Will Politics continue to destroy Belize’s fisheries?

Friday, 17 September 2004

The continued use of shrimp trawlers in Belize has had a further devastating effect on the country’s fisheries and their surrounding en-vironment. Continued use of trawlers in coastal waters will leave Belizean waters barren of commercial sea life.

The heavy chains that the trawlers drag behind them cover a wide area of the ocean floor. As the chain is pulled across the floor it plows the bottom and destroys any coral in its path. It also destroys the fisheries spawning and nursery grounds. In addition the chain causes clouds of sediment to rise in the water and settle on the coral reefs, causing the coral to die.
Dr. Silvia Earle, Chief Scientist for the Oceanic Atmosphere Adminis-tration (NOAA) concluded:

“Trawling is like bulldozing a forest to catch songbirds! Environ-mental Justice Foundation’s report “Squandering the Seas” says this: “Shrimp trawling is one of the most wasteful, destructive and inequitable ways to exploit the oceans.”

The above opinions in respect to the terrible destruction caused by shrimp trawlers are the result of scientific study. The opinions are not political rhetoric from some Minister, designed to mislead the public.

Trawling has been outlawed in many countries. However, where trawling is allowed, it is limited to waters that are more then 60 meters deep. Except in Belize, trawling is never allowed in shallow waters.

The reason that trawling is prohibited in shallow waters is that shallow waters are the nursery grounds for juvenile fish. When trawling is done in such shallow waters as Belize’s coastal areas, the juvenile fish end up as the trawler by-catch and are dumped back in the water dead or dying.

When juvenile fish are killed off, there will be none left to grow up and make baby fish. The species will quickly become extinct.

By-catch is the unwanted marine life which is brought up in the net along with the shrimp. By-catch can consist of fish or other species such as lobsters and conch. The ratio of by-catch to commercial fish and crustaceans can be from anywhere from 7 to 1 to 15 to1. That means that if the trawler net brings up 100 pounds of shrimp, at the same time it will also bring up, as by-catch, 1500 pounds of marine life such as baby fish, lobster and conch which are dumped back into the sea. Eventually there will be no worthwhile marine life left to sustain the people of Belize!

Studies have been done to determine how much fish is left in Belizean waters. The results are dismal! There is probably not even 10% of the quantity of fish that were in Belizean waters at the time the shrimp trawlers were introduced to Belize.

The history of trawlers is sordid business indeed! That is why they are outlawed in most countries and severely limited in others. The end result in the other countries has always been that they were a scourge that brought about the destruction of the country’s fisheries industry.

The trawlers now in Belize used to operate in Honduras. They destroyed the fisheries in Honduras to a point where the country’s waters were virtually barren of commercial marine life. The trawlers were then deployed in Nicaragua, where they operated until the Sandinistas took over.

When the Sandinistas took over Nicaragua, they refused to allow trawlers to further damage Nicaragua’s marine life and ordered them out of their waters.

The trawlers could not return to Honduran waters where they had operated to make the fishing grounds barren, because there was little or nothing for them to catch. Belize unwisely allowed them in. The trawlers are now destroying Belizean fishing grounds in the same manner as they destroyed Honduran fishing grounds.

After the damage that the trawlers were doing to Belize’s fisheries became apparent, the Cooperatives called a meeting. They sought to limit trawling in Belizean waters. The Northern Cooperative would have no part of any plan to limit trawling. They left the meeting and went out and purchased not one, but two trawlers. Then named the destructive beasts Northern 1 and Northern 2.

As a result of Northern Fisherman’s operations and refusal to limit trawling, the other cooperatives have also employed trawlers. Their position has also been that they would give up shrimp trawling if the Northern Fisherman’s Cooperative would.

The vote by fishermen to outlaw trawling has been virtually unanimous. They are all aware of the damage that has been done to Belize’s fisheries and the destruction of their future livelihood. They are aware that if trawling is not outlawed soon, many more of them will be unable to support their family through fishing and there will be nothing for their children.

Though the best interest of Belize would be served by outlawing trawling, the Northern Fisherman’s Cooperative is opposed to banning them.

The reason why Northern Fishermen Cooperative has prevailed and trawling continues, is that this Cooperative wields great political power. From where the political power originates will not be explored at this time.

Northern Fisher-rman’s Cooperative has not always adhered to the rules and the law. This co-op appears to have immunity from the law. Under the rules set out, cooperatives are to be spaced at least 25 miles apart. But this rule has meant nothing to Northern Fisherman’s Cooperative. Over the objections of others, they built a second facility. The facility was illegally built in the Mango Creek area, within four nautical miles of the existing Placencia Cooperative.
The Mango Creek facility provided a way for the Northern Fisher-man’s Coop to buy fish, lobster and conch from the Honduran and Guatemalan commercial fishermen who fish in southern waters. Northern Fisherman’s Cooperative has been a major player in the destruction of Belize’s conch industry. The Northern has become Belize’s largest buyer of undersize conch.

During October of 2002 Northern Fisherman’s Cooperative was caught with 4,000 pounds of undersize juvenile conch. The arresting officer was Errol Diaz. The case was dismissed on the motion of the Attorney General. The grounds for dismissal were: lack of evidence and a claim that the wrong person had signed the charge sheet.

How difficult would it have been to have the right person sign the charge sheet? There would have been an abundance of employees, past and present, who could testify to the fact that Northern Fisherman’s Cooperative has been purchasing and handling great quantities of undersize conch.

When the finger was pointed at the Northern for buying and handling undersize conch, the Cooperative devised a new way to break the law. They used a slicer to slice up the undersize conch so that their actual size could not be determined!

There is a small, unnamed Belizean caye that is, and has been, occupied by Honduran conch divers for years. There is a large barrier wall ranging from 8 ft. wide to 3ft high built around the caye from tons of conch shells. Seventy percent (70%) of the shells, numbering up to one hundred thousand (100,000) are shells of undersize juvenile conch that were caught and killed when they were still too young to reproduce.

The divers admit they are Honduran, their boat and supplies are from Honduras and the boats do not show a name or license number as is required for Belizean fishing boats. However, they have Belizean fishing licenses that should only be issued to Belizeans.

There can be no doubt that conch fishing is on the way out. Recent diving transits inside the reef have been conducted. The parallel transits were each 5 to 7 kilometers long and 5 meters wide. The results indicate that conch found averaged one conch for each kilometer surveyed

The one mile protected area around the Silk Cayes has been surveyed. Conchs are virtually non-existent now in this once pristine area. All that remains is a sea bed strewn with empty broken conch shells, many of them juveniles.

Local fishermen contend that fishermen from Sarteneja laid waste the area taking the juvenile conchs along with the developed ones. Properly managed over the years, the conch diving could have provided Belize with a billion dollar industry. Greed and politics have destroyed the industry. The same greed and politics will soon destroy what little is left of Belize’s fisheries and leave Belizean waters barren.

The fisheries of Belize belongs to the people of Belize and not to the Cooperatives. Greed and political power should no longer be used to deprive the people of Belize of that which is rightfully theirs. The people of Belize are fine people who deserve better.