The island of Utila isn’t a big one; at about 11 km long and 4 km across at its widest point, it’s
the smallest of the Honduran Bay Islands. It mainly consists of mangroves, partially submerged,
swamp-like forests that smell a little like an outhouse and that are nearly impossible to pass
through except the occasional narrow channel. Over half of the island is covered with
them, all the way from the west end to the edge of Utila town, which comparatively takes up only
a small portion of the island. These forests are often found between the sea and the shoreline
all over the world, and in most places their destruction has several negative impacts.
At times these mangroves seem like a nuisance, they don’t smell good and they restrict access
to most parts of the island. Knowing this information one would think that it would probably
be beneficial to get rid of them, cut them down and develop the land. However, without the
mangroves Utila as we know it would not exist. The mangroves are one of, if not the most
important aspects to Utila’s reef system. These mangroves protect the island from storms and
also are extremely important to Utila’s economy, not only to the fishermen who need the fish that
the mangrove protects and allows to grow, but also to the booming dive businesses who need
the fish to continue attracting divers to the reef.
A recent study found that there are 25 times more fish in these mangroves than out on the reef,
they serve as a valuable nursing ground for most species of reef fish and invertebrates. This
habitat provides protection from predation for young fishes and also provides the fish with food
as it’s a valuable nursery for shrimp, crustaceans and smaller fish that feed the larger fish.
Utila’s mangroves now face the problem that many mangroves across the world are struggling
with, destruction for land development. Land on coastlines of islands is a prized commodity,
everybody wants their own little piece of paradise. Unfortunately many of the pictures that we
see advertised are unrealistic, showing perfect white sand beaches with villas and beach bars,
no washed up seagrass or unsightly mangroves. In reality to get these white sand beaches
sand will either have to be brought in or cleared of washed up seagrass that protects the land
from erosion and reduces sedimentation in the water, as well as the removal of mangroves
close to the coastline drastically altering the nursing habits of hundreds of species.
Mangroves in Utila are destroyed at an unsustainable rate. The west end of the island, which is
primarily dominated by mangrove forests, is being cleared for the building of properties to attract
more tourists to the island. It’s a tricky problem seeing as the island needs tourists to support
the local economy, but without the mangroves the species attracting the tourists are threatened
and their numbers will decline, so a happy medium needs to be found between the destruction
and protection of the mangroves.