The MAREA Program

Protecting Central America’s Ecosystems with Sustainable Solutions

Selin Taylor Wood breathes through a mask in the hyperbaric chamber after suffering an embolism while diving at 86 feet.
Selin Taylor Wood breathes through a mask in the hyperbaric chamber after suffering an embolism while diving at 86 feet.
Toby Jorrin

In the early morning, a young fisherman plunges off a commercial fishing boat into sparkling blue waters off the Honduran Moskitia Coast, carefully gathering his lobster catch for the day. This diver, like most others, might have submerged up to 10 times a day, three times more than allowed by safety guidelines. Although efficient and financially lucrative, repetitive, same-day scuba dives can be dangerous because of the excess buildup of nitrogen in body tissues, which can lead to a variety of debilitating physical problems and possibly early death. In addition to the toll this dangerous activity takes on the human population, diving and other kinds of commercial fishing have decimated the spiny lobster, shrimp, and sea turtle populations, along with other species of fish that Central Americans rely on to survive. It is a vicious cycle, where limited economic alternatives and governance in these distant coastal regions drive Moskitia Indians to risk dreadful physical disabilities, while at the same time, the coastal ecosystems they rely on are rapidly degrading due to overharvesting of natural resources.

In order to put an end that cycle, the Honduran government and its neighbors in Central America signed an agreement banning scuba diving for lobster, which will go into effect in February 2012. But securing support for the ban requires buy-in from all stakeholders in the region. While few question the need to implement the ban, there is great concern about what will happen to the divers and the lobster industry once it is implemented.

The USAID Regional Management of Aquatic Resources and Economic Alternatives (MAREA) program has been working to gain acceptance of the ban by bringing together officials from environmental and fishing agencies of the Central American countries along with other relevant local institutions to address those concerns.

In Central America, more than 21 percent of the population resides in coastal communities, where at least 250,000 residents live in poverty and directly depend on lobster, shrimp, and fish harvests for their livelihood. The lure of the lobster-dive is economic: “These divers have been able to make $20 per day in a region where most fishermen earn $1 - $2 per day,” said Sergio Martinez, MAREA’s fisheries expert.

Another challenge is that soil erosion from farming and coastal development along the Central American coastline has degraded critical ecosystems, including coral reefs and seagrass that support the fish stock. More than 50 percent of the region’s mangrove forests have been lost by conversion to other uses like intensive agriculture and aquaculture, shrinking the habitat for maturing lobsters and fish. The loss of mangrove forests also leaves the coast vulnerable to flooding because they no longer block strong waves and winds that rush ashore, whittling away the shoreline during the stormy season. These pressures on the ocean and coastal habitats could put as many as 136,000 Central American fishermen out of work, according to a 2010 report from the Organization for the Fishing and Aquaculture Sector of Central America (OSPESCA) and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

To tackle these challenges, USAID’s strategy is to promote alternative livelihoods and to foster novel, more sustainable fishing practices.

To help find employment for the many fishermen who stand to lose their jobs, USAID has secured financing agreements to support the equipment purchases needed to assist with the creation of new job opportunities. For example, the Program is working with the Central American Bank for Economic Integration to provide loans and outside donations to help offset the cost of upgrading village fishing boats with fiberglass to ready them to carry tourists. “The goal of this joint initiative is to create an opportunity for private and public investment in new, sustainable tourism activities that can employ out-of-work fishermen and divers,” said MAREA Chief of Party, Nestor J. Windevoxhel.

USAID is also encouraging local fishermen and country-level natural resource managers to adopt a broader, ecosystem-based approach to marine coastal conservation. For the past year, MAREA has made significant strides educating local fishermen and regional leaders about rights-based mechanisms such as ‘catch-shares,’ which grant fishermen exclusive access to fish stocks in designated areas while making other vulnerable areas off-limits.

“Rights-based mechanisms work to alleviate the ‘problem of the commons’ where fish stocks are a common resource. The goal of these programs is to incentivize fishermen to utilize their resources in a sustainable manner. By granting rights to specific fishermen you allow the fishermen to play a key role in sustainability and teach them how to regulate themselves,” explained Dr. Carlos Hasbun, regional biodiversity specialist for USAID.

“Once you have established clear access rights and ’ownership’ or tenure over the resources – whether in the form of community territorial rights or individual catch- shares – this promotes stewardship and responsible management of the natural resources,” said Dr. Barbara Best, USAID’s natural resources management/coastal resources and policy advisor. “There are many examples in developed countries, including Australia, New Zealand, Mexico and the U.S., where catch-shares have improved the fish populations, reducing fluctuations and making them more resilient to climate impacts,” she added.

Another way that USAID is fostering best fisheries management is by requiring fishermen to use traps with a hatch that allows baby lobster to escape. The spiny lobster has a longer life cycle than other species, and takes one year to grow from larvae to juveniles. Juveniles then settle on the sea floor for at least another year and grow to maturity before mating for the first time. “These traps prevent the preferential sale of baby lobsters,” said Mr. Martinez. “A key to restoring the lobster population is allowing lobsters to mate and the females to spawn at least once before they are caught,” he added.

Perhaps MAREA’s greatest accomplishment has been the establishment of a positive rapport among the officials working for the regional and national institutions of environment and fisheries from the seven countries included in the program. “This was challenging because of the intrinsic need to establish a common agenda on sustainable fisheries. It has been a great success to have fruitful discussions between these groups on how to incorporate an ecosystem-based approach into the fisheries management process,” said Dr. Hasbun.

 “We are working to strengthen the buy-in from each country in the region in order to incorporate the Program’s overarching goals into their national and regional programs. This will ensure that in the long run MAREA’s goals will be sustainable,” he said.

MAREA staff members have visited a variety of regional, national, and international organizations in an effort to incorporate international affairs ministries into the dialogue on project design and implementation.

These talks led to a declaration of support from the Central American Integration System, whose role is to integrate policies and procedures at the regional level in Central America. On June 24, 2011, OSPESCA and the Central American Commission for Environment and Development, represented by government officials from each country’s fisheries and environment ministries, signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) outlining their shared focus. “This MOU establishes an efficient working mechanism through which ministerial representatives from all seven countries participate in program implementation,” Dr. Hasbun said.

MAREA continues to face several entrenched challenges including: limited governance capacity in each country, the illegal drug trade along the entire central coastal zone of the Central American Caribbean, a lack of infrastructure, and the allure of quick money for lobster divers willing to take the risk of diving more than several times each day.

In order to be successful, the program will need to evoke change from all the stakeholders on a number of fronts at the same time.

“The key to success is including all the actors in the value chain to participate actively in the process, from the diver to the retailer to the importer,” said Dr. Hasbun.

Mr. Martinez agreed. “In the end, it is the people who are going to make sustainability a reality.”

C. Cooney

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Last updated: September 20, 2013

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