The fishermen of Cayos Cochinos, an archipelago off Honduras’s northern Miskito Coast, recently decided that the regulations protecting their island homes did not go far enough. They took the bold step of banning all scuba diving for lobster, a move that will mean less money for the already low-income residents, but will guarantee long-term survival for the marine resources on which they depend and result in far less risk to the fishermen’s health.
For years, the industrial fishing industry has encouraged the Garífuna and Miskito indigenous people who inhabit three of Cayos Cochinos’ 12 isles to use scuba gear to dive deep for valuable spiny lobster (Panulirus argus). Diners on the mainland are willing to pay up to $80 for a lobster dinner, so the pressure to harvest as many lobsters as could be found has been intense. The catch is also exported to the United States. Without training, the fishermen might make as many as 12 dives a day. The accumulation of nitrogen in their bodies often resulted in debilitating crippling, and there are no decompression chambers on the islands. Today some 100 men are incapacitated from diving too deep and too often for lobster.
To encourage residents to find a solution to the continuing health problems, crashing lobster populations, and destruction of the coral reef that surrounds the cayes, the World Wildlife Fund arranged a field trip to Mexico for a group of the Cayos Cochinos fishermen. They visited Banco Chinchorro, off the Yucatán Peninsula’s southern coast, where local fishermen have organized themselves into cooperatives that negotiate fair prices for their catches and that have banned all fishing with scuba gear within the protected area.
According to Sylvia Marín, WWF representative for Central America, the exchange was a very effective way to convince the Cayos Cochinos residents that they must consider adopting more sustainable methods of harvesting the marine resources that provide their income. “It makes a difference when people can talk with their peers, not just with scientists,” she says.
Earlier this year, the Cayos Cochinos fishermen lobbied the Honduran government to impose a ministerial decree that prohibits the fishing with scuba gear in the protected area, which extends five nautical miles around the cayes. In part of the area, fishermen are permitted to free-dive for lobster and to set nets or traps, but they can use only motor-less boats. No industrial fishing boats are permitted within the protected zone. The decree also allows the local residents to decide on any future restrictions for themselves.
According to Adrián Oviedo, director of the Honduran Coral Reef Foundation, a conservation group that administrates the protected area, “Prohibiting lobster fishing with scuba gear limits the volume that can be extracted, while at the same time, protects the divers.”
Natividad Arzú is vice president of the Chachahuate Garífuna community of Cayos Cochinos, and has been a fisherman since he was 15. He explains that fishing with scuba gear “gave us short-term profits, but over the long-term there would be no work or resources.” He adds that the scuba diving was not particularly lucrative, since divers would receive only 45 Lempiras (less than $3) per pound of lobster.
For Román Norales, a former angler who now sells fish locally, the new ministerial decree is “perfect, because it protects the worker as well as production.” He distributes nearly 80 percent of the fish that are sold in restaurants in the coastal city of La Ceiba and says he is convinced that scuba diving for fish and crustaceans “destroys the richness of the sea.”
The Cayos Cochinos protected area includes two forested islands and 12 sandy cayes. Nearly 230 species of marine life swim in its waters, while some 350 people live on 3 of the 12 cayes. The archipelago’s coral reef is part of the Mesoamerican Caribbean Reef System, which extends for 620 miles from the northern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico to Honduras’ Bay Islands.
The work of the Honduran Coral Reef Foundation includes control and monitoring of fishing activities in Cayos Cochinos; conservation of the reefs and endangered species; a research program supported by a fully equipped research station; and involvement of local residents in conservation activities and projects to help them make a living without harming the environment. These activities are supported by AVINA, Inc., the Inter-American Foundation, the Sociedad de Inversiones Ecológicas, World Wildlife Fund and U.S. Geological Survey.
— Katiana Murillo
Honudran Coral Reef Foundation
WWF representative for Central America
San Francisco de Dos Ríos
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