Roatan Marine Park Soldiers On
Novel Grass-Roots Conservation Group Copes with Tight Finances

August 29th, 2012
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[private]v10-9-Business-Roatan Marine ParkVisitors to Roatan and long-time residents alike may wonder what becomes of the $10 they pay at dive shops for the little day-glo wristbands to visit the nearby reefs.

The bracelet sales, a voluntary “user fee,” are the major source of funding for the Roatan Marine Park, a non-profit organization established by local diveshops in 2005 to promote conservation of the coastal and marine resources on which the island’s tourism depends.

Governed by a seven-member board, elected every year, with 10-12 staff and four patrol boats, RMP “facilitates” enforcement of Honduran environmental laws and works to raise awareness and empower the community for “participatory conservation.”

RMP is recognized as a co-manager of the Sandy Bay-West End Marine Reserve. However, as a non-governmental entity it cannot take any enforcement actions. It must work through Honduran authorities.

“We’re just a water taxi for the police,” said Trevor Brown, a board member and owner of Ocean Connections diveshop in West End. “We have no authority over anything.”

Through an agreement with the National Police, RMP pays per diem to keep a couple of officers on hand to respond to violations of marine protection laws. But the police have no boats. RMP rangers regularly patrol the reserve and talk to tourists and fishermen about minimizing their environmental impact. If they spot violations requiring law enforcement, they must transport a policeman to the scene, then rely on the Honduran legal system to prosecute and punish the offenders. On the day the Voice visited RMP, staff were preparing to dispatch a boat to Punta Gorda in response to a report that people there were killing endangered sea turtles.

Nicholas Bach, who manages RMP’s marine infrastructure, said in practice violators were seldom prosecuted and punished. But RMP works in numerous other ways to promote conservation. One of the most important has been installing moorings at popular dive sites so dive boats do not have to anchor to the reef. Bach said there were now about 60 such moorings, up from about 10 before RMP was established.

RMP also conducts environmental education programs both with tourists and through local schools, sells environment-friendly products at its store and supports recycling, restoration and clean-up efforts. Most recently, it was preparing in August to distribute reusable shopping bags through local supermarkets to reduce the damage of discarded plastic bags on marine life (see RMP column in the June Voice).

All of these efforts, however, are facing cutbacks as the RMP, along with the rest of the island economy, struggles with tight finances.

“It costs a lot to do conservation,” said Bach, noting that RMP spends more than $3,000 a month on fuel alone.

Bach said the bracelet sales, which account for more than a third of RMP’s revenue, have been depressed as many businesses, including some large diveshops and resorts, opt out of the voluntary program. He said some newer businesses “don’t know what we do” and “don’t know what it was like before,” whereas some of the more established ones “take us for granted” and “assume they don’t have to support the RMP because it will always be there.”

The second-largest source of RMP revenue is its own shop sales, both at its West End Eco-Store and at the cruise ship ports, one of which is currently closed. Snorkel rentals bring in $10,000 a year. Fees from sailboats mooring off El Bank, south of Luna Beach, used to provide $12,000 a year, before the Municipal Government ordered the moorings removed (see “Moorings be Gone” in the April Voice). Grants from foreign governments and international organizations provide significant funding, but they are sporadic and for specific purposes.

“The sad reality about conservation is that it’s primarily a business and that without funding, day to day activities cannot simply happen,” said Bach.[/private]

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