Blue Sky, Clear Waters – Managing Pollution in the Caribbean Sea

Published Date: 4 May 2009

© IAEA Puerto Cortes is Honduras' main "seaport" to the Caribbean. It is also one of Central America's most important seaports, visited regularly by commercial and leisure ships, tankers and other sorts of naval traffic. The Caribbean Office of the United Nation's Environment Programme (UNEP) has reported higher levels of pollution in several areas in the Caribbean region, including Puerto Cortes in Honduras. In 2007, the IAEA launched a regional project on the use of nuclear techniques to address coastal management issues in the Caribbean. Twelve countries are participating: Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, and Venezuela. Spain, as well as the IAEA Marine Environment Laboratories in Monaco (IAEA-MEL), provide scientific and programmatic support. With field sampling conducted for two weeks in February 2009, Honduras became the 9th Caribbean country to provide core sediment samples for analysis under the project. Remaining field collection missions to Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Panama are planned next. Scientists from the IAEA Marine Environment Laboratories in Monaco (IAEA-MEL), provide scientific and programmatic support to the Caribbean project, by training counterparts in the use of nuclear techniques to analyse samples taken from the field. Like other regional experts involved in the project, Miguel Gomez Batista from Cuba received laboratory training at IAEA-MEL in Monaco. For the core sampling fieldwork in Honduras, a team of scientists from the country's Center for the Study and Control of Pollutants (CESCCO) was guided by regional expert Miguel Gomez Batista from Cuba on proper procedures for collecting surface and sediment samples. The Honduran navy provided tactical and logistical support to the CESCCO team during the exercise. In Honduras, as well as in other Caribbean nations, cooperation among government agencies was a key factor in many of the successful missions conducted thus far. Plotting the precise locations of sampling zones first had to be done before sampling can begin. Working under the principle that 'Quality of results is no better than quality of samples collected', the team had to make sure the mission was conducted according to plans. The team discuss the day's strategy under the watchful attention of the naval boat's captain. Members of the team listen to instructions on how to properly deploy a surface sediment sampling instrument. Surface sediment samples are immediately packed and labelled for easy referencing. These samples will be additionally processed and prepared at the CESCCO laboratory in Pedro Sula before being shipped to the laboratories for analysis. The sampling work involved criss-crossing the waters of Puerto Cortes to take samples at pre-selected zones. Corers are used to extract vertical cylinders of sediments from the seabed. Weighed by two bands of metal at one end, corers can weigh over 40 kilos with a full load of water and sediments, and need a strong team to be pulled up when other mechanical means are not available. Scientists first check that the quantity and quality of the samples gathered are adequate for laboratory testing - should the sediments present disturbances they are returned and the process begins anew. Once the sediment samples are determined to be of good quality, the process of removing the corer from the plastic cylinder begins. Teamwork is key in the collection of core sediment samples; it is a process that needs many helping hands performing different tasks. The entire field team - from scientists to sailors - pose with the core sediments samples at the end of a hard day's work. The Honduran naval boat returns to port at the end of a full day of work collecting sediment samples along the costs of Puerto Cortes, Honduras. At the CESCCO laboratory is San Pedro Sula, Miguel Gomez Batista demonstrates how best to slice the sediment samples from the vertical core. Preparing the samples for analysis is a complex process that requires varied tasks. Here, Dr. Dennys Canales-Cruz, Honduran project team leader, carefully removes a slice of the sediment sample from the vertical core. Dr. Karhen Rodriguez-Waleska, head of CESCCO Laboratory in San Pedro Sula, then weighs the sediment samples. Other members of the team then label and tag the sediment sample according to colour, texture, smell, etc. The samples will later be dried, at controlled temperature, in an oven before being shipped to participating laboratories that will analyze them for various parameters. The samples are measured and analyzed for certain elements important for the project like lead-210, caesium-137, heavy metals, organics, pesticides, which are the types of pollutants commonly found along coastal regions. By providing substantial equipment donation to laboratories in the participating Caribbean countries, the IAEA has helped improve the technical and analytical capability in the region on the use of nuclear techniques for coastal pollution studies. The Caribbean coastal pollution project, also known as RLA/7/012, has built up a network of talented individuals, institutions and laboratories across the region which are actively sharing information, resources and capabilities. "It is actually a network that is already working, according to Dr. Joan Albert Sanchez from IAEA-MEL. About 15-16 laboratories are continuously collaborating with each other, sending samples meeting and with one another. It is actually a very successful project, he said." "The results of the project will be important to decision-makers in the region, says Dr. Jane-Gerardo Abaya, who manages the RLA/7/012 project at the Latin American Division of the IAEA Department of Technical Cooperation. That is why we need to reach out to them through existing regional channels. Unless these groups know about the project results, know about the situation and know about the capabilities in the region through this project, the impact will not be reached, she said."