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Scaling Up Marine Conservation Initiatives in Honduras

06/04/2015 10:58 am ET | Updated Jun 02, 2016
Dr. Michael Webster

Honduras is known more for its reputation as the current murder capital of the world than for its successful marine-conservation initiatives. Yet the country is quickly becoming a model for others around the world for its leadership in this arena. Active citizens and local conservation groups, a government looking for good news to share, and some of the Caribbean's most healthy coral reefs are contributing to the development of a comprehensive network of marine-protected areas that benefit both Honduras's reefs and its people.

My organization, the Coral Reef Alliance, has been working in Honduras for nearly a decade, first on the island of Roatan, and more recently on the island of Utila and in Tela, a developing tourism destination on the mainland's northern coast. What we've seen is a commitment to and interest in taking what works in one place and working together to scale it up to other places, with significant success.

And it's local groups like the Roatan Marine Park (RMP) that are leading the effort. In the 10 years since its founding, this small, grassroots organization formed by dive operators and other business leaders has made great strides in improving the health of reefs in the Sandy Bay-West End Marine Reserve. With coral reefs in decline around the world, it is especially gratifying that RMP's efforts have led to measurable improvements in reef health as published in a recent report by the Healthy Reefs Initiative.

How did they do this? Perhaps most important is the fact that RMP was founded based on the premise that conservation was good for business. The local economy is heavily dependent on dive tourism and the tourism industry wanted to ensure that their livelihoods were protected. Indeed, the dive industry was so interested in conservation that they were even willing to tax themselves voluntarily to finance RMP.

With a strong incentive for conservation in place, the challenge of management has since focused on effective enforcement and community engagement. A couple of years ago, I accompanied Roatan Marine Park Director Giacomo Palavicini to examine the reefs on Honduras's northwestern coast. We spotted a fisherman in the distance and, concerned that he might have been taking illegal fish, pulled up alongside him to inspect his fishing bag. Armed only with a small spool of fishing line, a couple of old hooks, and an ill-fitting mask likely abandoned by a tourist years ago, the fisherman was fishing solely to secure some needed protein for him and his family, yet still aware of the regulations and prepared to be asked about his catch. Though his fish were small, he was still -- despite his poverty -- willing to follow the rules, whether out of a sense of right and wrong or of fear of getting caught. Had this fisherman in fact taken illegal species, he could have been arrested and his gear confiscated.

The story of RMP's successes is part of a broader movement in Honduras, where local communities in places like Tela, Cayos Cochinos, and Guanaja, are increasingly acting as stewards of their local environment. After all, they are the people most closely affected by the success or failure of management.

The government has been a key ally to making local conservation successes a reality. Rather than put up barriers to individual efforts like those led by RMP and their partners -- including the Bay Islands Conservation Association -- government officials have been listening to and empowering conservation groups to work in a co-management framework to protect the country's marine resources.

Last fall, more than 13 organizations from Honduras met in Tela with one goal: to build alliances between a host of organizations that are all working toward a healthy and thriving coastal and marine environment in Honduras. Out of that meeting came a host of follow up collaborations and a list of priorities for the Honduran government to consider in taking the next step toward comprehensive interventions.

In mid-May, CORAL's Honduran Field Manager Jenny Myton and Ian Drysdale of the Healthy Reefs Initiative were invited to present these collective priorities to the President and First Lady of Honduras. President Juan Orlando Hernández indicated his interest in helping advance marine conservation in Honduras -- and even agreed to go scuba diving with all of the partners soon to see the state of reefs first hand and learn more about the threats and solutions.

Conservation is a global effort, and requires diverse groups coming together to work toward common goals. Honduras is showing the world how.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in partnership with Ocean Unite, an initiative to unite and activate powerful voices for ocean-conservation action. The series is being produced to coincide with World Oceans Day (June 8), as part of HuffPost's "What's Working" initiative, putting a spotlight on initiatives around the world that are solutions oriented. To read all the posts in the series, read here.