On the Caribbean side of Guatemala, the Rio Dulce (“sweet river”) leads into one of the largest lakes in the Americas, taking up 589 square kilometers (227 square miles). Fishing and agriculture are the area’s major commercial activities.
Fisheries biologists working with the Rotary Club of Ermita, Pana Divers, Hotel Bahia, Guatemala’s Agriculture Ministry, and local fisheries organizations have undertaken an artificial fish habitat program in the lake. The result of this cooperation has been to increase underwater habitats by sinking concrete balls offshore.
“What we did in February 2010, for the first time in fresh water, was to sink 62 concrete balls,” said Rodolfo Estrada-Nicol, president of the Ermita Rotary.
“The project was undertaken with only donations. It was so successful, underwater videos only two months later show fish as well as increased grasses in the area. The grasses grew so well underwater that manatees come down from the river to eat.”
While Lake Izabal is calm in the morning, afternoon winds pick up with waves that bring surge near shore. The concrete fish habitats protect shallow sea grasses.
Children from local schools were swimming and playing in the water off the Hotel Bahia dock. Local organizations sponsored an educational program to teach young people how to fish and the importance of fishing correctly to conserve fish stocks in the lake.
“We are trying to get fishermen to use nets that have larger holes so they do not take the small fish,” Manuel Cifuentes of Guatemala’s Agriculture Ministry said. “Our goal is to educate them to conserve fisheries for the future.”
The vision of dedicated people, with the initiatives of the Rotary Club of Ermita, has, in a short time, made a difference in the lives of local people. Sunk in about 4.5 meters (14.8 feet) of water, the permanent concrete balls, with large holes around them, are host to an important food fish, Vieja maculicauda. The freshwater Mojarra luminosa is another important food fish attracted to the habitats.
Juvenile and adult fish were darting in and out of the reef balls. Visibly pregnant fish sheltered inside them. Freshwater grasses grew within the protection of the structures shoreward.
Conservation of fish stocks through responsible fishing as well as increasing habitats for fish to reproduce, shelter, and congregate has given incentive for sound harvesting. The concrete balls have increased the catch and thus are of direct economic benefit to fishermen, their families and villages. Artificial fish habitats are providing successful and sustainable development for Guatemala’s freshwater fisheries.
The program has been so successful that 100 more concrete balls are being constructed and will be sunk in the lake about 40 meters (131 feet) from shore at a depth of 4.5 meters. Fisheries experts predict that the artificial habitats will provide 1,500 tons of fish each year to local fishermen.
Dr. John Christopher Fine is the author of 24 books on a variety of subjects. His articles and photography appear in major magazines and newspapers in the United States and Europe.
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