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The Sandy Bay – West End Marine Reserve

BICA which stands for the Bay Islands Conservation Association is the oldest protection and conservation nonprofit organization in and around the Bay Islands. Founded in 1990 in Coxen Hole, Roatan, BICA has the privilege of being the first established conservation organization on the islands, focusing much of its environmental efforts in the protection of the coral reef system which surrounds this picturesque archipelago located off the north coast of Honduras. Its scope of work deals mostly with the management, protection and restoration of terrestrial and marine protected areas, through stakeholder involvement, community patrols, monitoring efforts, and environmental education, among others. BICA has played a pivotal role in the management of the Sandy Bay-West End Marine Reserve, a nationally recognized marine protected area located along the northwest coast of Roatan.

Home made traps used to collect fish larvae are fetched from the shallow reef.
Home made traps used to collect fish larvae are fetched from the shallow reef.

BICA has been divided into three local chapters with each affiliate concentrating its actions in one of the three largest islands (Utila, Roatan, and Guanaja). The BICA Utila Chapter is the one featured on Go Blue Central America, however, all chapters work under the same flag, therefore on this occasion we are pleased to share the role BICA Roatan is playing in a highly important, regional research project.

Before we delve deeper into BICA’s contributions to this initiative, a brief introduction of what is at stake is more than necessary. It should be no surprise to everyone that reef fish populations are part of one of the most complex ecosystems in the marine environment and also one of its most heavily exploited elements being pushed to extremely low levels throughout the Caribbean. Despite the importance of these populations, relatively little is known about them. Important information such as adult spawning behavior, location, and depth of spawning aggregations and recruitment is mostly unknown. Thus, this research project was designed to provide a baseline study of the fisheries properties on the western Caribbean in order to provide a basis for future fisheries management decisions.

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Specimens are hard to spot to the untrained eye.

We are talking about a collaborative effort headed in part by a Research Associate from the University of Miami by the name of Estrella Malca, who in cooperation with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and El Colegio de la Frontera Sur (ECOSUR) – a Mexican center for scientific research, have been conducting studies on the distribution of fish larvae, ocean currents, and the different species of fish that are arriving to the Mesoamerican Reef (MAR). They have focused on this region given the particularity that this is the largest reef system in the area and because of its natural connectivity with the United States and the Gulf of Mexico. Estrella, on a recent visit to Roatan explains that, “It is well known that there is a current heading north where different things are taking place at a larger scale but there is a definite lack of information in smaller areas such as in the Sandy Bay area in Roatan or on its south side where you find the Cordelia Banks for that matter”.

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Baby shrimp, less than half an inch in lenght.

Estrella revealed how in order toOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA study what is occurring inside the reef at a micro scale, a series of homemade traps are placed in two to three meter deep water resulting in the collection of fish larvae that will help us understand which fish species are being recruited within the marine protected areas as well as the conditions found in each location. This will provide the local institutions sufficient specimens to analyze and reach conclusions on the connectivity with the different habitats (mangroves, reef lagoons, sea grass) which are so closely tied with human activity.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA partnership with the Mar Fund – a privately managed fund which provides financial assistance for conservation initiatives in the MAR region, took advantage of the close relationships already established by this institution with local stakeholders to define priority areas. This is where BICA Roatan comes in.

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Measured, tagged, and bagged.

Go Blue Central America had the opportunity to tag along on field work with one of their own – Technical advisor, Giselle Brady who has been leading the local efforts providing technical assistance and support to this regional larvae monitoring study taking place in the marine protected area of Sandy Bay. Giselle and other BICA staff received through a series of workshops, training and technology transfer which set the foundation to conduct these exercises and define the number one priorities for the region.

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Rising early out to sea in the Sandy Bay – West End Marine Reserve.

One thing we can say for sure after joining Giselle while she went out in the field is that this is not an easy job and it requires a whole lot of dedication. It involves departing at 5am once a month for several months, to collect the fish traps placed in about 10 different locations, spotting the miniscule larvae hiding somewhere within the trap (without missing any) as they are less than 1 inch in length, measure, tag, and bag each individual specimen; not to mention the subsequent preparation and analysis. Given some budgetary constraints, very rudimentary traps were initially being used to collect larvae, a method which was not very efficient producing an average catch of about four to seven specimens per day.

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Modern light traps in place, ready to collect larvae.

 

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Multiple samples sent back to the science lab for analyses.

The second time around however, additional funds were allocated by BICA which allowed them to purchase modern light traps designed to collect more samples. It is important to note that a whole range of marine life react to light, therefore the LED light does not even need to be on for long as it easily attracts multiple species like plankton, shrimp, lobster, crab, puffer, and other juvenile fish. Hopefully, once this research project concludes it will go a long way in providing valuable answers regarding fish spawning, understanding peak seasons for reproduction of different species, what is arriving in the reef, inside vs. outside the protected areas, and a whole lot of other questions which will provide the foundation for more efficient fisheries management plans in these highly vulnerable areas.

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