Coral Reef Ecology
Roatan is located in the Bay Islands of Honduras, 35 miles off the mainland coast, and sits on the Mesoamerican reef system – the worlds second largest. The Mesoamerican reef is a main economic driver in Roatan as the mountainous island is not well suited to agriculture. Divers and snorkelers travel there to see pillar corals, angelfish, bearded toadfish, spotted eagle rays, giant barrel sponges, drumfish, eels, spiny lobster, turtles, sharks and urchins who live in and along the rocky walls, coral heads, overhangs and swim-throughs. of Roatan.
The ecosystem and island are diverse and although coral reefs cover less than 0.1% of the earth’s surface, they are teeming with life and are the most biodiverse marine ecosystems on the planet. Over 275 million people live within 19 miles of coral reefs in over 100 countries, including Roatan, Honduras, and they depend on and benefit from the recreational value of reefs and the people that travel there.
The Mesoamerican reef formed in clear, warm, sunlit waters, over millenia. Though a strong structure, the reef is suseptible to severe weather, climate change and without protection, predation by hungry humans. Roatan shut down during covid; resorts closed, restaurants and shops shuttered, and without tourists, dive operations shut, down and restoration organizations were without resources or people power to maintain their work. No tourist dollars to support the marine parks meant no protection to this venerable reef.
Some places benefitted from no tourists during Covid closures and thrived without the impact of people and boats recreating on marine life, but other places that depended on tourists’ work and dollars to support Marine Protected Areas were not so fortunate. When I returned to Roatan in 2022, 5 years after my first trip, I wondered what that marine ecosystem would look like after Covid caused the island to shut down for 6+ months.
I saw far fewer fish due to overfishing; citizens who relied on tourist dollars to feed their families turned to the reef for food during the pandemic. Political circumstances, erosion and climate change also have taken their toll. I saw areas of coral die offs, including entire species that are dead and others, no longer living anywhere in the area.
The very good news is that there are coral restoration organizations working in Roatan and I had the opportunity to work with two of these in February 2022: Roatan Institute of Marine Sciences (RIMS) and Roatan Marine Park (RMP). Dedicated to protecting, conserving and restoring the health of the coral reefs, these organizations worked with few resources (either economic or human) during the pandemic. Protecting nurseries involves patrolling those areas to deter poaching and fishing. Maintaining involves cleaning the ‘trees’ of fire coral and other parasites that can destroy the structures, and includes out planting when the coral fragments grow to be mature and viable. While patrolling, maintaining, and cleaning sound simple enough, without resources these efforts can’t be sustained and the ‘trees’ get overgrown, or destroyed, and, failing reef health has cascading negative impacts on food security, economics, and can increase coastal vulnerability for local communities. These organizations in Roatan, although without government support, are growing and outplanting corals to maintain the marine ecosystem, vital to Honduras and the Caribbean. I continue to be inspired by their dedicated work and encourage you to visit them when traveling, diving, snorkeling, or contribute to their work here: RIMS and RMP .
Follow along here and meet the divers who came with me to Roatan and work in the coral nurseries!