[Coral-List] Utila Reef Health

Steve Box S.J.Box at exeter.ac.uk
Thu Mar 27 15:44:48 EDT 2008


I am the director of a non-governmental research organisation on Utila
(Utila centre for marine ecology - UCME) that is investigating a range of
topics on the island including the fish populations, fishing pressure, coral
health, algal dynamics, mangrove destruction and sea grass productivity. 

I wanted to respond to your post on Utila reef health...

Unfortunately, some of your observations are fairly accurate. Utila is
struggling to balance development with sustainable resource management, as
it moves from a fishing based economy to one largely reliant on tourism.
Honduras as a whole and the Bay Islands and Utila in particular are severely
hindered by a lack of knowledge about their natural resources and the
technical and financial capacity to effectively control and manage this

This is one reason why UCME was established as a non-governmental
organisation which could link scientific results from applied research to
national authorities and community based conservation and management
initiatives (see www.utilaecology.org)


Based on data we are gathering as well as other information we have collated
I can clarify some of the points you raised:


Coral cover:

Utila was hit hard in 1998 by a bleaching event and hurricane Mitch. This
combination was likely responsible for a large amount of dead shallower
corals <10m dominated by Montastraea annularis (mainly on the south side of
the island). Since Ma is struggling to recruit across the Caribbean the
ability for this to recover seems limited. As the cover of this major reef
builder declines the space is increasingly being taken up by algae, likely
hindering coral recovery further. In Utila this is augmented by the
decreasing population of herbivorous grazers through by catch and removal of
top predators, grouper etc (see below).


Utila is a classic example of the necessity for ecological balance on reef
systems and the limited capacity of reefs to recover from major disturbances
if their fish populations (and other key species) are removed.

On the north side of the island and on the outer banks and deeper reefs,
coral cover is far healthier but their resilience is also likely to be
severely degraded, they just haven’t been as impacted by external influences


As for the extensive fishing you mentioned; there are two main drivers for

Export of grouper and snapper to the US; and increasing local demand due to
migration to the island from the mainland.


Utila is a fishing hub for the export of grouper and snapper to the United
States. Whilst U.S legislation is protecting U.S fish stocks it seems to be
putting increasing pressure on the stocks of neighbouring countries such as
Honduras that have limited capacity to manage their fisheries. This is an
ongoing problem and we are now working with the fish plant here to devise a
local management plan and some fundamental fishing best practices to try and
abate the current trends. Fishing is still an important sector of the local
economy and since the demand for fish remains constant and price high (in
relation to local living costs) the fish stocks will continue to be heavily
exploited until a solution can be found or they run out of fish.


The migration to the island due to the economic growth is attracting mainly
low skilled labour from the mainland to work in construction (housing,
hotels etc) since this labour force is also poorly paid they will often
supplement their income and diet by fishing on local reefs. 


The economic migration is also causing mangroves to be felled to clear the
way for cheap housing in the swamps. At the other end of the spectrum large
developers are increasingly clearing mangroves to make way for expatriate
holiday homes, marinas, canals etc. Mangroves in the Bay Islands are
protected by national and local law (it is illegal to cut them) but without
the capacity or will to enforce this law the cutting continues. However to
put this into context, the actual percentage of the mangroves that have been
removed in this manor is still relatively small since the majority of the
island’s area (80%) is mangroves (see good images on google earth). But
unless some effective enforcement of existing laws can be put in place I
assume this proportion will increase steadily.


And finally, you mentioned no sewage treatment. This is actually a little
erroneous. Most houses currently have septic tanks, and the municipality are
putting in a main sewage system and treatment plant, as I write, which is
due to come on line later in the year. However many of the buildings along
the water front still discharge sewage in to the water. Once again however
this needs a contextual reference since the likely quantity of effluent is
fairly small given the current population of the island versus the volume of
water it is discharged into (ie the dilution). I am not saying that the
current situation should be condoned rather that the current scale of that
problem is likely not the biggest issue that the reefs are facing and one
issue which local government are actually tackling. We have a project
planned in the summer to evaluate water quality within the mangroves and
adjacent reefs to be able to quantify exactly how much of a problem this
currently is and to use as a baseline for when the treatment plant comes on


To summarise, Utila is suffering the same issues that many locations around
the region are but its reefs and mangroves comparative to other areas are
still in fairly good shape. The island  is a microcosm for the good the bad
and the human of coral reef and tropical island ecology which is what makes
it a fascinating place to work and to study. If through our work here we can
identify potential solutions to some of these pertinent issues it may well
provide a great model for how small communities lacking in institutional
governance can solve their reef management issues at a local level


My apologies for the lengthy post, there is more info at HYPERLINK



Stephen Box PhD


Managing Director

Utila Centre for Marine Ecology

Bay Islands





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