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Gulf of Fonseca Satellite Image, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration 2001

The Gulf of Fonseca (Spanish: Golfo de Fonseca), part of the Pacific Ocean, is a gulf in Central America, bordering El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua.

Physical geography

The Gulf of Fonseca is a shallow depression located on the Pacific side of the Central American isthmus. This area is shared by Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador and covers an area of approximately 3,200 km². The coastline of the Gulf extends for 261 km, of which 185 km are in Honduras, 47 km in Nicaragua, and 29 km in El Salvador. This marine environment is an integral part of the ‘Pacific Central American Coastal Large Marine Ecosystem’ (LME) which extends along the Pacific Coast of Central America, from Cabo Corrientes in Mexico to the vicinity of the equator. The extensive mangrove wetlands of the GOF are one of the most important shrimp nurseries associated with this LME. The climatic conditions in the GOF are influenced by atmospheric phenomenon typical of tropical and subtropical regions, which create two distinct seasons, the rainy and the dry, referred to locally as winter and summer.

The Gulf receives nearly 80% of its total rainfall (1400–1600 mm of rain per annum) during the rainy season from May to November (Honduran Secretariat of Industry and Commerce, 2002: 23). This is particularly important for the formation of seasonal lagoons throughout the south, which are also believed to influence micro-climatic conditions during those periods.

The dry season occurs between December and May and contributes to an annual evaporation rate of 2800 mm. As a result of less water flowing into the GOF, the currents tend to flow inward from the Pacific Ocean, levels of salinity in the estuaries increase, and seasonal drought occurs (CODDEFFAGOLF, 2001: 10). Levels of salinity affect the population of shrimp postlarvae in the estuaries which naturally has influenced the supply of postlarvae for the industry to capture to stock the ponds. Temperatures in the GOF average between 25 and 30 °C; March and April are the warmest months and November and December the coolest. Relative humidity varies between 65 and 86% depending on location. In contrast, the interior of the country is semi-tropical and cooler with an average temperature of 26 °C (Honduran Secretariat of Industry and Commerce, 2002: 14).

The vegetation in the wetland ecosystem is dominated by species of mangroves, leading local people to refer to the areas as manglar . Mangroves are evergreen trees found in inter-tropical latitudes in the inter-tidal zone between land and sea. Mangrove forests are generally located along sheltered coasts, estuaries, and in deltas, and are influenced by tidal regime, differing conditions of salinity, and rainfall regimes; they are also found around islands off-shore (Rollet, 1981: iii). The forests are composed of halophytic trees, shrubs and other plants that grow in the brackish to saline tidal waters found along coastlines (Mitsch, 1986: 231). The defining feature is usually their dense and tangled prop roots that are periodically inundated by the high tide.

Mangrove ecosystems are open systems, linked upstream to the land and downstream to the sea. As a result, mangrove species are able to survive in conditions of variable salinity and nutrient availability. They have developed specialised features that allow them to thrive in conditions in which salinity levels and nutrient availability vary (Ellison and Farnsworth, 2001: 425). In general, mangroves have a high level of tolerance for anaerobic soil conditions and high levels of salinity. As these factors change throughout the southern portion of Honduras, so do the structure, composition, and distribution of the mangrove forests located in the region (Calix Vindel, 1997: 25).

Mangrove ecosystems regulate the movement of nutrients between the upstream catchments and the marine system, making them the key to a complex detritus-based food web linking a vast amount of flora and fauna in the inter-tidal zone. This exchange area is one of the most important marine-based nursery grounds and habitat for a variety of land and sea-based species, a number of which local people are dependent upon to subsist (UNESCO, 1979b: 5).

Latin America is home to 10 of the approximately 70 or so species of mangrove known to exist (Mitsch and Gosselink, 1986: 256). Six species are found in the GOF. Covering 6.7 million of the total 170,000 km² of mangrove forests found worldwide, Latin America has more than a third of the total on earth (UNESCO, 1979a: 1). Nearly 70 per cent of mangrove forests occur on the Atlantic coasts of Brazil, Mexico, Cuba, and Colombia (Calix Vindel, 1997: 17). In Central America, there are approximately 9,000 km² of mangrove forests. According to a study by Sherman and Tang, the GOF contains some 22 per cent of the entire mangrove area of the Pacific coasts of all the states of Central America, with the majority located within the territorial boundaries of Honduras (Sherman and Tang, 1997: 277). In 2001, it was estimated that the entire area around the GOF consisted of 780 km² of mangrove forests with approximately 495 km² located in the southern portion of Honduras. The largest densities of mangrove, 15,000 trees per km², can be found in the Bay of Chismuyo and the Bay of San Lorenzo (CODDEFFAGOLF, 2001: 14).

Of the six species identified in the GOF, Conocarpus erectus is not strictly a species of mangrove but is often found in the transition zone between the mangrove wetlands and the drier uplands (Mitsch, 1986: 240). The mangrove ecosystems of Latin America, as elsewhere, are characterised by zonation that reflects elevation above sea level, with sometimes a succession of species as elevation increases following sediment accretion; species of mangrove are dominant in different zones.

In the GOF, red mangrove is the most common species, occupying mostly the areas permanently inundated by the tides towards the exterior border of the mangrove ecosystem nearest the sea. Black mangrove is the second most pervasive species and is generally found around the rivers where sediments are deposited along the shoreline. White mangrove is the third most dominant, followed by botoncillo; both are generally found further inland and are inundated by the tide less frequently. The dominance of different species over others correlates with the frequency of inundations, water quality, and levels of salinity (Sanchez, 1999: 13).

The inundations and the discharges from the rivers are important in providing a constant source of nutrients and organic material that support not only the survival of the mangroves but also the large number of marine species dependent upon them for survival (Barnes and Hughes, 1999: 79). The cycle of tides is 2.3m on average per day in the GOF, causing the inundations to play an important role by creating a bi-functional system. During the low tides the soils are inhabited by crabs, conch, and other species that aerate the soil. In southern coastal communities 16.5 per cent (60/364 responses) of the respondents to the household questionnaire stated that they gather crustaceans and molluscs and use them for sustenance. 71.7% of the 16.5%, or a little less than 12% (43/364 responses) of the respondents collect various species within the mangrove forests or in the estuaries. The majority of those who collect walk to various locations a few times per week and in less than half an hour (Wilburn, Socioeconomic Data: 2005). During the high tide the mangrove forests serve as a feeding ground and habitat for fish, shrimp, and other species. The root structure of mangroves provides a natural source of refuge for these species from larger predators aquatic and non-aquatic (such as birds) (CODDEFFAGOLF, 2001: 14).

Mangrove ecosystems are connected to the life cycle of numerous tropical fish species, making them an important link to the rest of the marine ecosystem (Nations and Leonard, 1986: 83). Mangroves also serve as an important breeding ground for fish, molluscs, and crustaceans, and are home to various species of fungi, bacteria, and protozoa that play roles in the overall functioning of the system (Barnes and Hughes, 1999: 79). The latter organisms play an important role, in conjunction with other crustaceans and molluscs, in the nutrient cycle through the decomposition of organic material, normally detritus – fallen leaves, branches, flowers, and fruits – produced by the mangrove forests, converting the cellulose into protein which offers an abundant source of nutrients that serves as the base of the rest of the marine food web (Ellison and Farnsworth, 2001: 428). Additionally, mangrove forests trap nutrients and sediments that stabilise the coastline, and act as both a natural water filter and barrier between the sea and land, which can reduce the impact of tropical storms or hurricanes on the coastal lowlands and the communities that lie near the sea.

Contested Representations of Mangrove Forests in the Gulf of Fonseca Although I indicated that in 2001 there was an estimated 780 km² of mangrove forests around the entire GOF, with approximately 495 km² in southern Honduras, the precise area occupied by mangrove forests in the region is highly contested and has been a central issue in the conflicts surrounding them. First and foremost, contestation can be attributed to conflicts between social actors who want to represent deforestation in specific ways (see Appendix III ‘Examples of Various Representations of Mangrove Cover’). For CODDEFFAGOLF, the more deforestation illustrated and attributed to shrimp farming, the more the organisation can substantiate one of its claims that the shrimp industry is the cause of it. Analysis of the open-ended interviews conducted throughout the Central American region revealed that mangrove loss due to shrimp farming had become the dominant explanation for the conflicts between CODDEFFAGOLF and ANDAH. However, over 65 per cent of locals use mangrove forests for a variety of purposes that must also be taken into consideration when studies are conducted:

• Fuel-wood • Salt production • Shrimp farming • Construction materials • Cleared for pastureland • Fishing and gathering crustaceans and molluscs

The debates pertaining to mangrove loss are often situated around contested definitions of what ‘mangrove forests’ ought to be considered as a priori to a study. The particular method used when analysing satellite images or aerial photographs can also be a factor in various depictions of mangrove cover and, therefore, variations in representations of coverage. In other words, the methods used to study mangrove deforestation and, therefore, the results are contested and a source of conflict.

In some studies, mangrove forests may denote the entire wetlands; including the salt flats where dwarf mangroves grow. However, dwarf mangroves are sometimes not considered to be a part of the mangrove forests since they grow on the salt flats, are small, and non-existent in some locations. In some studies these are considered to be distinct from mangrove forests, but a part of the wetlands; however, salt flats are sometimes considered part of the mangrove forests since dwarf mangrove can be found in these areas. The point is to illuminate that competing definitions can affect the outcomes of studies in regard to mangrove cover and that the nuances matter for those conducting research in relation to mangrove deforestation.

Studies that rely on satellite imagery or aerial photography are unable to take into consideration local use of mangrove wood for fuel and construction because often they cannot see where the wood has been extracted. For several reasons, therefore, these types of studies are often unable to assess dispersed and sporadic local extraction. Local people do not generally clear cut mangrove forests for subsistence use. They use small amounts on a routine basis collected from varied locations. To depict how much mangrove wood locals actually use requires conducting a study that bridges both satellite and aerial imagery with agreed-upon parameters that one can ground truth through local research.

Consequently, understanding mangrove loss requires studies that take into consideration more than aerial satellite or photographic images to understand what is happening on the ground. Furthermore, mangrove conservation or restoration requires local-level research that analyses how much wood locals cut by measuring weight, length, volume (dry and wet) as well as where they extract it and what species they extract. Research of this nature would assist with developing a better understanding of local impacts on mangrove forests.


Fonseca Bay was discovered in 1522 by Gil Gonzalez de Avila, and named by him after his patron, Archbishop Juan Fonseca, the implacable enemy of Columbus.

In 1849, E. G. Squier negotiated a treaty for the United States to build a canal across Honduras from the Caribbean Sea to the Gulf. Frederick Chatfield, the British commander in Central America, was afraid that American presence in Honduras would destabilize the British Mosquito Coast, and sent his fleet to occupy El Tigre Island at the entrance to the Gulf. Shortly thereafter, however, Squier demanded the British leave, since he had anticipated the occupation and negotiated the island's temporary cession to the United States. Chatfield could only comply.

All three countries—Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua—with coastline along the gulf have been involved in a lengthly dispute over the rights to the Gulf and the islands located within. In 1992, a chamber of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) decided the Land, Island and Maritime Frontier Dispute, of which the Gulf dispute was a part. The ICJ determined that El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua were to share control of the Gulf of Fonseca. El Salvador was awarded the islands of Meanguera and Meanguerita, and Honduras was awarded the El Tigre Island.




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