Karen’s Blog

Thoughts on a changing profession and life

People of Honduras’ Mesoamerican Reef

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Fisherman Rigo Soliz checks his nets for holes. Fishing has been slow so he spends his days, checking his fishing gear.

Fisherman Rigo Soliz checks his nets for holes. Fishing has been slow so he spends his days, checking his fishing gear.

This year I’ve worked in Mexico and Myanmar. I’m currently on assignment in Ghana and Nigeria. However one of my favorite trips this year has been to the Bay Islands of Honduras. I journeyed there this spring for the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP)—for whom I am a senior fellow—and their partner, Centro de Estudios Marinos Honduras (CEM). The region is part of the Mesoamerican Reef, a key marine region extending along the coast of Honduras, Guatemala, Belize and Mexico.

Population pressure, overfishing, pollution and global warming all affect the Reef. Their consequences stress fishing communities all along the coast of these Central American countries. Fishermen must stay out longer and travel farther to match the number of fish caught in previous years.

Many conservation organizations focus on the Reef system but a few groups like ILCP and CEMS also support projects that investigate connections between the health of the seas and the health of the coastal communities.

A fisherman’s daily catch, caught by line and hook. Barra is a line and hook fishing community but it is surrounded by communities that illegally drag nets.

A fisherman’s daily catch, caught by line and hook. Barra is a line and hook fishing community but it is surrounded by communities that illegally drag nets.

This project involved two underwater and two dry land shooters. I was one of the latter. I focused on the social impact of diminishing sea life around the reefs. This is one of my skills, as I specialize in photographing global health concerns, especially those linked to the degradation of the environment and social structures.   I was thrilled to have a story about which I was passionate.

However…I had not worked in this area before had never worked around reefs and didn’t speak Spanish.

A nurse gives a student a tetanus vaccine. They hold a clinic in Salada Barra, usually outside, once a month. Children can get vaccines and treatment for other health issues.

A nurse gives a student a tetanus vaccine. They hold a clinic in Salada Barra, usually outside, once a month. Children can get vaccines and treatment for other health issues.

There was another way that this seemed like an odd assignment for me.

I can barely swim.

I learned when my uncle threw me into Spring Lake, Michigan and said, “swim.” I managed like a dog, paddling with my front paws and kicking with my back ones. I never really improved on that technique. Needless to say, underwater photography isn’t one of my skills.

Yet despite my poor swimming skills, I’m very comfortable around water. I come from a fishing family. My younger years were spent in Norfolk, Virginia, a city located where the Chesapeake Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean. We ate fish and crab we caught ourselves. We used chicken necks to catch a bushel or two of crabs right from shore.

My father was a career sailor who served in WWII, Korea and Vietnam. He met my mother in Japan during the occupation. If he wasn’t in a war zone he was on a ship at sea. He could see first hand the thin line between life and death—men lost overboard and rogue waves nearly capsizing ships.

Fishing was important to the survival of both sides of my family. My father’s father drowned while fishing for supper in rural Michigan. My grandmother was never the same afterwards. My father’s family was poor. Catching their own food was vital to their survival. My mother was born in a small Japanese fishing village called Sajima, south of Yokohama. At the time it was so insignificant, the Americans forces flew over it on the way to bombing Yokohama and Tokyo without even giving the village a second thought. My mother’s uncles all fished for a living. They survived the war eating fish and other foods from the sea and didn’t starve like so many of their countryman living in bombed out urban areas.

Like the Mesoamerican Reef, the Chesapeake Bay faces similar overpopulation, overfishing and industrial development issues. In 2008 the Chesapeake Bay crab fishing industry was declared a federal disaster. The crab population has yet to recover.

But there is a big difference between my life on the Bay and the life of those living along the Mesoamerican Reef. My entire livelihood does not depend on the sea. I have options. Yet for many in the communities our team visited, fishing is the only way to make a living.

Dunia Hernan, 17, 2nd student from the right, kids her friends during class. She is part of the first ever high school program held in this village. Her father is a fisherman.

Dunia Hernan, 17, 2nd student from the right, kids her friends during class. She is part of the first ever high school program held in this village. Her father is a fisherman.

I looked at the efforts to help communities and diversify their livelihood. One of the first communities I visited with the CEM team was Salada Barra, a small fishing community inside the Parque Nacional Cuero y Salado Marine Reserve, through which the Rio San Juan flows. The reserve is west of the coastal city of La Ceba. Our mission was to show the diversity of marine life among the mangroves and the interdependency of the marine area and the community of Salada Barra. I hoped to photograph life in the village. Not all went as planned. Fishing was problematic as many fish were too far from shore for the men to easily harvest.

There were plenty of environmental organizations present in this community. In this case, they seem to help the overall health of this particular community. Conservational projects including preserving the reefs, replenishing the mangroves, and protecting the manatees found in these waters employ locals to implement these plans. These efforts paved the way for other groups to provide social improvements. A high school class was added for the first time. Older students didn’t have to go away from home if they wanted to continue their education after elementary school. Visiting doctors and nurses came once a month to provide maternal and childcare, vaccinate school kids and look at other health concerns. We ran into a team of veterinarian technicians looking for dogs and cats to vaccinate for rabies. This especially impressed me since rabid dogs are fairly common in underdeveloped areas. These services are remarkable considering how remote this village is.

There is no easy way to access Salada Barra. The only way to get in and out of the village is aboard an old produce train that used to carry coconuts, pineapples and bananas out of the area to market. The ride is 35 minutes each way. Although this was once a large plantation region, agricultural is in decline and few coconuts are shipped out these days. They are developing a small tourist industry with a visitor center built by USAID. The hope is to bring people in via the train to tour the marine reserve, see manatees and eat fried fish cooked in local homes.

A group of fishermen illegally drag nets in an area too close to shore to catch undersized fish and conches.

A group of fishermen illegally drag nets in an area too close to shore to catch undersized fish and conches.

Fishing is still central to this community. But they feel pressures from illegal drag fishing that catch all sizes of fish and other sea life. Although good laws are in place, enforcing them remains a continual challenge.

Salada Barra was one of many communities along the Bay Island region we visited. Some are more developed than others but all face the same pressures coming from a declining fishery industry and a threatened reef system. Though I didn’t know Spanish, I did know these people’s concerns, because those of us raised by the sea speak the same language.

You can read more on this at National Geographic.

 

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