The fishing industry in Belize continues to evolve, and much attention is given to the fishers and the management of fisheries resources.

However, the interests of local consumers and their access to safe, healthy seafood seem to be overlooked. An ongoing study of Belize City seafood consumers asked consumers about seafood availability at the local market. Survey work conducted between June and August of 2009 in Belize City sampled seafood consumers at various income levels, and one key finding suggests that the quality of seafood available at the market has gone down over the last two decades.

This article briefly looks at the recent industry trends and discusses some of the experiences of Belize City seafood consumers

A rough estimate of wild caught marine fish landed in Belize is about 1.3 million pounds annually. This does not include lobster and conch.

According to FAO, Belize has seen a drastic decline in marine fish exports from 52,539 metric tons in 2002 to 1211 tons in 2005. The local cooperatives currently retain 5% of their production for the local market, but it is generally accepted that Belize City households do not purchase their seafood from the cooperatives. The most frequented open fish market in Belize City is the Vernon Street market, and fishers continue to sell at Barrack Road and in the Yabra area. There are also individual vendors who sell at their homes.

So are Belize City customers getting the quality they desire?

In Belize, quality refers to the preferred fish by Belizean customers, red snapper (Lutjanus analis), otherwise known as mutton snapper. Other species enjoyed are several grouper species, and some customers have developed a taste for other species such as barracuda, king fish, and mackerel among others.

Yellow-eye red snapper is also now sought, and this is a species that is fished outside the reef in waters deeper than 200 feet or more. Reports are, though, that some fishers have begun harvesting parrot fish, a fish that is not normally desired by Belize City consumers and rarely seen in the Belize City markets up to now.

Nowadays, fishers who sell at the Belize City markets will bring in their catch and sell over a two- to four-day period, and some fishers will sell their remaining catch to nearby vendors or other buyers. One vendor indicated that the number of vendors have doubled over the last ten years.

One explanation was that some consumers want the benefit of picking up their fish at their convenience and, in effect, the vendors are improving access to seafood and providing a service to Belize City consumers. This leads us to the next criteria for quality for the Belize City customers, freshness.

One mother pointed out “…sometimes the fish was still alive when I buy it, fresh, fresh.” This referred to fish bought at the market at the Swing Bridge Market during the 60’s and 70’s. This reference to historical quality is not found in the local markets today.

So while the cooperatives provide seafood for local consumers, city consumers indicated that the local markets are the only places that come close to the freshness the consumers prefer. It must be explained that before the advent of icebox and freezers, seafood was brought to the city in live wells. A local restaurant has provided live fish for those that can afford it, but this is uncommon.

So Belize City consumers may not be getting the same freshness as two or three decades ago, but fish on ice a day to three days seems to be acceptable. A vendor on the Northern Highway has been piloting a different packaging technique that avoids freezing the fish and the quality seemed good enough.

Some consumers indicated that they prefer to compromise on quality and buy frozen seafood from one of the supermarkets on Northside Belize City rather than go down to the open markets. This means a loss in quality for the consumer and loss in revenue for fishers.

Quality, however, not only refers to freshness, but to the size of the fish. One consumer from Southside Belize noted that he can get anything he wants at the market, but it is the price he would pay.

This raises the question, “Is there enough fish?” or really, “Who is the fish for?” Is quality fish only for those who can afford to pay the higher price?

The national strategy has been one of managing ecosystems to ensure that fish stocks remain healthy, especially after witnessing the collapse of a Nassau grouper bank at Caye Glory site, which collapsed under fishing pressure.

Through a network of marine protected areas (MPAs), the Fisheries Department, various NGO’s and Forest Department have taken steps to preserve existing fish stocks. However, this has had mixed success, partly due to the lack of support from fishers, since poaching within no-take areas continues to be a concern for MPA managers.

Recently, the Fisheries Department has enacted legislation that requires fillet to be landed with a skin patch. This was done primarily to ensure that fish were not taken during closed seasons, but this also assists an unsuspecting or novice customer in recognizing that grouper fillet is actually grouper snapper. This is one more opportunity for the Belizean Consumer to ensure that they are getting the quality fish that they want.

So there is some policy in place to support local consumers in accessing quality fish, and a mixed approach of policy and market incentives could be adopted to ensure a stable supply of fish for Belizean consumers.

One policy option could look at using the Supplies Control Act. However, there are significant costs associated with the administration/implantation of such an approach, and this may need to be tempered by providing some fiscal incentive to fishers to deliver quality fish to consumers in Belize.

One of the biggest weaknesses is that the local market is not well documented even though it generates significant domestic commerce.

A second issue is that there is no institution that looks at, regulates or oversees seafood production to look after the interests of the local consumers, and seafood consumers in Belize are not well organized to advocate for their interests.

As a result, their interests are under-represented in the planning and management of the local fishery. This article is too short to discuss all the issues and intervention options, and hopefully, this will generate discussion among consumers, fishery managers, fishers and the local cooperatives.

Roberto is currently at the Duke University’s Nicholas School of Environment and Earth Science completing a Master of Environmental Management through the support of Duke University and the Oak Foundation.

Amandala