Earthshots: Satellite Images of Environmental Change

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» Gulf of Fonseca, Honduras and Nicaragua

Honduras is one of Latin America’s top producers of cultured shrimp. Since the 1980s, vast areas of land have been converted to shrimp farms around the Gulf of Fonseca along the Honduras-Nicaragua border. But there are concerns about the environmental impact of this industry on the gulf’s wetlands.

Map of the featured area.

The area around the Gulf of Fonseca is ideal for shrimp farming. Shrimp thrive in the warm temperatures, and extensive salt flats provide the space needed for the shrimp farms. The farms are actually holding ponds, which appear as rows of rectangles in these Landsat images. The ponds are stocked with either wild shrimp (shrimp fry) brought in from the gulf or shrimp raised in a hatchery.

The vivid colors in the images reveal the varying land covers and what’s in the holding ponds. Green represents vegetation—the bright green along the coast and along waterways indicates the salt-tolerant mangrove forests.

Water absorbs light, so it appears dark in these images. When active and filled, the ponds appear dark. When drained, the ponds are pink. Pink and bright white also indicate the locations of salt flats in the 1976 image.

Throughout the 1980s, the Honduran government provided tax incentives to stimulate the industry and make shrimp farming profitable. This policy, along with water quality degradation, led to conflicts between the shrimp farmers and fishers. Initially, shrimp farms may have displaced some fishers. Regulation of the industry helped alleviate conflicts: agreements controlled growth of the shrimp farm industry and established protected areas.

In the 1990s, expansion of the shrimp industry slowed and measures were implemented to make the industry more sustainable. Wildlife refuges were declared in many of the remaining mangrove areas. These sites help to protect the wildlife, biodiversity, and water quality of the region.

The environmental implications of the shrimp farm expansion are potentially far-reaching.

  • Fish meal fed to the shrimp can contaminate the environment
  • Antibiotics used on the shrimp are associated with human health problems
  • Misuse of antibiotics and other chemicals can affect groundwater quality
  • Mangrove forests are lost


The loss of the mangrove forests leads to further problems.

  • Increased risk of inland flooding
  • Degraded water quality can reduce catches by off-shore commercial fishers
  • A carbon sink area can become a carbon source

In the lower right corner of the main images, you can see Nicaragua’s San Cristóbal volcano, which shows some activity in two of the images. Ash can be seen in the 1987 and 2000 images thinly streaming from the summit. San Cristóbal is Nicaragua’s highest volcano—its summit is 1,745 meters above sea level. Small to moderate eruptions have been reported since the 16th century.

You might also notice in the 2000 image another active volcano. Telica is southeast of San Cristóbal. The ash streaming from its peak is evidence of its recent activity.


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