A lot of my work in Honduras dealt with the issue of seafood traceability, so I thought I would share a bit about what traceability is and why it is important.Seafood traceability is essential the process of being able to 'trace' a seafood product throughout its supply chain from your dinner plate to the fishing boat and potentially the area of the ocean where it was caught.
Being able to trace seafood is important for a number of reasons, most notably consumer health and safety. Say, for example, you enjoy a delicious lobster dinner at your favourite restaurant - but later find yourself overwhelmed stomach pain that can only indicate some form of food poisoning. Now, if the companies that supplied your lobster dinner have a good traceability program in place, they will be able to track your lobster back through each step of its post-harvest travels and check its treatment at each step in the process to locate where the problem might have occured. With this system in place, it is possible to identify and find any other lobster that might be contaminated and keep someone else from suffering your same fate. The companies that supply the lobster are also better protected, since only the one that caused the problem will be penalised, instead of a blanket sanction across all companies or at the country level, like putitng an import embargo on all lobster from say, Honduras.
Seafood traceability is also increasing becoming important in combating illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing, generally called IUU fishing. IUU fishing is one of the biggest problems facing global fisheries sustainability, with illegal catches estimated to be between 11 and 26 million tonnes - up to around 30 % of the world's current total catch of marine fish. To combat IUU fishing, some countries and regions, like the European Union, have strict traceability requirements for any seafood imports, which allows buyers to ensure that each fish was legally caught by a licenced fisher and boat using approved means.
Despite its importance, many countries still lack traceability requirements for seafood imports or have gaps in what they require. Having a national traceability system requires coordination among the people and companies throughout a fishery's supply chain, which can be complicated and costly to organise. A fishery supply chain refers to anyone involved in catching, processing and transporting that fishery's products. At a minimum, this includes the fishing crew, boat captains, fish packing houses, exporters, importers, wholesalers, retailers and consumers. Just from this condensed list, there is a high potential for coordination problems. Add to this, the fact that many of these people work in different areas or countries and that there are usually additional people, like middle-men or seafood brokers, involved in different stages of the supply process that make the whole system much more complicated. For a comprehensive traceability system, each of these groups of people need to provide the same information, in the same way, and in such a manner that it can be tracked and accessed if needed. Can you see why implementing traceability can be a headache?!
Because of these challenges, for many countries, improving seafood traceability comes as a result of market requirements. For example, the work I was involved in in Honduras for traceability was a direct result of increased traceability system requirements for seafood that is imported into the US. Since the US lobster industry relies on the US (over 90% of Honudran-caught lobster is sold to the US), meeting these requirements was a must for the industry's survival.
The market-based elements of traceability gives you, the consumer, power to help fight IUU fishing. One of the best and easiest ways you can help fight illegal fishing is simply to ask where seafood comes from and how it was caught - and then not buying it if the answer is unknown or questionable. Want to go a step further? Write or call your local political representative and let them know that seafood traceability is important to you. Seafood traceability and labelling laws vary widely across countries and even within different states, so I can't go into much detail here, but if you are interested in finding out more, there are a lot of resources available online. A great place to start is the Conservation Alliance for Seafood Sustainability website.
IUU estimates from Agnew DJ, Pearce J, Pramod G, Peatman T, Watson R, Beddington JR, et al. (2009) Estimating the Worldwide Extent of Illegal Fishing. PLoS ONE 4(2): e4570. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0004570
After a couple weeks talking with fishers and fish houses in Roatán and Guanaja, I headed to the mainland to interview people from the larger fish houses ("packers"), fisher associations and NGOs working in the lobster industry. Unlike the Islands where a lot of the fishers use wooden traps to catch lobster, boats out of La Ceiba mostly rely on scuba divers to collect lobster from the fishing grounds. It is also home to many of the larger packers, who process the lobster and repackage it before exporting it to buyers in the United States.
While in La Ceiba, my field assistant, Sara, and I were also invited to a meeting led by the Servicio Nacional de Sanidad Agropecuaria (SENASA), the primary government department in charge of food safety and sanitation in Honduras. This meeting focused on improving traceability in the lobster supply chain, and attendees included fishers, boat captains, owners and managers of the fish packing houses, other government staff and NGO representatives. During the meeting, we discussed the importance of traceability and the proposed changes to the current system within the fishery. Up until now, system-wide traceability in the fishery was virtually non-existent. Each fish house maintained thier own records on which fishers the lobster was bought from and who it was sold to in the US, but a national, standardised transparent system was lacking - making it difficult to trace products with food safety or other issues. The new system being proposed and piloted by SENASA in the lobster industry changes this by first registering each fisher by their licence number, registering each fish house and building a system where at each exchange point, this information is added to the product allowing it to be tracked from the sea to someone's plate.
While initially met with some skepticism from the attendees, the presenter did a great job of communicating that traceability and this type of program is not asking for those involved to suddenly present more information - but instead to help them streamline their processes and provide better information, for example by standardising the way each fish house reports and tracks their products. Additionally, implementing traceability at this level ensures that they meet international trade requirements imposed by many of their main or potential markets, including the United States and the European Union.
The plan was to pilot this new traceability program during the 2017/18 lobster season and eventually roll it out to include other seafood and agriculture exports.
Of the places I visited in Honduras, Guanaja was easily one of my favourites. Unlike the other two main Bay Islands, Guanaja is relatively unvisited and still off the tourist map - meaning you won't find some of the conveniences you might be used to when traveling, but you will find a community of friendly people who will show you the real Guanaja that they love. Many of the locals speak both English and Spanish and will be happy to point out, or more likely take you to, wherever you're trying to go.
As as I mentioned before, while I was there I was able to travel around the island with staff from CEM and the municipality. Two areas we visited were Savannah Bight and Mangrove Bight, two small fishing communities on the eastern side of island. Most of the fishers here go out on day trips in small fishing boats (like those pictured below) to catch whatever is in season and sell it to the local fish houses.
In my down time as able to explore some of Guanaja's other gems — its pine forests and beautiful reefs. While there I stayed a Roland's Garden Guesthouse, a beautiful and secluded two-bedroom house located behind Manati restaurant about a 15 minute water taxi ride from the cay. Roland's house is located up a short trail behind the restaurant, and Roland has also marked out a nice hiking trail heading up the hills behind the house, the "blue point" trail I think he calls it. I ventured out on my own to explore the trail one morning and am glad I did. After a quick ascent up a slick, pine needle covered hillside I found myself in a beautiful tropical forest with views out over the cay and Michaels Rock, a resort literally located on a rock off the coast. Continuing upward, the landscape changed into the wind-whipped pine forest the island is known for. This forest is also unique to Guanaja (compared to Roatàn and Utita) and is responsible for its nickname as the 'green island'. The top of the hike rewards you with views out to Savannah Bight and across some shallow reef areas.
One thing I really wanted to do while in Guanaja was check out some of the underwater life. It is difficult to find anything online about where to snorkel around the island without having to pay for a boat charter, but luckily one of the water taxi drivers I became friends with during my stay offered to take me to a local spot called Michaels Rock.
Located on the other side of the island, towards Mangrove Bight, Michaels Rock is a rock that is often connected to the island, making for easy access right off the beach. You can snorkel out around the point of the rock and basically land right back on the beach where you started. The snorkeling there was amazing — very diverse with lots of different colorful corals, sea grass and marine critters. I would say it was hands down the best snorkel of the trip, and I had the whole reef to myself! Michaels Rock is a bit far from the cay so it is expensive to get back and forth, but there is a great hotel just down the beach called Bo's, owned by Bo Bush, that I would recommmend staying at if you want to visit. Bo's resort also offers convenient access to a hiking trail that leads to a waterfall, which unfortunately I didn't get to visit while I was there.
My next stop in the Bay Islands was to the island of Guanaja. This island is the furthest of the Bay Islands from the mainland and generally the least visited by tourists. When I arrived by water taxi from the main cay, known locally as Bonacca or just 'the cay', I knew I was in the right place to find lobster fishers. Large boats lined the dock, each with people clearly visible painting and prepping the boats for the start of the lobster season in a couple weeks.
I was staying at a small guesthouse on the main island, so getting back and forth to the cay required a short water taxi ride. While next time I go I will probably stay on the cay to eliminate this hassle, I enjoyed the frequent boat time while I was there.
During my time in Guanaja I was able to team up with staff from a local Honduran organization, Centro de Estudios Marinos (or CEM) who was also there that week to help register fishers across the island. This was part of a big traceability initiative that aims to improve reporting of fish catch by utilizing information from local buyers. CEM has been actively involved in implementing better data collection for smaller artisanal fishers in Honduras whose catch usually goes unrecorded since they fish out of small, dispersed communities and often sell to nearby fish houses who service the local community. However, despite the seemingly benign impact of each single fisher, in many areas the cumulative catch of these fishers can be almost as large or larger than industrial fishing vessels.
While in Guanaja I was able to join CEM, along with the Bay Islands Conservation Assiciation (BICA) and the Guanaja municipality, in distributing electronic tablets to local fish houses for them to report what species they are purchasing, how much they are buying, and what they paid the fishers for each product, including payments of cash, ice or petrol. They are also asked to scan each fishers license to help track fishing activities and ensure only licensed fishers are able to sell their catch.
We also set up shop in local offices for the day to help register fishers and make sure their licences were up to date. We also held meetings with the fishers and fish houses to discuss reporting and the importance of good data collection.
During our time in Savannah Bight we also met with the fishers' association to discuss these programs, as well as other possible initiatives, like setting up a business for the fishers wives to supplement income during seasonal fishery closures and fundraising at the local Carnival.
Unlike some of the other communities where the fisher associations have essentially disbanded, the fishers in Savannah Bight were keen to be involved in fishery's projects and help trial new activities. I was also able to talk to many of them personally about sustainability and learn about some of heir ideas and challenges they face in balancing their need to support their family as well as preserve the local ,marine ecosystem.
Befire I start telling you about my recent field work, I want to acknowledge the Crawford Fund, who helped pay for my field trip to Honduras. The Crawford Fund is a non-profit, non-governmental organization focused on agricultural and food security research and training in developing world countries. In 2017 I was awarded an international travel award from the Western Australian Crawford Fund Committee in order to help me gain experience and expertise working in fisheries sustainability in Honduras. As part of this project, I focused on the Honduras lobster fishery and the activities being done by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and local organizations as part of the fishery improvement project.
My first stop in Honduras to learn about the lobster industry was Roatán, the middle of the the three main Bay Islands off the north coast of Honduras. This island is known for its diving, and dive resorts line the street in West End, where I was based for my week-long visit. These resorts cater to die had divers and their families making it a bit more expensive and therefore exclusive, so you can escape a lot of the backpackers and party scene going down on its neighbor island, Útila.
I rented a car for my trip so I could easily get around the large island without having to rely on taxis. While there, I was able to talk with a lot of the local NGOs who focus on monitoring and protecting the local coral and marine communities. Roatán is part of the Bay Islands National Marine Park, which is co-managed by a number of groups through out the Islands. There is also a local Roatán Marine Park that is managed by a local organization of the same name (you can find their office on the main strip in West End). These groups do great work around the Islands through their education programs, monitoring and also work with the government to protect the region. I was pleasantly surprised at how beautiful the snorkeling was right off the beach in Half Moon Bay, and the fact that most of the time I was the only one out enjoying the underwater view. Each side of the Bay is completely different, so make sure you check them both out! On the western side enter straight from the beach behind the church and swim out along the coast, from the east side you can access the reef from one of the resorts, I went in off Ecodivers Roatán.
The island is also home to part of the industrial lobster fishing fleet. Most (if not all) of the boats in Roatán use wooden traps to catch lobster on the distant fishing grounds a few hundred miles east of the island. In Honduras, each boat is permitted to use 2500 traps to catch lobster during the season, which runs from July through February each year. Lobster tails are then sold to processors who repackage the tails and export them primarily to the US market. While I was here I was able to speak with some of the main lobster boat owners and packing plants in French Harbour, although few were aware of the improvement project underway in the fishery.
Other areas of interest in Roatán that I visited are Punta Gorda, a Garifuna community in the east end that celebrates each Sunday with drumming and dancing. I also had a wonderful snorkel at West Bay along the wall. West End is a great place to visit since there are lots of restaurants and bars, and of course lots of dive options. I will definitely be back with the hubby on holiday so I can enjoy some of the fun without having to work!