The largest coral reef in the Western Hemisphere, the Mesoamerican Reef stretches along the Caribbean coast, from the southern Yucatan peninsula in Mexico to the Bay Islands in Honduras. The second largest coral reef system in the world, surpassed only by the Australian Great Barrier Reef, this reef ecosystem harbors unique coral assemblages and a vast number of important species, such as the whale shark (Rhincodon typus), the largest living fish species; and the hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricada), green (Chelonia mydas), and loggerhead (Caretta caretta) marine turtles, all of which are threatened or endangered.
This rich diversity provides livelihoods for the tens of thousands of people who work in the fishing and tourism industries. However, the health of the Mesoamerican reef is threatened by the rampant unsustainable fishing of many ecologically important marine species, including many shark species, which are vital in maintaining the structure of many fish communities. Many villagers living along the reef lack information about sustainable fishing practices, while the reef’s marine protected areas need more stringent regulation and protection.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is working to secure the future of the reef and the people and wildlife species that depend on it through a project called “Socioeconomic Training and Monitoring in the Mesoamerican Reef,” which is funded by the French Fund for the World Environment, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation Coral Reef Conservation Fund.
The project aims to assess the socioeconomic status of communities living near marine protected areas in Guatemala, Honduras, and Belize and help them to develop economic alternatives that will improve their livelihoods while also reducing threats to the reef. The project is focusing on six areas: San Pedro, Ambergris Cay, and Placencia, in Belize; Punta Manabique Wildlife Refuge in Guatemala; and Cuero y Salado Wildlife Refuge, and the Cayos Cochinos Archipelago Natural Marine Monument in Honduras.
Alicia Medina, protected areas officer with WWF-Central America, explains that the project began as an effort to create a management plan for the fishing industry. To develop this plan, information on the region, its resources, and its human population was collected to establish baseline socioeconomic and biological data in Guatemala and Honduras.
The plan pointed to the need to determine the level of development in communities since these areas were formally protected, the cultural and economic value of marine resources, community perceptions about marine resources, and their needs. The plan also noted the need to ensure that local residents had the knowledge and training to conserve their natural resources.
“People say that this region has a great deal of diversity, but we can’t really confirm this fact until we have learned the real situation from monitoring and baseline data,” explains Medina. She says there is a common local misconception that marine resources are infinite, which contributes to rampant overexploitation of fish communities. But concern is growing; when she talks with older fishermen in coastal communities, they tell her that it is much harder, and they must go further out into the ocean to obtain a good catch. The fishing industry is also concerned because they have made substantial investments in the industry and are now facing scarce fish resources.
WWF is using the SocMon methodology (Global Socioeconomic Monitoring Initiative for Coastal Management), a series of guidelines that provide a prioritized list of socioeconomic indicators for the administration of coastal-marine resources. The project incorporated a new indicator in the methodology to help determine what disaster risk management practices are needed for communities to prepare for climate change.
The first phase of the socioeconomic evaluation in Honduras and Guatemala has now concluded, and the second phase is underway with plans to finish by the end of 2007. University of Zamorano’s Department of Socioeconomic and Environmental Development will help develop the project’s monitoring activities and will lead the effort in the Spanish-speaking countries of the Caribbean.
The research is also determining the cultural and economic significance of the marine resources, how the fishing communities are adapting to changing reef conditions, what new activities they have adopted as alternatives to traditional fishing techniques, and possible strategies for assistance.
In general, the project has been well-received by local communities, Medina notes. Over the past two years, it has raised awareness among local inhabitants, and in recent months community leaders have begun to accompany the project’s survey team on field visits. Project staff has found that this level of stakeholder participation helps local people feel more at ease and encouraged to provide more detailed information in the surveys.
“Any changes made in the fishing communities will be made based on the results we have obtained, guaranteeing more effective management,” says Medina. She emphasizes that the project’s proposed fishery management plans will be presented to government authorities so they can adopt new regulations and, just as importantly, to the public for their feedback.