When I saw a large group of around 40-50 midnight parrotfish, along with a number of rainbows, cruising past me over a relatively healthy coral head, I knew I was somewhere unlike anywhere else I’ve dived in the Caribbean. Although similar in most ways to the coral reefs further north and suffering the same problems affecting reefs throughout the entire Caribbean region, the reefs here seemed slightly more ‘untamed’ than others I’ve dived, scenery was a little more vibrant and marine life more abundant. Maybe it was the psychological effect of being somewhere exciting and remote, diving on mostly un-dived reefs at the southern extremity of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef.
The Miskito Cays comprise an archipelago of 49 cays and about 750 km2 of shallow benthic habitat located 50-120 km off the northeast coast of Honduras. Around half of the cays have vegetation with a number of small mangrove forests, along with other herbaceous vegetation providing habitat for numerous species, including large colonies of breeding seabirds.
For over 40 years industrial fishing has continued around the Miskito Cays with exceptionally poor management resulting in unsustainable exploitation not only of the marine environment, but also of the fishermen themselves. The primary method of fishing is SCUBA diving but this remains relatively primitive and dangerous, relying for the most part on basic, poorly maintained SCUBA equipment with little regard for the safety of the diver. As catches have been driven into deeper waters human casualties from diving associated incidents have risen exponentially.
Lobster pots stacked on a coral cay
In order to reduce the impacts of industrial fishing and to introduce new fishing methods Miskito communities are proposing an “Area of Exclusive Use for Artisanal Fishing”, an area of 28.97 hectares. In order to achieve this ambitious proposal the relevant Miskito communities will not only require retraining but also a solid management strategy which combines fishing regulations with marine spatial plans. Community leaders have specified these plans must identify and protect critical habitats, nursery grounds and other ecologically important areas. As with many remote locations the environmental impact of the Miskito Cays fishing industry has been largely ignored. Due to the relative isolation of the area the past and current condition of the ecosystem and its associated impact on the region is essentially unknown. This lack of information is one of the largest hurdles preventing these communities from developing their plans further.
In collaboration with a team of international researchers from the Smithsonian Institution; Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute; University of Queensland and University of Manchester, Dr. Steve Box, a marine biologist from the Smithsonian Institution and Director of the Centre for Marine Studies, a Honduran NGO, has developed a multi-disciplinary research program in order to provide the missing information to enable the Miskito communities to move forward with their sustainable fisheries and marine management proposal. A large part of this program is to gather essential ecological data of the Miskito Cays region in order to establish a baseline for the condition of the coral reefs and associated biodiversity.
Sponge samples for the dehydrator
Ultimately the objectives are to assist both local groups and the government of Honduras move towards the sustainable use of their marine resources and improve understanding of how these reefs are connected to other Honduran and western Caribbean marine ecosystems. The study will also be used as part of ongoing comparative research programs across the entire Caribbean.