Seeding corals to enhance Honduras’ reefs
Honduras’ reefs are part of the second largest reef system on earth – the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef. Under water, as well as on land, Honduras offers rich and thriving wildlife. It features some of the healthiest and most beautiful coral reefs in the Caribbean, even though the reefs suffer under many stressors in this region. Two years ago, the Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease reached Honduras. This notorious coral killer has been spreading rapidly in the Caribbean for the past eight years and has now begun to take its toll on Honduras’ reef as well. A wake-up call to take action for The Bay Islands reefs!
Honduras' coral reefs (Photos by Patric Lengacher)
At The Bay Islands National Marine Park
The Roatan Marine Park team works at and co-manages the Bay Islands National Marine Park, Honduras’ largest Marine Protected Area. To enforce the conservation laws of the Marine Park, Roatan’s park rangers cooperate with the Honduran Navy on their frequent patrols. The park features three islands: Roatan, Utila, and Guanaja. Roatan, the largest island, harbors the base for the Roatan Marine Park’s team, whereas Utila Coral Foundation – a young organization dedicated to the restoration of Utila’s reefs – is established and focused on this very island. Both organizations started coral restoration using fragmentation work back in 2018.
“The Roatan Marine Park got involved in coral restoration using fragmentation through a MarFund project,” says Gabriela Ochoa, program manager at Roatan Marine Park. “We currently have 40 coral nursery trees and work with three different species: Acropora cervicornis, Acropora palmata, and Acropora prolifera. Since the start of the project, we have outplanted more than 700 fragments.” Now, both organizations will expand their conservation work, establishing coral seeding as an important tool to enhance Honduran coral reefs.
Left: Roatan (Photo by Adobe); Middle: Roatan (Photo by Mauricio Solano Fernandez); Right: Utila (Photo by John Bodden)
Coral seeding training and commitment
Coral seeding, scientifically referred to as larval propagation, takes advantage of the corals’ own reproduction, thus promoting genetic diversity while enabling scalable restoration efforts at the same time. SECORE develops and shares the tools and technologies to restore or enhance coral reefs sustainably on a larger scale.
“In early 2021, we completed an online training ‘De la Reproducción de Coral a la Restauración de Arrecifes’ (‘From Coral Reproduction to Reef Restoration’), hosted by Dr. Ania Banaszak’s team at Coralium Lab (UNAM) and SECORE,“ says Daniela Mejia, Founder and Executive Director of Utila Coral Foundation. “This was our first window into assisted sexual reproduction of corals. Then in 2021, we participated in an in-person training in the Dominican Republic, co-hosted by FUNDEMAR (Dominican Foundation for Marine Studies), SECORE, and the GIZ (German Corporation for International Cooperation). This is where we got a chance to work hands-on and practice some of the techniques learned through the virtual trainings.”
The GIZ facilitates and funds international cooperation to foster sustainable development and international education work. “We have established a network for sustainable conservation efforts supported by the private sector in the region, mainly in the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, and Honduras, supporting coral restoration efforts since 2017,” says Svenja Paulino, Director of the GIZ´s Business and Biodiversity Program in Central America and the Dominican Republic. “In 2018, we supported FUNDEMAR, along with other partners, in constructing a laboratory for coral seeding work, which they had started with a mentorship from SECORE. When we started conversations with SECORE, we found out that we had several shared objectives and that it would be natural for us to join and complement our work, starting in Honduras.”
This foursome alliance, which, in a broader sense, actually includes several other parties, NGOs, stakeholders, and authorities, will work together to maintain and restore the coral ecosystem of the Bay Islands National Park reefs.
Getting started with this year’s coral spawning season
Left: Presentation by Aric Bickel (Photo by Mauricio Solano Fernandez); Middle: Signing of a MOA (Photo by Gabriela Ochoa); Right: Site scouting (Photo by Aric Bickel)
Eduardo Avila Pech, SECORE’s Roving Restoration Technician, together with Aric Bickel, SECORE’s Director of Technology and Implementation, visited the teams and sites for a scouting trip in late February. A highlight was the joint signing of a Memorandum of Agreement between Honduran parties, GIZ, and SECORE. Ready to go!
“At Roatan island, the team plans to do a full run of raising corals this spawning season,” says Avila Pech. “The team has enough information on spawning times as well as the logistics and resources in place to aim for raising their first coral babies.”
And the bar is set high. “Our goal is to successfully rear many coral species, outplant them and in the future enhance the biodiversity of our reefs, increase the coral reef’s rugosity, and decrease the impacts that Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease had in Honduras,” says Ochoa.
The Utila Coral Foundation operates under more limited possibilities, with the organization being in an early development stage. “Utila has a dedicated team that works under logistically challenging conditions but has a lot of potential to expand its work and resources likewise,“ says Avila Pech. “They will begin with collecting coral spawn and doing their first fertilization trials while continuing to monitor and document coral spawning of different species.
“Our vision for the future is to use Utila as a base for carrying out research as well,“ says Mejia. “We want to bring international and national scientists to our island to use our foundation as a basis for researching and establishing ongoing projects related to reef restoration and related topics.”
Implementing coral seeding on Honduran reefs is aimed at being a long-term effort, which in the midterm will be handed over to the partners on-site after completing a training and mentoring phase of around five years. So far, SECORE works together with implementation partners in eight Caribbean nations.
Left: Group shot on boat (Photo by Gabriela Ochoa); Middle: Group shot with Roatan Marine Park (Photo by Gabriela Ochoa); Right: Group shot with Utila Coral Foundation (Photo by Mauricio Solano Fernandez)
Engaging the local community
Any conservation effort benefits from having the people on-site involved. In fact, their acceptance, their raised awareness towards the needed conservation goals, and their participation are crucial for making such efforts successful.
At Roatan Marine Park, conservation efforts are embedded in a Community Development and Education and Outreach program. “We work with different communities, enlightening them on ocean-related themes and encouraging participation in conservation activities about sea turtles, coral reefs, and commercially important fish species,” says Ochoa. “We created a coral restoration certification where divers can learn to build capacities on coral restoration and get certified to clean the nursery and perform outplants. We encourage people to decrease their impact on marine resources by seeking alternative livelihood and empowering them to protect their resources.” The marine park is further working to establish an Ocean Youth program, where young people from local communities are trained in coral conservation activities to create future conservation leaders.”
2022’s spawning season is starting soon!
“We are all excited and looking forward to the upcoming spawning season,” says Avila Pech. “I will be there in person to support our partners in the Bay Islands this fall. After visiting, we are incredibly optimistic about what can be accomplished in this region, and I feel we have everything in place to successfully implement coral seeding in Honduras!”
Good luck to all coral spawn collectors on-site this summer, especially to those conducting their first operations!