now sell between 90 and 100 pounds to wholesalers a day, and between 800 and 1,200 pounds a week. Before, we only sold one pound fish, now we sell fish up to 30 pounds,” says the President.

With their profits, the cooperative continues to operate a lending system where members can borrow money for equipment and boat improvements or repairs.

A member of COOPESCOL fishing for Tuna off the coast of Puerto Cortés.

Like in many developing nations, environmental protection isn’t a priority for politicians in the central government. Improved regulations on industrial and artisanal fishing are a good start, but there are no enforcement mechanisms, and often, NGOs are left to fill the gap.

The decline in marine resources has made life increasingly difficult, dangerous, and less profitable – not only for fishers along the Honduran coastline – but around the world, too.

Compared with how things used to be, fishers are bringing back very little. Spending several days far out at sea, in small boats unfit for deep waters, they’ll rarely haul in a catch they can make a decent profit from.

Increasingly, they’re forced to fish areas to depletion in order to feed their families.

The good news though, is that in areas where NGOs have been working, a significant improvement in marine life has been seen, some even seeing fish populations bounce back, reef cover improving, and communities successfully diversifying their incomes with a variety of activities.

José Manuel Borjas, President of COOPESCOL.

The Roatán Marine Park works with locals to find more sustainable ways of living. By training former fishermen to become scuba instructors or snorkelling guides, they can still make money from their reef, but in a way that allows the resource to rejuvenate.

“I no longer have to risk my life going fishing 2-3 times a week. I have friends and cousins who went fishing and never came back,” says Edgar Amaya, a former spear fisherman who is now a divemaster.

Fishermen in Triunfo de la Cruz pose for a photograph.

Roatán’s boom in tourism has shown locals the value of their reef, and encouraged them to care for it deep into the future. In areas like Punta Gorda however, the island’s much quieter and less developed East End, beaches are empty and there aren’t many tourists to offer activities to.

Indigenous Garifuna fishermen on Roatán prepare to lift a boat into the water.

People here often turn to illegal fishing with spear guns or nets, which calls for these protected areas to be patrolled with armed Navy officers, like in Cuero y Salado.

“Mainly, the approach worked,” says Gabriela Ochoa, Program Manager at the Roatan Marine Park. “On a dive in the West End, in the exclusive zone of protection that’s patrolled consistently, you’re guaranteed to see a turtle, likely more than one.”

A patrol boat provided by the Roatán Marine Park is assisted by armed Navy officers.

Consciousness and eco-tourism is on the rise too. A coral restoration project on Roatán funded by the Turquoise Bay Resort, invites guests to help maintain and replant coral on the reef.

“Ten or fifteen of our employees were some of the best spear fishermen on the island, now, they’re not catching any fish, they’re showing it to guests instead,” says Tripp Funderburk, who initiated and manages the project.

Edgar Amaya, a former spear fisherman who is now a divemaster, prepares to clean algae off the coral in the nursery.

Where fishermen were pulling out as much fish as they could before, education and training has proved successful in transforming their mentality towards their resources. Many of them have become stewards of the sea, beaming with pride when they talk about their reef.

“We have to convince people that there’s more money to be made by protecting the fish than by eating them. We need to involve more people in tourism. We need locals to benefit from the increased cruise ship traffic,” says Funderburk.

A man from Refugio de Vida Silvestre Cuero y Salado returns from fishing on the river.

In La Moskitia, indigenous people were helped to access outside markets that they would have considered completely impossible just a few years ago. Interim reports show that GOAL’s MiPesca program has helped increase their sales by 70% in the last year.

In Cuero y Salado, fishing alone won’t provide a sustainable future, but the community is working with Refugio de Vida Silvestre Cuero y Salado, to capitalise on their beautiful snaking canals and huge biodiversity, as a destination for bird watchers.

Pelicans wait for scraps of bait thrown by fishers off the coast of Puerto Cortés.

It’s not an easy feat, squaring conservation with improved livelihoods, particularly in a country plagued by corruption, violence, and an often unhelpful government.

With a growing population, high unemployment and a lack of opportunities, Hondurans now often form caravans and march towards the U.S. border, in search of a better life.

When it comes to helping vulnerable coastal communities survive, in Honduras and across the globe, it’s vital to build upon and invest in the capabilities of governments, fishing authorities and fishing communities, to sustainably manage the waters and industries that their livelihoods depend on.

Fishermen in Tela are forced to work farther in deeper waters.

NGOs face an uphill battle, especially when it comes to getting the necessary funding to continue their conservation work. But these organizations can only be a catalyst for what is necessary, a major change in our consumption behaviour and awareness.

The cause of the depletion problem our seas face is multi-faceted; the global demand for seafood, rising population, warming climate, a surge in single use plastics littering our oceans, and ineffective government regulations being the main culprits.

A lobster diver in the La Moskitia region, paralysed by decompression sickness he is no longer able to earn a living.

The truth is, in order to preserve our seas and protect the common goods of the Blue Economy, we all have to do our part.

With the 2020 UN Ocean Conference coming up in June, a new chapter in global ocean action aims to reach the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

Despite the obstacles, many still speak of hope.

This article was originally published in Independent.ie, and supported by the Simon Cumbers Media Fund.

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