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Healthy Seas and Healthy Communities: The People of Honduras’ Mesoamerican Reef

This article is brought to you by the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP) and features the work of our Fellows on iLCP projects and expeditions.  Read our other articles on the National Geographic News Watch blog featuring the work of our iLCP Fellow Photographers all around the world.

Text and photos by iLCP Fellow Karen Kasmauski.

Loana Soliz shows her father, Rigo, what she worked on in school, her aunt and her sister look on.  Rigo Soliz, a fisherman, is home instead of on the sea since there is a lack of fish nearby.
Loana Soliz shows her father, Rigo, what she worked on at school, her aunt and her sister look on. Rigo Soliz, a fisherman, is home instead of on the sea since there is a lack of fish nearby.

This spring I traveled to the Bay Islands off the coast of Honduras for the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP) and their partners, Centro de Estudios Marinos Honduras (CEM).  The region is part of the Mesoamerican Reef, a marine region extending along the Caribbean coast of Honduras, Guatemala, Belize and Mexico.  Ecological pressures to the area, including population, overfishing, pollution and climate change have affected the reef. These pressures have stressed fishing communities all along the coast of these Central American countries. Fishermen have to stay out longer and travel farther to match the number of fish caught in previous years.

iLCP and our partners – Healthy Reefs InitiativeCentro de Estudios Marinos Honduras and Comunidad y Biodiversidad (COBI) – are initiating a strong advocacy and awareness campaign to educate local communities and their political leadership on the importance of incorporating sustainable practices into their everyday lives. In turn, the campaign is helping fishing communities establish and support fish refuges that will result in long-term economic, environmental, and social gains. The ultimate goal is to establish at least 20% of the reef ecosystem as no-take fish refuges, to allow fish stocks to replenish, something that benefits both the ecosystem and the coastal communities.  Therefore this is a unique initiative that investigates the connections between the health of the seas and the health of the communities depending on them.

Fisherman Rigo Soliz checks his nets for holes.  Fishing has been slow so he spends his days, checking his fishing gear.
Fisherman Rigo Soliz checks his nets for holes. Fishing has been slow so he spends his days, checking his fishing gear.
A fisherman's wife making tortillas.
A fisherman’s wife making tortillas.

For this project, the iLCP dispatched four photographers—two underwater shooters and two who focused on the social impact of the diminishing sea life around the reefs.  I was one of the latter. I specialize in photographing global health concerns, especially those tied to the degradation of the environment and social structures.

Unlikel the other photographers, I had not worked in this area before.  I hadn’t worked around reefs, nor did I speak Spanish. But bodies of water have always defined my family. My connection to the sea is not unlike those I photographed living on Honduras’ Bay Islands who depend on the sea for their livelihood.

I come from a fishing family. My younger years were spent in Norfolk, Virginia, a city located where the Chesapeake Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean. We ate fish and crab we caught ourselves.  We used chicken necks to catch a bushel or two of crabs right from shore. My father was a career sailor. He met my mother in Japan during the occupation. If he wasn’t in a war zone, WWII, Korea, or Vietnam, he was on a ship at sea. He could see first hand the thin line between life and death—men falling overboard lost forever and large rogue waves nearly capsizing ships. My father’s father drowned while fishing for supper in rural Michigan. My grandmother was never the same afterwards.  My father’s family was poor and catching their own food was vital to their survival.

My mother was born in a small Japanese fishing village called Sajima, south of Yokohama. At the time it was so insignificant, the Americans forces flew over it on the way to bombing Yokohama and Tokyo without even giving the village a second thought.  My mother’s uncles all fished for a living. They survived the war eating fish and other nutritious foods from the sea.  They didn’t starve like their countryman living in the bombed out urban areas.  So for both sides of my family fishing was important to their survival.

But like the Mesoamerican Reef, the Chesapeake Bay that was so much a part of my young life has been affected by overpopulation, overfishing and industrial development.  In 2008, at the urging of local officials and members of Congress, the U.S. Commerce Department declared the crab fishery in the Bay a federal disaster.  The numbers have not yet recovered.

The big difference between my life and those that live along the Mesoamerican Reef is that my entire livelihood does not depend on the sea. I have options. Yet for many of the communities our team visited, fishing was the only way to make a living.

Alba Juarez, 43, with her husband who is a fisherman
Alba Juarez, 43, with her husband who is a fisherman
A fisherman's daily catch, caught by line and hook. Barra is a line and hook fishing community but they are surrounded by communities that illegally drag nets.
A fisherman’s daily catch, caught by line and hook. Barra is a line and hook fishing community but it is surrounded by communities that illegally drag nets.

However, efforts are being made to help communities diversify their livelihood. One of the first communities I visited with the CEM team was Salada Barra, a small fishing community inside the Parque Nacional Cuero y Salado Marine Reserve, through which the Rio San Juan flows.  The reserve is west of the coastal city of La Ceba.  Our mission there was to show the diversity of marine life among the mangroves and the interdependency of the marine area and the community that lives in the middle of it. I hoped to photograph life in the village. However, not all went as planned. Fishing was problematic as many fish were too far from shore for the men to go after. So many fishermen were home, helping their wives with collecting firewood, tending their gardens or fixing their nets.

However it was clear that environmental organizations helped the overall health of this particular community. Local NGOS working in this area had established conservation projects including preserving the reefs, replenishing the mangroves, and protecting the manatees found in these waters.  These efforts paved the way for other groups to provide social improvements. A high school class was added for the first time.  Older students didn’t have to go away from home if they wanted to continue their education after elementary school.  Visiting doctors and nurses came once a month to provide maternal and childcare, vaccinate school kids and look at other health concerns.  We ran into a team of veterinarian technicians looking for dogs and cats to vaccinate for rabies.  This especially impressed me since rabid dogs are fairly common in underdeveloped areas.  These services are remarkable considering how remote this village is.

Dunia Hernan, 17, 2nd student from the right kids her friends during class. She is part of the first ever high school program held in this village. Her father is a fisherman.
Dunia Hernan, 17, 2nd student from the right, kids her friends during class. She is part of the first ever high school program held in this village. Her father is a fisherman.
A nurse gives a student a tetanus vaccine.  They hold a clinic in the village, usually outside, once a month. Children can get  vaccines and treatment for other health issues.
A nurse gives a student a tetanus vaccine. They hold a clinic in Salada Barra, usually outside, once a month. Children can get vaccines and treatment for other health issues.

There is no easy way to access Salada Barra. The only way to get in and out of this village is aboard an old produce train that used to carry coconuts, pineapples and bananas out of the area to various markets.  The ride is 35 minutes each way.  Although this was once a large plantation region, the agricultural industry is in decline and few coconuts are shipped out these days. They are developing a small tourist industry with a nice visitor center built by USAID. The hope is to bring people in via the small train to tour the marine reserve, see manatees, and eat fried fish cooked in local homes and served on tables outside.

Men in the community gather coconuts that will be taken back to town on a railcar. Rail is the only way to reach Salada Barra.
Men in the community gather coconuts that will be taken back to town on a railcar.
Rail is the only way to reach Salada Barra.
Alba Juarez, 43, returns from a firewood gathering trip with other members of the community.
Alba Juarez, 43, returns from a firewood gathering trip with other members of the community.

No one project single-handedly improves lives in these fishing villages, but the collective effect of all of them gradually pushes the communities towards a healthier and more empowering life.

Fishing is still central to this community. But they feel pressures from communities on both sides of them who illegally drag fishing nets along the shoreline catching all sizes of fish and other sea life. Although good laws are in place, enforcing them remains a continual challenge.

A group of fishermen illegally drag nets in an area too close to shore to catch undersized fish and conches.
A group of fishermen illegally drag nets in an area too close to shore to catch undersized fish and conches.

Salada Barra was one of many communities along the Bay Islands region visited by the iLCP team. Some were more developed than others but all faced the same pressures of a declining fishery industry and a threatened reef system.  Though I didn’t speak Spanish, I knew these people’s concerns because those of us raised by the sea speak the same language.

Melida Moscoso, 34, looks out the window of her small house.
Melida Moscoso, 34, looks out the window of her small house.

Comments

  1. Vernon Albert
    Roatan Honduras
    June 17, 8:17 am

    Mostly the people of Honduras need to understand the true cost of a child. Over population of People is the real problem for the fisheries. vernalbert@yahoo.com. Repair micro estuaries and you can create adolescent marine habit. Adopt and Estuary Roatan works.