Creating Win-wins for Reefs and People

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It’s 2011 and Jenny Myton, CORAL’s Associate Program Director for the Mesoamerican Reef, is diving in the murky waters of Tela Bay, Honduras. Her husband rolls into the water after her and hears Jenny scream. He panics: is she OK? As he swims down to her he also starts to yell but they are both yelling in excitement because—astonishingly—the bottom is covered in live coral.

Coral cover has declined across the Caribbean, from near 80 percent in the 1970s to about 18 percent today. Somehow, the corals in Tela have defied that trend: live coral cover is an astounding 69 percent. Now six years later, I have a chance to see these amazing reefs for myself.

2017_BlogPost_MadhaviVisit_DivingReefsMy own journey to Tela starts with lunch in Miami. No, not that Miami—this is Miami, Honduras: a ragtag collection of wooden houses perched on stilts and crowded onto a narrow strip of sand between the Caribbean Sea and Laguna de Los Micos. This lagoon is an important nursery habitat for many species of reef fish. While Tela’s reefs are amazing for their live coral cover, they have a noticeable lack of fish. This has many worried that the entire local system sits on the edge of an ecological precipice. For these corals to continue to thrive, they need fish—especially herbivorous fish who help control algal growth. However, for the reef to have fish, it needs the lagoon.

This lagoon also provides essential food and income for thirteen communities that ring its shores. These communities and others exert enormous fishing pressure on the lagoon, which means very few fish actually survive to make it to the reef. CORAL has been working in Tela for the last four years to reduce overfishing in a way that doesn’t harm the lagoon’s human communities.

After my lunch in Miami, Jenny and I pile into a boat on the lagoon with some of Tela’s managers. We are on our way to visit one community—Marion—to see how people, the reef and lagoon interact.

My first impression of the lagoon is that it is huge: it takes us forty-five minutes to cross it. Mangroves crowd its shores, their barnacle-clad roots sticking up from water that is bright green and soupy looking. Where the edge is sandy, it is full of birds, including egrets, herons and one pale pink spoonbill. As we near the far shore, there’s a young boy waving at us from a sand bar. He stands next to a tree branch sporting a tattered piece of red fabric, which marks a channel entrance into the forest.2017_BlogPost_MadhaviVisit_ChannelMarker

The entrance is so shallow that the boat has to be pushed into the channel. We slide over sand past thick reeds that crowd into the boat from both sides. Once we are afloat again, we motor slowly into the forest. The view of mountains is eclipsed by large trees and a deep hot hush settles over us. We step from the boat onto a muddy bank and start our kilometer-long walk through the thick heat to Marion.

The first thing I notice when we reach the village is an abandoned house that’s half buried in sand. Marion sits directly under a levee next to a river. In 2014, the levee burst and the village was quickly inundated. Not everyone survived the flood and those who did lost everything. Marion is a poor community without running water or electricity. Yet, as we walk down the wide sandy track through the middle of the village and past the brightly painted school, the feeling is one of happiness and joy. Kids play in the middle of the town, people stop to talk to us. It’s peaceful here.

We turn left down a small track toward our final destination. We are greeted by decorative palm fronds and balloons. Balloons! Marion is celebrating the opening of a new cooperative store. A $2,300 micro-grant from CORAL has stocked the shelves with bags of flour, rice and beans, pens and Coca Cola. The store’s profit-sharing agreement provides members with an alternative form of income that helps the community endure the fishing closed season and the reductions in catch limits that will be required to rebuild the ecosystem.

2017_BlogPost_MadhaviVisit_MarionMainStreetThe cooperative’s members greet us with smiles and hugs, speeches and more than a few tears of gratitude. Such a small thing for us has made such a big difference for these people. They are still recovering from the flood, and opening this store gives them hope that their community will survive.

The next day, I head out to the reef. Rolling into the water, I experience the same thing Jenny did six years earlier. I too am yelling into my regulator in amazement: there is so much coral! Even now, two months after my visit to Tela, picturing those reefs fills me with hope. In Tela, corals have figured out how to adapt to and thrive in less than ideal conditions. By including this area in CORAL’s Mesoamerican Adaptive Reefscape —a large network of diverse and connected healthy reefs—baby corals from Tela can travel to other locations, taking with them the special genetic material that allowed their parents to thrive in murky waters.

Communities like Marion also give me hope. Earlier this year, Honduras’ first coastal managed-access fishery was passed into law in Tela Bay. This approach to fisheries management ensures that each of Tela’s communities has exclusive access to a portion of the catch. What they don’t fish today will be available to them tomorrow. In conjunction with alternative livelihoods—like the cooperative store in Marion—these communities are able to make decisions to not fish. By including communities in solutions that help save coral reefs, we create win-wins that give everyone hope for the future.

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