Hol Chan Carrying Capacity Study results

    November, 2002- In response to the negative impacts of tourism on marine life, Hol Chan Marine Reserve has conducted a Carrying Capacity Study, with the help of Green Reef Environmental Institute and the World Wildlife Fund Mesoamerican Project. The purpose of the project was to study tourist visitation in the reserve and implement adaptive management strategies to address and mitigate these impacts in order to conserve our marine natural resources.

    Central to this sustainability is the concept of "tourism carrying capacity" - an approach to tourism management whereby levels of visitor activity or development in a destination must be maintained within acceptable limits.

    Visitor Impact Management is a comprehensive approach that attempts to understand the nature of certain impacts and the factors related to their occurrence. It helps to identify the factors leading to unacceptable tourism impacts, and assists with the selection of potential strategies to deal with them.

    The study involved the following: Snorkeler Survey - actually following groups and recording behavior/impacts; a Visitor Questionnaire to find out what guides are telling the tourists and how they report their group's behavior; Database creation - compiling all the collected data, so management can continue to build upon the findings; and the Formulation of Recommendations - adaptive management to address identified impacts and problems.

    Hol Chan Marine Reserve receives approximately 50,000 visitors per year (including night divers). The study revealed that limiting numbers would be difficult and not the most effective solution. It also revealed that behavior modification and education were the most important factors in decreasing the impacts of tourism.

    The Carrying Capacity Study involved soliciting answers to the following questions: 1. How well were visitors informed of park rules? 2. How well did visitors and guides follow park rules? 3. Which park areas did tourists visit? 4. Did park rule compliance vary between park areas? 5. Which guides followed or failed to follow park rules? 6. What was the relationship between guide instructions and snorkeler contacts?

    One Visitor Survey Analysis asked: Were the park fees too little, adequate or too much? This survey revealed: 23% too little, 72% adequate, 5% too much. Another inquired: Did you urinate in the water? It was discovered that an astonishing 65% admitted to urinating in the water!

    A total of 172 Hol Chan visitors were asked the following: 1. Did the guide mention you were in a marine reserve? 2. Did the guide tell you not to remove anything? 3. Did the guide tell you not to touch corals? 4. Did the guide tell you not to stand on corals? 5. Did the guide tell you not to kick coral with fins? 6. Did the guide tell you to be careful where you stood? 7. Did the guide tell you not to stir up sediments? 8. Did the guide tell you not to touch the fish?

    The results of the survey showed that San Pedro and Caye Caulker tour guides were better at informing visitors of park rules than cruise ship tour guides, and that San Pedro tour guides were better than Caye Caulker tour guides at informing visitors not to stir sediments. It also revealed that Hol Chan tour guides better inform their visitors today, than they did 10 years ago.

     Further discovered was that visitors from San Pedro and Caye Caulker visited both the Hol Chan Cut and Shark Ray Alley, while visitors from cruise ships only visited Shark Ray Alley. Visitors did not alter their adherence to park rules between Shark Ray Alley and "the cut." Surprisingly, though, about 25% of guides failed to follow all of the park rules.

    In summary, it was found that the relationship between guide instructions and rule violations was mixed, but generally indicated that guides may need to better ensure they are telling visitors not to stir sediments or fin-brush corals and that they are complying with these guidelines.

    A follow-up meeting was held to discuss these findings with tour guides and tour operators last Thursday at the Hol Chan Visitor's Center. Below are the potential recommendations. Persons with questions and/or comments may contact the Hol Chan Office by calling 226-2247, or by e-mail at hcmr@btl.net

Hol Chan Management agrees to:

General Measures

*Rangers will provide information (printed and spoken) about park to boats that are not regular visitors to the reserve or those with identified problems of not informing tourists (including Cruise Ship boats).

*Provide annual training for guides (including Caye Caulker and Cruise Ship guides) about park, stressing the importance of not stirring sediments and kicking corals.

*In order to obtain annual Hol Chan vessel registration, boat owners must show that their guides have completed the Hol Chan guide course.

*Hol Chan will help monitor that all tour guides are duly certified (after getting a request for such assistance and training from the BTB).

*Print stickers for boats and dive shops on "reef etiquette".

*Provide dive shops, hotels and cruise ships with park brochures and "reef etiquette" flyers.

Management interventions at the Hol Chan Cut:

*Have better (more consistent) ticket collection and provide information about speed and direction of the current.

*Rangers will spend more time focusing on environmental impacts (assuming more guides agree to buy tickets in advance).

*Require that all guides provide a life ring in the water to help avoid tourists standing up or stirring sediments while talking or clearing mask, etc.

*Install special buoys to mark a no-wake zone west of the mooring buoys.

*Install more mooring buoys on the fore reef (with guides' assistance).

Management interventions at Shark-Ray Alley

*Install mooring buoys at Shark Ray.

*Consider switching boats and engines (to smaller ones and 4-stroke) to maximize fuel efficiency and allow a second patrol boat for Shark-Ray Alley.

*Write a letter to the Government of Belize requesting duty-free fuel be re-instated for the Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).

*Consider limiting the number of people visiting at one time (particularly from cruise ships).

*Enforce the Belize Tourism Board (BTB) rule of 10 visitors per guide (after arrangements with BTB).

*Request that cruise ships have a marine conservation educator go aboard to inform guests about marine conservation before departure for trips.

*Assist Caye Caulker Marine Reserve in attracting some of the cruise passengers.

*Publicize the schedule of all cruise ship visitations to the reserve.

Tour Guides agree to:

*Have one park ticket for Hol Chan - no longer offer separate ones by zone (100% agreement).

*Dive shops and hotels will make every effort to purchase tickets in bulk. (Hol Chan office will also sell them and economic incentives may be offered.)

*Guides will suggest to tourists that they buy their ticket in advance from a dive shop or hotel, etc. (This is the only way to ensure rangers can educate and enforce rules to protect environment and not make change all day).

*Register in advance and purchase a ticket for night diving (unless a tourist already has a Hol Chan ticket from that same day).

*Attempt to alter timing of trips to avoid 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. rush hours.

*Provide all visitors a full briefing on "reef etiquette" stressing they not stir up sediments or kick corals.

*Monitor guests closely in the water and provide tips on improving skills.

*Carry a life ring on all snorkel trips and use for discussions with visitors while in water.

*Teach good snorkeling techniques to novices by the boats on northern moorings.

*Limit number of visitors (or boats) to only two boats per buoy. (Switch order of trips to Hol Chan Cut and Shark-Ray Alley to accommodate this.)

*Work together to find and promote alternate areas for check-out dives and night dives.

     Additional management interventions included promoting visitation to other MPAs such as Bacalar Chico National Park and Marine Reserve and Caye Caulker Marine Reserve. Also mentioned was the creation of a Mexico Rocks MPA or Community Management Area. It was suggested to test the application of voluntary community-based management and that Green Reef could assist.

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