Tela Bay, a valuable marine refuge in the Mesoamerican Reef

Long-spined sea urchin
La Tribuna
Tela Bay, a valuable marine refuge in the Mesoamerican Reef

The waters off the coast of Honduras are special for many reasons, including their high percentage of living corals. In the north of the country Tela Bay Marine Wildlife Refuge is particularly unique, local conservationists say, since it is “a key site for the reproduction and study of threatened species” in the Mesoamerican Reef (MAR).

Scientists from Europe and North America come here to study the reefs and are struck by the presence of a large number of Diadems antillarum, or long-spined sea urchins, a species that in the early 1980's was nearly wiped out by disease, said Antal Börcsök, manager of the Tela Marine Research Center.

“The urchin is super special, because it eats huge amounts of algae,” he said. “A single specimen can keep a meter of the sea floor clean. In Tela we have an average of three hedgehogs per square meter.”

Börcsök explains that the urchins that are appearing in the MAR probably come from larvae originating in Tela, the only place where there is the correct density of urchins so that they can reproduce.

Other treasures of the Tela Bay Marine Wildlife Refuge are its banks of moose horn (Acropora palmata) and deer horn (Acropora cervicornis) coral, which inhabit water less than six meters deep and are in critical danger of extinction.

deer horn coral
Deer horn coral, a critically endangered species, thrives in Tela's waters / Credit: Josué Quintana Gómez 

Börcsök says that in the 80's these corals were affected by serriatosis, a disease caused by a bacteria that is found in the human intestine and because sewage from surrounding residences reaches the sea directly, it began to attack these coral.

The bacteria are still present in the Honduran sea, yet these two species of coral are still present in high numbers.

To study why even under these conditions moose and deer horn corals can thrive, Tela Marine Research Center is hosting a researcher from abroad throughout the year. The National Autonomous University of Honduras (UNAH) will also be involved in reef studies in Tela Bay and will support Tela Marine with various tasks.

For several years, academic and doctoral students from European and North American universities such as Oxford, Harvard and Stanford have arrived at the Tela Marine research center to study this unique marine refuge.

At the same time, Mauro Zavala, a biologist with the Foundation for the Protection of Lancetilla, Punta Sal y Texiguat (Prolansate, by its acronym in Spanish) is celebrating that in recent years the hawksbill turtle has returned to nest in Tela Bay, after some years of absence.

We count, take data and release the newly hatched egg turtles to the sea and expect the females to return to the same place where they were born in the future. We have done this work in nesting sites in Punta Sal and Punta Izopo, where coastal communities’ participation has been very important,” Zavala says.

A Spanish-language version of this story originally appeared in La Tribuna on 18 Dec 2019.

Banner image: Local researchers point out that Tela is a great site for the reproduction of the long-spined sea urchin, a key species for the health of MAR / Credit: Josué Quintana Gómez 

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