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Reefs in Tela Bay

Illegal fishing, pollution, unsustainable tourism threaten Honduran reefs

The Tela Bay Marine Wildlife Refuge in Honduras has some of the healthiest coral reefs along the entire Mesoamerican Reef, a giant marine ecosystem that stretches from Mexico through Belize, Guatemala and Honduras.

The 86,300-hectare refuge contains 46 species of coral, 83 species of fish and 18 types of marine ecosystems. According to the Marine Conservation Institute, Honduras has the largest number of marine protected areas in Central America, and local scientists point out that live coral in Tela Bay average 70% per square meter, a record rating in the Mesoamerican Reef system.

But a growing tourism industry, unregulated fishing and liquid- and solid-waste pollution are threatening the health of the reef and fish populations.

Julio San Martín, a biologist at the Coral Reef Alliance (Coral), began studying fisheries recovery in recent years because, he said, the quantity and size of fish in Tela Bay is low. That’s partly because of pollution stemming from a banana plantation near Laguna Los Micos, the main body feeding fresh water into Tela and the breeding area for around 70 percent of the species that live in the coral zones.

San Martín says it will take more than five years for fish populations to return to their former size in Tela. Therefore, he says, the authorities must intensify actions that prohibit illegal fishing in the Los Micos Lagoon and nearby reefs.

Fishermen and local conservationists say in recent years they’ve seen an increase in poachers from northeastern Honduras who come in and “kill everything.”

To curb such practices Tela municipality issued an ordinance in 2012 that established a fisheries management plan and demarcated recovery areas. Harpoons and fishing cages are prohibited. The length of nets cannot exceed 600 meters and must have mesh holes equal to or greater than three inches to avoid capturing juvenile fish.

Tela Bay patrol
Prolansate will intensify patrols in 2020 to prevent illegal fishing and mangrove destruction / Credit: Josue Quintana Gomez

Enforcing the ordinance remains a challenge, however, since the Honduran Armed Forces that lead patrols of the area has an insufficient number of rangers to monitor areas prone to incidents, such as Los Micos Lagoon and the Punta Sal Peninsula, in the southern part of Tela.

Some 12,000 visitors arrived in 2019 in Punta Sal to see the coral reefs, but half of them evaded formal entry to the protected area to avoid paying fees that go toward environmental conservation and, in most cases, disobeyed environmental prohibitions, according to Nelbin Bustamante, director of Prolansate, an environmental organization that co-manages different protected areas in the Bay of Tela.

Solid-waste pollution is another challenge facing the Tela Bay Marine Wildlife Refuge so the environmental organization Tela Divers and Sea Life Conservation says it will intensify activities such as beach clean-ups throughout 2020.

Officials admit that a new system for wastewater management is another of the needs of Tela City, since the current system only serves half of the neighborhoods in the bay area.  

An initiative to build a new water treatment plant was introduced to the National Congress of Honduras and is expected to be debated and approved in 2020.

Coral reef in Tela Bay
The Mesoamerican Reef Report Card, produced in 2018 by the Healthy Reefs Initiative, an international alliance of dozens of organizations that evaluates the health and trends around the MAR, highlights that Honduras has the highest Reef Health Index (3.0), followed by Belize and Mexico (both with 2.8) and Guatemala (2.0).

A Spanish-language version of this story originally appeared in La Tribuna on 17 Dec 2019.

Banner image: The reefs of Tela Bay have record coral coverage in the Mesoamerican Reef system, with 70 percent covered by live coral / Credit: Tela Marine and Josue Quintana Gomez