Archive for the 'Tourism' Category

Progress in Tela reef conservation in Honduras

Text and photos (c) 2013 Erkki “Eric” Siirila, copyright & all rights reserved. 

Some years ago the city of Tela in Honduras was only known for its beaches. No one was aware that underwater additional national heritage could be found. The coral reefs of the Tela Bay are this other treasure.

The Tela Bay in Honduras has coral reefs, the conservation of which needs attention. Photographer and copyright (c) 2013 Erkki Siirila.

The Tela Bay in Honduras has coral reefs, the conservation of which needs attention. Photographer and copyright (c) 2013 Erkki Siirila.

Francois Ligeard, The Chamber of Tourism of Tela, says: “The good news is that we can offer a new site for both the national and international tourist. We have to highlight the fact that this place is very beautiful. It has high cover of live coral. We notice that always when we dive on this reef. One easily gets emotional because every time we go the local reef we find something new and more beautiful.”

Dennis Sierra, The Prolansate Conservation Foundation, Tela, sees the “newly discovered” coral reefs in the following way: “The best news is that in Tela we have many people both in the civil society, local government and the business sector who are very interested in the conservation of the coral banks of the Tela Bay. The preservation needs have an acceptance at the community level. Also at the level of the central government there is a lot of interest in declaring a marine park in the Bay of Tela.”

Only fishing was done on the local Capiro Reef in the past. Nowadays, divers come here to see the angelfish and the many species of coral. For example, black coral is found here.

The coral bank of Capiro is the best known reef area in the Tela waters. Photo and copyright (c) 2013 Erkki Siirila.

The coral bank of Capiro is the best known reef area in the Tela waters. Photo and copyright (c) 2013 Erkki Siirila.

Dennis Sierra: “Logically we look toward the future generations. We need to implement conservation actions in the Bay area, if we want to leave this ecosystem as a heritage to our children. Tela has been favored by God. We have to remember that the natural richness we have in Tela contributes in a positive way to tourism opportunities here. Tela has its future in the resources of that Bay.”

Francois Ligeard: “The biggest challenge we face is to take care of the reef both for our generation and the future generations. We need to get the fishermen and other local people involved to be able to preserve this reef. We have been working already by installing permanent mooring buoys. In this way, we need not anchor the boats and we can stop the damage that has been caused to the reef by anchors in the past.”

The mangroves of the Bay may not be forgotten as reef conservation is promoted. The mangroves produce nutrition for marine life. In addition, among the roots, many species of coral reef fish live during their juvenile stage. The mangroves also protect the coast from the waves of the sea.

The seagrass beds in the Tela waters have functions similar to those of the mangroves. In addition, many reef fish migrate to the seagrass areas in order to eat.

When forests are preserved, there is only little erosion on land and less mud enters the sea via the rivers. This is crucial in reef conservation as the corals need clean and clear water. Related to the above, it is also necessary to develop the treatment of sewage and waste waters.

In the Tela Bay there are very healthy coral colonies. It is important to take care of the reefs, because climate change threatens them, through the elevated sea-water temperatures and through the acidification of the sea.

Coral reefs will be more resistant to global environmental changes, when at the local level there is no overfishing and when the other pressures are kept at the minimum level. In this way, the coral reefs of Tela will produce economic and environmental benefits to us also in the future.

The following Youtube video was shot and produced by the Coastal Challenges’ Editor. It tells the above story of the Tela coral reefs in Spanish. The original is in high definition; this lower-resolution Youtube version can be best seen be adjusting the image resolution under the Youtube window to 480 p.

Manatees, a challenge for coastal management

Text and photos (c) 2013 Erkki “Eric” Siirila, copyright & all rights reserved. (The article below is a short version of a more complete magazine article published elsewhere.)

There were about 2,500 manatees in Florida 30 years ago. In 2013 the number is approximately 5,000. “We have learned to live together with these animals”, says Visitor Services Specialist Ivan Vicente from the Crystal River office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The conservation measures have lead to visible results in spite of the fact that boat propellers, fishings gear and toxic algal blooms (red tides) still threaten the population of the West Indian manatee, Trichechus manatus, in the U.S.

As manatees do not have any thick layer of blubber (unlike whales) under their skin, in autumn the U.S. manatee population migrates to the warm water areas of Florida. All the animals spend in the State the months between November and March. In spring and summer, some manatees migrate to other states while others stay in Florida most or all of the year.

A Florida manatee leaving  the strictly protected zone in the Three Sisters' Springs protected area. Photo copyright (c) 2013 Erkki Siirila.

A Florida manatee leaving the strictly protected zone in the Three Sisters’ Springs protected area. Photo from Crystal River, copyright (c) 2013 Erkki Siirila.

Of the 2,800 manatees on the West Coast of Florida during wintertime, about 550 stay in the Crystal River wetlands. The reason is the underwater springs, the water temperature of which is higher than that of the sea and rivers in winter. Another 2200 manatees stay on the East Coast of Florida during the coldest months. The Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico populations never mix in spite of the fact that together they are considered the Florida manatee, a subspecies (Trichechus manatus latirostris) of the West Indian manatee.

Even in winter, the manatees sometimes leave their favorite warm-water spots. They do this in order to feed on sea grass, which does not grow in fresh water. Processing sea grass results in a lot of gas in the digestive system. This is one reason why the manatees look so fat.

On the West Coast of Florida, manatees have become an important attraction for nature tourism. In the Crystal River area, 34 companies have a license to arrange paddling or snorkeling tours to the protected areas. The number of customers per year is around 150,000. Numerous boats of the tour companies can be observed in the most popular destination Three Sisters’ Springs from early morning to late afternoon. Most of the time there are 20-50 snorkelers in the water. An approaching manatee may be touched, but disturbing a sleeping manatee may result in a fine. Boaters are fined when they do not respect the manatee-related speed restrictions while navigating the rivers and canals. Still, accidents do happen and it is common to see propeller cuts on the backs of manatees.

Outside the Crystal River wetland parks, many of the  Florida manatees spend the winter months in the warm-water discharge spots of power plants. As some of the State´s power plants will be shut down in the near future, there are plans to continue discharging warm water into the wetland areas where the manatees are used to spending the coldest months. If this is not done, manatee deaths from exposure to cold water could be expected. There is a problem even in the natural wintering areas: the growing human population of Florida consumes so much groundwater that the freshwater outflow in the “manatee” springs is adversely affected.

A manatee resting in a freshwater spring in the Crystal River wetlands. Photo copyright (c) Erkki Siirila.

A manatee resting in a freshwater spring in the Crystal River wetlands. Photo copyright (c) 2013 Erkki Siirila.

An additional challenge for the Florida manatees is that genetically they are not well-equipped for future challenges. Their genetic heritage is narrow and diversity low, because the whole population has its origin in just a few West Indian manatees which swam to Florida from the Caribbean. In spite of the threats, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service expects the endangered U.S. manatee population to double another time during the next 20 years. In 2033 there would be 10,000 individuals of these aquatic mammals in the U.S. waters if everything goes well.

The three species of manatees and their relative the dugong are a specific coastal management challenge in the tropical and temperate waters of our planet. When the populations of these friendly animals are well managed, they have a high potential of becoming a major attraction for nature-oriented tourism.

Shipwrecks support coral conservation in Egypt

Text and photos (c) 2013 Erkki “Eric” Siirila, copyright & all rights reserved. (The article below is a short version of a more complete magazine article published elsewhere.)

In popular diving areas like the Red Sea, sunken ships can take diving pressure away from the heavily used coral reefs. This is the story of five recently located wrecks in Egypt. They do not only relieve the pressure caused by divers on the reefs, they are even in the process of becoming reefs by themselves. Fish and coral have started to colonise the remaining ship structures already.

Four of the new dive sites are 100-250 kilometres north of Hurghada in the Gulf of Suez, one is just a day trip from the city shores. Recently innovative dive guides and underwater photographers like Kimmo Hagman, a Finn based in Hurghada, have initiated week-long live-aboard expeditions to these little-known sunken ships.

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The northernmost of the “new” wrecks is SS Turkia (part of the propeller pictured above). The construction of this British ship was completed in Hull, U.K., in 1910. The 91-meter long vessel sank on its keel after a fire and explosions onboard. Everything was not destroyed, and there is a lot to explore, as the image (below) demonstrates.

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The disaster took place off Zafarana in 1941. The reasons for the events (air attack or an “ordinary” explosion of hazardous cargo of military material) are not clear. On this wreck the dive depths vary between 15 and 24 metres.

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Another little-known wreck, which is extremely interesting to explore, is SS Scalaria (image above), a Shell oil tanker from Britain. The vessel was launched in Newcastle, U.K., in 1921. While being anchored in the Ras Gharib oil production area, close to the western shores of the Gulf of Suez, the ship was attacked by German war planes and destroyed by powerful explosions in 1942. 11 men lost their lives.

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Of the main hull structures of this 125-metre long vessel, only the bow (photo above)  and stern can be identified by divers. The ship sits on its keel and most of the dive will be spent at only 10 to 12 metres.

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The third big and rarely visited wreck in the Gulf of Suez is the Egyptian cargo vessel MV Aboudy (image above). The 76-metre long ship was constructed in Ville de Tenes in the Netherlands and  launched in 1959 or 1960. Aboudy met its destiny during a storm in 1988. The disaster occurred in the shallow waters of Ras Gharib.  The hull of the vessel, which lies on its port side, is in a good condition. Aboudy is an enjoyable dive: the maximum depth is 12 metres and visibility about 25 metres.

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MS Bakr is an easily dived small wreck (foredeck visible above) close to surface in the Ras Gharib area. The vessel was built in Kiev, Ukraine, in 1964, when Ukraine was still part of the Soviet Union. Before sinking in an attack by Israeli fighter planes in the Yom Kippur war in 1973, Bakr functioned as a survey vessel in the Egyptian oil exploration. The hull is still quite intact in spite of the missile attack.  The maximum depth is 10 metres. You can explore the whole ship during one visit, as it is only 49 metres long. Visibility  is 10 to 15 metres.

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The fifth virgin dive site, which takes dive pressure away from the heavily visited “old reefs”, is MS Hebat Allah (photo above), built in Ingrandes, France in 1985. This 44.5-metre wreck is a small cargo ship which was damaged during a storm and intentionally sunk in order to make it Egypt´s first artificial reef for scuba divers in 2004. Accidentally the ship went down into deeper water than planned and never became everyman´s dive site. Now Hebat Allah can be found sitting upright on sand in the marine area between Small Giftun Island, Gota Abu Ramada and Hurghada City. The bottom depth is 46 metres, and 40-metre visiblity is common (see the second image below).

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More information on the new Egyptian wreck attractions can be found on the web sites mentioned below. In addition to several dives on the sunken ships, these internet addresses were used as information sources for this article:

http://www.aquatours.com/

http://www.shipwrecksofegypt.com/

http://www.deeplens.com/

http://www.facebook.com/KimmoHagman.Photographer

Coral conservation in Honduras: building on local roots is important

“We have got one of the best coral reefs in the Caribbean”, says Nelbin Bustamante from the Prolansate Foundation and Amatela reef conservation group of the Town of Tela, Honduras.  More in detail, Mr. Bustamante summarises the good news of a recent underwater study on the Tela reefs in the following words: “The live coral cover on our reefs is nearly 70 per cent per square metre”. This high number was registered on the Capiro Reef just seven kilometres from the city centre.

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An offshore reef near Tela, Honduras. Photographer and copyright (c) 2012 Erkki Siirila.

Nevertheless, all the evaluation results were not positive. Mr. Bustamante says: “It could also be observed that the number of herbivorous and commercial fishes had reduced. Their biomass had gone down.”

As regards the threats, two main threats were identified in the study. One was the loss of forest cover. The other one was the lack of wastewater treatment. The Tela wastewaters flow directly into the sea and coral reefs. In addition to soil, the runoff contains many chemicals including fertilizers. The nutrients in the runoff may facilitate algal growth on the reefs as, at the same time, the levels of herbivorous fishes consuming the algae are lower than normal. Overfishing is an additional threat which needs to be controlled in Tela.

In any case Tela is a good and encouraging example in a world where the coral reefs are threatened by high fishing pressure, global climate change and other side effects of the growth of human societies. Off Tela, fairly healthy coral reefs can still be found and new awareness is creating motivation to protect the reefs.

Mr. Marcello Dicunta Servellón, who operates a dive centre in Tela, is satisfied: “Healthy coral reefs represents incredible opportunities. One of the most obvious ones is recreational diving. A well-managed dive industry on healthy reefs can result in high economic growth for the community.”

A Spanish-speaking documentary (Corales para amar – Tela protege sus arrecifes) with the above-mentioned content can be watched on Youtube:

Thai challenge: warming seas bleach the coral

Several popular dive sites at seven marine parks have been closed to diving in Thailand. The ban covers coral reefs suffering from serious coral bleaching which started in 2010. The reefs which will be off-limits to diving are located in the Andaman Sea on Thailand’s west coast.

The purpose is to let the reefs rest under circumstances in which as few environmental pressures as possible affect the coral. “We will give the reefs time to recover naturally,” Sunan Arunnopparat, director general of the National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department, said in an interview. The comments were published by the Thai newspaper The Nation on 20 January, 2011.

The director general added that more than 80% of the coral in the areas was affected by bleaching.  Overall the situation is serious: more than 50% of all the reefs in southern Thailand show signs of whitening and loss of colour. Divers visiting Thailand tell that it is not question of bleaching only. They say that at least in some places a high percentage of the bleached coral has actually died.

Widespread bleaching and death of corals could be one of the first concrete signs of climate change in the ocean. Photo (c) 2010 Erkki Siirila.

While announcing the ban, Sunan Arunnopparat also told that the restrictions were introduced in consultation with academics. As regards the duration of the emergency measures, Sunan Arunnopparat said: “The recovery of the coral will be monitored before the ban is lifted.”

In addition to the reef closure, the Department will apply other habitat protection measures. Limiting admissions to national parks and educating the tourists in environmentally sound practices were mentioned as examples.

The new restrictions are likely to hurt Thailand’s tourism industry and especially the dive business in the short term. In the long term the dive business may benefit. In case the new conservation measures lower enough the combined environmental stress factors on the reefs they could prove helpful – globally coral reefs are mainly threatened by the warming of seawater. The root cause is climate change.  Not only tourism is at stake, reef health is crucial to maintenance of local fisheries and prevention of coastal erosion.

The coral bleaching – whitening due to the loss of the symbiotic zooxanthella microalgae from coral tissues – was first observed across the Andaman Sea in May 2010 after a surge in seawater temperatures. Serious bleaching was reported also from other parts of the Indian Ocean in 2010. Furthermore, similar news came from some reef areas in the western Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea.

Bleached coral often dies. As coral grows slowly, the recovery of a reef will usually take years. As coral reefs often suffer from several environmental stress factors, there is no guarantee that a damaged reef will recover.

Healthy reefs are important for the success of dive tourism in many developing countries. Photo (c) 2010 Erkki Siirila.

Fresh winds in Mediterranean marine parks

“Conservation is more an art than a science” is a common statement in the nature protection circles. It reflects the fact that a flexible attitude and learning from experience are important in all conservation work. This is the case also in the Mediterranean, where a lot of experience has accumulated through the failures and successes in marine park development. These are the messages from marine protected area (MPA) specialists in three Mediterranean countries, when they highlight the most important success factors in marine park design:

Tunisia – Marine protected areas need to be open areas. To achieve the conservation benefits, there is no need to close the protected areas. There are proven research results showing that marine protected areas increase the fish populations and therefore the income of fishermen using the protected areas and living around them.

Turkey – In order to conserve the monk seals, we need to keep the local fish stocks in a good and steady condition. In order to do that, we need to get the support of the local fishermen and the local people. We worked on that matter and this is why our project became a succesful project. If you don’t involve the local stakeholders and the local interested groups, you cannot succeed.

Cyprus – The biggest challenge in the creation of marine protected areas is mainly to convince the people, particularly those people whose lives depend on these areas, like professional and sports fishermen, owners of cruise boats, and divers. Fishermen should realise that by protecting the marine biodiversity they will eventually benefit because they are going to have a recovery of the biodiversity and fish stocks.

More opinions of Mediterranean marine park experts can be found in a Youtube video, from where also the above, slightly edited comments are. This is the link to the video: Return of the Groupers – Benefits of Marine Protected Areas in the Mediterranean – A television documentary

Even the depleted grouper populations have recovered in the well-managed Medes Islands' marine park in Spain. Photo (c) 2010 Erkki Siirila.

Free access to the shore is everyone’s right

Hundreds of thousands of people travelling from Buenos Aires to the Atlantic coast of Argentina cannot be wrong. They invest a lot of time and money in order to get to the public beaches 300 to 500 km south of Buenos Aires during the peak holiday season in January and February.Their total investment shows how high the value of healthy coastal nature and unpolluted waters is for the common man. It also shows the importance of free access to coastal spaces from the democratic and socio-economic point of view.

Hundreds of thousands of people travel from Buenos Aires to the Atlantic coast of Argentina in January and February. The economic value of the free beach access is high. Image taken at San Clemente del Tuyu, (c) 2010 Erkki Siirila.

Private coastal spaces benefit a handful of people while public spaces benefit millions of people. The problem is the same in developing and developed countries. In southern Europe you can often see the beautiful Mediterranean but access to the sea is difficult because of private lands, through which you cannot even walk to the sea. The problem is the same in the Caribbean, where the local people commonly have lost access to some of their traditional beaches, because the access routes have been taken over by international hotel chains.

Respecting everyone’s right to shore access is a common issue to be solved in coastal zone management. In many countries at least the shore area up to the highest tide mark is public. Often there is also a wider, construction-free public set-back area on the shore.  Nevertheless, the access to this area where people have traditionally kept their boats and gone for a swim, has often been blocked by private properties.

The solution is not to forget the public access routes to these places.  The best example on how to respect everyone’s right to nature, both marine and terrestrial, is provided by the Nordic countries, in which “every man’s right” is a traditional legal concept. You may spend time within a private land area and walk through it to the beach without asking permission. The only exception are people’s houses, the privacy of which you need to respect.