Expect the Unexpected!
Ian Drysdale

Ian Drysdale

The Healthy Reefs for Healthy People Initiative encourages dialogue and collaboration to strengthen efforts to protect the Mesoamerican Reef. Ian Drysdale is the Honduras Coordinator of the Healthy Reefs for Healthy People Initiative, responsible for data collection and training, as well as partner relations, media and outreach efforts in Honduras. In this interview, Ian talks about the huge success of the initiative and provides an insight as to how you can ‘do your bit’ to help the reefs as well as offering some sound advice for anyone wanted to pursue a career in marine conservation.


What is the Healthy Reefs for Healthy People Initiative?

The healthy reefs initiative brings together 74 partner organisations in the four countries that share the Mesoamerican reef: Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras. Every two years we publish a scientifically sound report card on the health of the reef. We also include recommendations from our partners to improve the management of a shared resource.

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How did you get involved with The Healthy Reefs for Healthy People Initiative and what is your current role within the initiative?

I got involved with the initiative in 2009, right after the first publication of the report card in 2008. I was already doing some reef conservation work here in Roatan. My wife and I were founders of the Roatan Marine Park, a local NGO that manages part of the marine reserve in Roatan. We had been involved in conservation for about 9 years by then. The Director at Healthy Reefs, Melanie McField, heard about me and reached out and that’s how I got hired as the Honduras coordinator for the Healthy reefs initiative. 



What impact has The Healthy Reefs for Healthy People Initiative had on local reefs and local communities?

Healthy reefs has been a key player in declaring Cordelia banks a site of wildlife importance. Cordelia banks is an area of around 7 hectares on the south side of Roatan which boasts the highest live coral cover we have seen in the Mesoamerican reefs. The standard for live coral cover in the Mesoamerican reef is around 19%. Cordelia banks boasts 70% live coral cover, which is mind blowing.

During the healthy reefs initiative, we monitor the health of the reef across different sites in the four countries. When we discovered this high coral cover we began moving the wheels to the government to get this area declared at a higher level. Back then, it was a multiple use area. Through our contacts and moving forward, it is now a site of wildlife importance, allowing us to manage fisheries and access to the area.  So the site is now better protected. The same thing happened at Tela, which is a site on the North coast of Honduras, where we found the second highest live coral cover (69%) at a site called ‘Banco Capiro’. Again, through our contacts and our efforts, the site has now been declared as the ‘Marine wildlife refuge, Tela Bay’.

^ Banco Capiro (Left) and Cordelia Banks (Right)

What are the highlights and lowlights of your career so far?

To be able to network with like minded individuals in four countries is definitely a highlight. The Healthy reef initiative has been so effective in what it set out to achieve The rest of the Caribbean is now looking to emulate our report cards and how we bring together four countries that share a resource. The Bahamas has already copied our report card. I’ve been invited to Colombia to talk with a group there who want to replicate the report card. We have also been invited to meet with the Prince of Monaco to talk about how reef conservation is done at an international level bringing four countries together. And I get paid to go diving, which is a huge perk!

In terms of lowlights, it is difficult having to deal with short minded decision makers. It’s very difficult when you have a mayor or a congressman who is only in power for four years and is looking towards benefiting the interests of the constituency i.e. those with an economic power. Bringing the conservation message to politicians has therefore been very complicated. I wouldn’t say it’s impossible because we have achieved some milestones and successes. But the conservation message is not a four year message; it’s a long term commitment.

A second hurdle is convincing people of the importance of treating waste water in sewage. It’s very ‘flush and forget’ at the moment. Where I live, areas that have reef surrounding the island, who have to make sure that nutrient load does not go onto the reef. Bringing that to the table has been complicated. Sewage and sanitation is not a ‘sexy’ conservation theme. People don’t like to be involved in it and that is really complicated. My role on one of the water boards on the island where I live has been a key aspect of bringing sanitation to the forefront. I am happy to say that 83% of the community is now connected to the waste water treatment plant, compared to 6% when we first started.


How can people help out and get involved in reef conservation?

The first step is learning to dive. People don’t love what they don’t know. You have to fall in love with the reef, with the turtles, with the little critters you can barely see when you first start diving but learn to notice over time. Your eyes become opened up to the intricate relationships on the reef, between a coral, a sponge, a soft coral, an algae, and to be surrounded by such beauty.

We are in the age of information technology. We are all connected through social media and we have the world at our fingertips. So get informed, learn about how your daily actions will have an impact on the health on the reef, then that will impact your life as well. Before you travel, find out if where you are staying uses single use plastic, if they have a waste water treatment plant. Research what insect repellent and sunscreen will damage the reef. It’s worth spending a little extra money on products that are reef and eco-friendly.



What advice would you give to someone looking to pursue a career in reef ecology and conservation?

Do a lot of volunteering. That would be my first suggestion. Volunteer at different places. When you get out of school, you don’t really know what you want to do; you don’t have your mind set. You see it in the media and one TV, marine biologists diving with a ‘Look at me I’m with the fish’ appearance. But it’s not that easy.

Marine conservation means convincing people of the importance of protecting a shared resource. You get the tragedy of the commons. The fish belong to everybody, but nobody wants to protect them and everybody wants to fish them and benefit from them and in the end they belong to no one. When I first got involved in marine conservation, I wanted to work with marine turtles because of how appealing they are. But then I got involved in coral reef health monitoring and I loved that. But just knowing that the reef is dying is just half the story; you have to propose solutions to it.

So find out what it means to do marine biology and conservation. It’s not straight forward and simple, there many factors you have to consider. I never thought I would be talking to politicians, I never thought I would be lobbying for the creation of Marine Protected Areas when I was at university. I never thought I would be convincing people to connect to a waste water treatment plant. I knew that I wanted to do something related to coral reefs, but I didn’t know I would create an MPA, that was never on my radar.

I wanted to dive and look at turtles. But it’s so much more than that, and as you mature you realise that if you’re not playing a political game, or a conservation game that involves everybody, you aren’t going to achieve your goals. Marine conservation is multi facultative. So keep an open mind and volunteer in lots of different places!

Rachel Louise Gunn