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Concept note

Because Honduras means "depth"

Published onJan 06, 2023
Concept note
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Background

The Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of Honduras in the Caribbean expands ∼210,000 km2, has an average depth of ∼1,950 m and a maximum of ∼5,991 m. Its EEZ in the Pacific is shallow and relatively small. Considering a territorial extent of ∼112,000 km2 it’s fair to say that most of the country lies underwater. The literal meaning of the term "Honduras" is "depths" in Spanish. The name is often referred to Columbus's alleged quote "Gracias a Dios que hemos salido de esas honduras" ("Thank God we have departed from those depths") said upon his arrival in 1502 [1]. Despite its literal meaning, 87% of the country´s ocean floor remains largely unmapped and unexplored.

The 13% extent that has been mapped corresponds to the upper 30 m. This coverage has been possible with satellite imagery, aerial ortho-photographs, and ground truthing [2]. Except for ∼400 km2 (∼0.2%) surveyed with a multibeam echosounder in 2013 [3], accurate bathymetric data remains inaccessible or non-existent for the remaining ∼182,700 km2 below 30 m. This void is currently covered with low-resolution bathymetry predicted from satellite altimeter data, providing only an approximate estimation of the shape of the seafloor [4].

Map 1. Overview of Honduras’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the Caribbean.

The deepwater fishery landings in Honduras are proof of productive [5], yet unseen benthic ecosystems deep below. And although the available observational data of marine life below 30 m is confined to only a few locations, it already exhibits high abundance and diversity. Reports of benthic assemblages down to 750 m along the island of Roatan were attained using the privately owned submersible from RIDE1 [6] [7] and down to 85 m along the island of Utila using baited-remote underwater video (BRUV), diver-operated video (DOV), and closed-circuit rebreathers (CCR) [8] [9] [10].

After the Global Deep-Sea Capacity Assessment defined a baseline of the technical and human capacity for deep-sea exploration and research worldwide in 2022, it stated that Central America is the sub-region with the highest potential for investment and discovery [11], where records of deep-sea species remain significantly underestimated [7] [12]. Worth noting is the Walsh site, the world’s deepest high-temperature hydrothermal field known to date was discovered in 2010 at ∼5,000 m depth in Cayman Islands’ EEZ [13]. It is located just ∼75 km from the Honduran EEZ Eastern boundary.

By 2022, the network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) covered only ∼4.8% of the Honduran Caribbean. A lack of accurate knowledge about bathymetry, species, and ecosystem distribution is often the main obstacle to considering the deep-sea in management plans and policy decisions [4] [14]. For instance, the Honduran government granted a license for an ongoing hydrocarbon exploration ∼17% of its EEZ in the Caribbean [15] [16], arguably with insufficient involvement of local stakeholders [17]. The exploration area overlaps with a proposed MPA that could significantly extend the protected network with an additional 4.3% coverage [18] [19]. As such, the need for increased local deep-sea literacy is timely and related to both industry and conservation initiatives.

Map 2. MPA network and area of ongoing hydrocarbon exploration in Honduras.

Anticipated projects

  1. The Honduras Oceanographic Atlas is proposed as a publicly available website that featuring an interactive 3D interphase. It will also consist of a catalog of existing relevant datasets. These datasets will be compiled, curated, and archived in well-established repositories following the FAIR2 guiding principles for scientific data management and stewardship[20].

    Watch a preview of the prototype version below.

Honduras Oceanographic Atlas
  1. Unveiling previously unreported mesophotic and deep-sea ecosystems. Numerous artisanal fishermen across the Honduran Caribbean target fish species associated with mesophotic coral reef ecosystems. Through a collaboration with these fishermen and other stakeholders, a small 300 m rated ROV will be deployed throughout the area between Guanaja Island and mainland Trujillo. A towed video camera system will be deployed during transit routes to identify free-swimming pelagic macrofauna at depths down to 2,500 m. For exploring deeper seafloor sites, the existing backscatter data from the Roatan western peninsula will serve as a guide for identifying soft sediment terrain with potential cold coral ecosystems. Drop-down video cameras will be deployed at these deeper sites. These efforts will build local awareness, and increase capacity for developing and implementing an inclusive and cooperative follow-up plan.

  2. Map of deep-sea ecosystems. Using a combination of bathymetric, backscatter, and observational point datasets, predictive habitat modeling can be applied to map the potential distribution of deep-sea ecosystems throughout the research area. The size of the research area can be scaled to the available resources, as shown in Table 1 and Map 3.

    Table 1. The size of the research area will be scaled to the available resources.

Level

km2

Days of Fieldwork

Available resources

1

∼200

∼20

Existing data for Roatan, a small boat for deploying and recovering drop-down camera systems, dives in RIDE submersible

2

∼2,000

>20

Acquisition of new bathymetric data with large research vessel support for multibeam survey, CTD device, ROV operations at 6,000 m, and telepresence capability

3

∼20,000

>30

4

∼210,000

>40

Map 3. Target areas based on the level of available resources from Table 1.

Broader impacts

Detailed seafloor mapping is required to work toward several goals of local and global relevance, including:

  1. A revised plan for the national network of fisheries replenishment zones. The Plan for a network of replenishment zones [21] developed in 2017 was based on benthic habitat maps [2] derived from optical satellite imagery and therefore considered only maps of shallow (~30 m) areas. The authors stated that it would be desirable to revise priorities for the protection of deep-sea habitats when this information becomes available.

  2. The Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) target known as the 30x30 target, aims to effectively conserve and manage at least 30% of terrestrial and marine areas by 2030. Increased knowledge of the deep-sea assets in Honduras will serve to assess the expansion of the MPA network.

  3. The Nippon Foundation-GEBCO Seabed 2030 project was established to map the entire ocean floor by 2030. Mapping the full extent of the Honduran EEZ in the Caribbean will contribute 0.06% of the global coverage.

  4. Both of the global goals above support the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 14: 'to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.

  5. FAIR data, particularly high-resolution multibeam data will undoubtedly be a strong attraction for expanding cooperative research initiatives and partnerships in the region and beyond.

Banner photo Four crinoids (feather stars) with a squat lobster on top of a sea fan colony with Lophelia pertusa growing. The image is from 400 meters depth in Roatan, Honduras. Credit: NOAA's National Ocean Service (2011)

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