Remote Beauty
A Scientific Expedition to Swan Islands Brings back some Not-so-good Findings

August 1st, 2011
by Thomas Tomczyk

[private] Swan Islands, the Bay Islands’ distant cousins, face an uncertain future. They cold continue to be forgotten and sporadically fished or turned into another site of a Honduras tourist bonanza – again and most likely a mismanaged one. The possibility of Honduras government actively protecting the islands is a remote one, but a coalition of scientific and conservation organizations is making an effort to influence international organizations to take notice of the islands and its ecosystem.

The east end of Great Swan, looking towards Little Swan.  Utila Aggressor II nears the islands dock

The east end of Great Swan, looking towards Little Swan. Utila Aggressor II nears the islands dock

Swan Islands are a remote and venerable habitat. They have no natural sources of freshwater and the infrastructure left by the Americans has fallen in disuse and disrepair. Honduras government has spent practically no effort to maintain the inherited buildings, water cisterns or gas tanks.

Today not only are Swan Islands a military area that requires a government permission to visit, since 1991 it is a Marine Reserve with a five mile perimeter protected area. Still, protection of Swan Islands is just words on paper and Honduras has spent little resources protecting the islands reef and habitat.

In 1520 the islands were discovered by the Spanish and named San Millan. They were later renamed after an English buccaneer Captain Swan, who visited the islands in 1680s.

Modern history of Swan Islands begun in 1840s when guano, found an amply on the islands, became a valued source for fertilizer and salt pepper used in gunpowder. The US congress stated: “Whenever any citizen of the United States discovers a deposit of guano on any island, rock, or key, not within the lawful jurisdiction of any other Government, and not occupied by the citizens of any other Government, and takes peaceable possession thereof, and occupies the same, such island, rock, or key may, at the discretion of the President, be considered as appertaining to the United States.” Over 100 islands have been claimed by US citizens under the guano act. One such American — John White claimed the Swan Islands for the US in 1857.

Several different companies and American miners mined the guano of the islands leaving guano pits still visible today. United Fruit Company leased the islands at one point and planted thousands of coconut palms there, but a Hurricane wiped out almost the entire palm population in 1955.

The island served as a weather station as early as 1928 and in 1946 a radio navigational beacon was installed there to accompany a two kilometer landing strip. There were weekly flights between Swan island and Cayman Island and in 1960s, CIA operated “Radio Swan” on the islands that broadcast programs to Castro’s Cuba.

The dock of the Great Swan Island

The dock of the Great Swan Island

US transferred the right of Swan Islands to Honduras in 1971 and since then the island’s population has dwindled. Today only seven soldiers are stationed on Great Swan and there is no continuity in men staying on the islands. Most of them have seen the islands for the first time, and never come to see it again. As a result the island’s “wardens” have little accumulated first hand knowledge of the islands and happenings around them.

The Swan Islands lie in the middle of Caribbean’s Hurricane alley and almost every hurricane destined for the Gulf of Mexico passes close to, or over the islands. Another reason why Swan Islands have not been seen as a place for human settlement is the lack of water sources. The only well on the island is now salty and Honduran soldiers have to rely on rain water and packaged water brought to them by boat once every 60 days from Puerto Castilla.

A scientific interest in Swan Islands has been full of expectations. Melanie McField, Director of Belize based Healthy Reefs Initiative, an organization that monitors the condition of reefs in the Mexico-Guatemala-Belize-Honduras region, has been trying for three years to organize a research trip to Swan Islands. The research expedition to the Swan Islands was a result of years of preparation, lobbying and fundraising. The expedition finally came together with the help of Sylvia Earl Alliance and Summit Foundation.

McField has successfully lobbied the World Wildlife Fund to include the Swan Islands as part of the Mesoamerican reef system. “It’s potentially a larva source [for fish and coral] for Bay Islands,” she said about Swan islands and their, up current location- 145 miles north-east from Roatan.

On July 16 “Swan Islands Expedition” departed Roatan with the aim to asses the health of reefs of the Swan Islands. The head of the expedition was Dr. Sylvia Earle, a world-renowned oceanographer, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, and founder of Mission Blue. The expedition consisted of 18 people: a motley crew of scientist, photographers and their assistants, benefactors, and wealthy businessmen. After 19 hours journey the boat arrived at an American constructed concrete dock on the West side of Great Swan.

The chief goal of the expedition was to launch conservation efforts through increased awareness about Swan Islands in Honduras and internationally. Another goal was to make recommendations to Honduran government about formalizing a decree that would protect the area from fishing and tourism development.

Also part of the team was a National Geographic photographer Brian Skerry. Skerry, a 35-year veteran of underwater photography, is working on an article about Mesoamerican reef and Swan Islands were to be a part of the story. Aggressor’s captain Nestor Vidotto, had to shuttle the 125 foot Utila Aggressor II boat between setting up shark traps, dropping off scientists and individual photographers.

Some scientists on the team were studying reefs, others counting fish, still others were setting up underwater video traps with chunks of fish to attract sharks. “Fish start rotting the minute they are dead,” explains the way bate attract the sharks Giacomo Palavicini, director of Field Operations of Roatan based Shark Legacy Project. Palavicini stuffed beer cans full of lionfish to attract sharks and other fish so they could be filmed and later studies.

“We are finding sharks almost on every time,” said Dr. Rachel Graham, chief of Belizean Wildlife Conservation Society. “We are batting around 90 percent for the sharks.” For the “shark scientists” one of the more exciting findings was a sighting of a Great Hammerhead, an endangered species in the Caribbean which populations have declined by 50% since the 1990s.

Working with eight researchers, McField studied nine sites around Swan Islands gathering data on the coral conditions and assessing fish quantities. The researchers would count and describe every coral and organism they encountered.

After four days of diving the scientists were coming to some worrying conclusions. “We found a disappointingly high amount of leeching and diseased coral,” says McField. “Much of it has been overgrown with macro algae.” The fish like snapper, groupers were skittish — a likely sign of them experiencing aggressive fishing. “There is a surprisingly low mass of fish for a place so remote,” says McField. “We need to figure out why.”

“It’s more than likely poachers are doing this,” says Bay Islands Commissioner Evans McNab. Jamaican fishermen use traps for groupers and snappers, and netting that could be used in setting those traps was found washed out on Great Swan’s beaches and inside a cave off the islands. 10-15 years ago diving off Swan Islands was “amazing” according to McNab.

Roatan commercial fishermen claim that it is Jamaican fishermen in small boats that fish the waters around Swan Islands. The Rosario Bank and Misteriosa Bank located around 130 km north of the Swan Islands have been a place where Jamaicans been illegally fishing Honduran waters for decades.

There is little if any effort to protect Swan Island’s reef on part of Honduran government. The seven military personnel stationed on Great Swan are not equipped to enforce, or even properly monitor the illegal fishing. They have no boat, no car, not even binoculars that could help them in monitoring or enforcing the protection of the island environment.

Great Swan Island, 3 kilometers long, 1.5 kilometers wide and the nearby Booby Cay are an important rest stop for migrating birds and nesting ground for Booby birds. Off the south-western side of Great Swan the 90 meter long Booby Cay is an important Booby bird nesting site. Guano produced by the birds was the reason for the American claim made to the islands.

Pigs and cattle were either killed or taken off Great Swan for slaughter in late 1990s. According to soldiers stationed on Great Swan, their fate was shared by green iguanas that were harvested for meat several years ago and one can no longer find the abundance on the islands. One survivor that avoids extension is the domestic cat that has grown feral and feeds mostly on small iguanas.

Dr. Sylvia Earl, on board of the Utila Aggressor II, is interviewed for a blog by her foundation staff

Dr. Sylvia Earl, on board of the Utila Aggressor II, is interviewed for a blog by her foundation staff

Andres Alegria, expedition’s scientist working with Healthy Reefs, set up two photographic traps on Great Swan that captured images of Agoutis that had reportedly been sited on Little Swan. The cameras brought back images of the animal, but they still have to be analyzed if the species could be a cousin to the Roatan Island Agouti (Dasyprocta Ruatanica).

The animal population of Little Swan is a mystery. Little Swan is 2.4 kilometer long and 500 meters wide and access to it is limited because of steep 30 to 60 foot cliffs that surround the long and narrow island. South side of the islands has strong currents and sporadic coral heads. Nurse sharks, barracuda comb the island’s southern shores.

While the greatest value of the Swans lie in their remoteness for many people the islands couldn’t be far enough. The government of President Mel Zelaya was curious of a development proposal for the Swan Islands and then President, Zelaya visited the islands in 2007.

Kevin Morill, a US developer has been lobbying several Honduran Government to develop the islands into a tourist destination similar to “Polynesia, Venice, Monaco, England and the Caribbean (…) , all from one fantastic island paradise.” For the environmentalist the utopia-like mega project would spell a disaster for the environment of the island and surrounding reefs. Still, there are occasional political interest and economic interest that would like to create another tourist destination in the poor Central American country.

Following a president’s visit in 2007, a group of Honduran scientists with the blessing of Ministry of Environment and Ministry of Tourism traveled on a lobster boat filled with 70 oxygen tanks. Over their seven-day-visit they produced a report and a map of the island designating tourist and commercial zones with plans for further development

Despite some disappointments in the condition of Swan’s reef and fish densities, some remain optimistic about the island’s future. Dr. Earle sees Swan Islands as a “hope spot” a place in the marine environment that can thrive and sustain marine life well into the XXI century. “I love Swan Islands because it is so remote. It has a goliath grouper, tarpon and stag horn coral. If you only give it a chance it will recover,” said Earl.

If the islands can just be left alone, not exploited for any purposes, in 50 years their value will be amazing. It’s like bond deposits that when reached maturity it will make its holder a rich man. Still, not everyone in Honduras is that patient. [/private]

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