This story is part of a special series on Ocean Innovations.
The eastern coast of Honduras is a rugged, largely undeveloped place called the Moskitia. Draped in wetland forest and punctuated by saltwater lagoons, it is home to four indigenous groups, including the Miskitos (their name derives from their own word for themselves and is not related to the similar-sounding mosquito). For four decades, the Miskito people have worked in a fishery off their coast, scuba diving to pick up lobster and conch from the seafloor to supply industrial boats from more developed parts of the country.
But the work was dangerous, and resulted in around 120 dive accidents a year, with around 20 of these accidents being fatal, according to Stephen Box, a British-born scientist who has worked for much of the past decade studying the marine ecology and fisheries of Honduras.
To address the severe social cost of this fishery, Central American governments recently implemented an agreement that bans the use of scuba gear to collect lobster.
"That is good, but it presents a significant challenge to the Moskitia region as it puts an estimated 3,500 people out of work and removes $7.5 million from the rural economy, in an area where industrial fishing was the main source of employment," said Box.
Finding a Safer Solution
So Box, supported by a partner organization, the Spiny Lobster Initiative, took some Miskito fishermen and government officials to Belize, to see how fishers there employ casitas (small houses) for lobsters off the coast. The crustaceans congregate in the structures, and fishermen skin-dive down to collect them. Since they don't have to stay down long, or dive very deep, they don't need scuba gear.
"The [Miskito fishermen] could see how simple the concept is and they have been strong supporters of the idea ever since," Box said.
With support from National Geographic's Ocean Initiative, Box's team is working to help community leaders and Miskito fishers define an area for the exclusive use of this and other sustainable fishing practices. Box said the plan is making its way through the legal process, but he hopes to see the government soon declare a 3.5 million acre (1.45 million hectare) area of coral reefs, sea grass beds, and shallow water habitats as designated for the use of artisanal fishers. This would protect the area from further exploitation by industrial fisheries and make it the largest marine protected area in Central America and the third largest in the Caribbean.
"We are now developing the management strategies for this area," Box said.
"Instead of this being a top-down process, we are working directly with fishermen and communities to help them define how these fisheries will function, and empower fishers with information so that they can take active control of how they use and protect their marine resources," Box added.
To help the community make informed decisions, Box's group is building habitat maps and assessing fish and lobster populations. In addition, they are conducting genetic studies of the lobsters. Used together, this information can help identify the best locations to place the casitas and measure how the fishery and the management plans function over time.
Box said cheap casitas can be fashioned from wood and corrugated iron for $10 to $15 each. "But those are very light, and in a storm they can get washed away and added to marine debris," said Box.
Better is to use concrete and rebar, but those cost $40 to $50 each, he added. Fortunately for the project, there are grants available to purchase the better casitas, Box said. The next step is figuring out where to best place them.
Once they do, Box said indications are good that major sustainable seafood buyers will be interested in the catch. "It comes with a great story; converting a socially and ecologically damaging fishery into one that's locally managed and sustainable," he explained.
As far as the health of the lobster populations, Box said, "There's very limited information on their current status, but the benefit of lobster is that they reproduce prolifically and grow fast, so if you manage the stock well it has the potential to rebound quickly and support a productive fishery."