Belize Commentary: 40 Years To A Fishless Sea

30 May 2010 -  By Chris Harris. Scientists don’t always get good press; they are sometimes ignored, sometimes misunderstood, even sneered at as “ just boffins, egg heads,” etc.
But the time is coming fast when we have to start getting serious and listening to what we are being told. And more importantly, acting on it. To fail to listen would be a failure of our personal responsibilities as members of the world community, and for our politicians to fail to act would be a dereliction of their duty. 
The politicians have a responsibility to act on the best possible advice they get from those who study, measure, monitor, record and report what happens around us.
It is not, however, the job of scientists to tell us or our government what to do, or what actions to take, or policies to follow. The assessment of scientific reports is the job of our government.

However, now and again a subject arises where even the layman, be he a farmer, an office worker, a policeman, or a hotel receptionist, can make judgments for him or herself. The sustainability of our marine environment and the fish we eat is one such subject.

You do not have to hold a PhD or be a high flying researcher in a university to read the writing on this particular wall. Just listen to what is being said.
“The world faces the nightmare possibility of fishless oceans by 2050 unless fishing fleets are slashed and stocks allowed to recover.
“If the various estimates we have received... come true, then we are in the situation where 40 years down the line we, effectively, are out of fish.
“Virtually all fisheries risk running out of commercially viable catches by 2050.”
This is from Pavan Sukhdev, head of the United Nations Environmental program’s green initiative. OK, Perhaps he exaggerates, or is just plain wrong.
“All the evidence available suggests that the most valuable exploitable stocks in Belize are fully fished or overfished. In thirty years we will not be eating marine fish in Belize if we keep on our present path.”
So who said this? Dr. Les Kauffman, professor of biology at Boston University after his latest research project report here in Belize.
OK, perhaps he, too, is mistaken, or exaggerates.
So maybe you would like to hear what Boris Worm wrote in Science volume 314 in 2006? “If the current rate of fishery decline continues, virtually all the world’s fisheries will collapse within the next 50 years.”
So how many more quotes would you like before the awful truth dawns? These guys know what they are talking about. THEY ARE RIGHT!
So what do we do? Well, first up, we stop this ridiculous proposal to export our fish to Jamaica. Listen to the scientists’ opinion of that.
“I strongly feel that the Jamaican commercialization of Belize’s fisheries is a very bad move and, though Belize will profit economically in the short run, it will do so at a severe cost to the long-term viability of your coastal marine resources.
“We can learn from other countries’ mistakes, with Jamaica being our foremost example. Though creating this export market will have short-term economic benefits for a country that certainly needs additional sources of income, increasing demand on Belize’s already stressed fisheries isn’t making money, but effectively borrowing against your future at a potentially very high interest rate.”(Dr. Burton Shank, principal investigator, Belize MMAS Ecological Monitoring program)
“All the processing plant will do is consolidate, diminish, and wrest control of the fishery and transfer it into the hands of rapacious foreigners from a country that is actually the laughing stock of the world for the way that it has overfished its own waters.” (Dr. Les Kaufman, professor of biology, Boston University marine program)
Is that not clear enough for us? The writing is well and truly on the wall. All we have to do is read it. We need a radical re-focus on our marine treasure. If we want to, it can yet be saved. The scientists have told us how this can be done, but do we have the will to stop illegal coastal and offshore development, reduce river pollution and sedimentation?                                                              

So where now for our Belizean fishermen? Clearly they must continue to catch fish - that is their livelihood. Clearly, they must be allowed to sell their catch wherever they choose, subject to export licenses of course. 
However catches ARE declining, and if the fishermen are to maintain their standard of living, then the value of their catch must rise. There is a way to do this which even the Jamaicans have discovered. Added value. For example, instead of selling raw lobster meat, we should be processing that meat into lobster fritters, lobster soup, etc. Fish can be processed into fish fingers, breaded fillets, etc., and will find a ready market. 
Look at the shining example of Marie Sharp. They sell hot peppers all over the country, and export them too, but not hot peppers at $2 per pound. They sell pepper sauce at $3 a bottle. But that sauce bottle has about fifteen cents worth of peppers in it. So that pound of peppers makes a whole case of pepper sauce which sells for $36 or more. That’s what added value is all about.
We need to stop thinking about selling raw materials, but instead selling finished products just like Marie Sharp does. This not only gives us more value for our fish, but creates genuine jobs as well. All this sudden interest in our fish by the Jamaicans suggests that processed food products would find a ready market back home in Kingston. Or perhaps they just want to buy fish cheap from us so they can process it into breaded fillets, etc., in Jamaican factories themselves?
The ever-present poaching of our fish by Guatemalans and Hondurans in our coastal waters, and the visit of the Jamaicans to PG (a nice quiet corner of Belize far away from any prying eyes) is all evidence of a growing world shortage of food. The scientists have warned us of this, too!
Belize no longer has an infinite supply of raw materials. We used to have forests of prime timber, and allowed other countries (yes, including my own mother country) to take it away. Let’s not make the same mistake with our fish and other marine products.
Just remember one thing. No more sea fish within the lifetime of your children.

Chris Harris, chairman,

South Coast Citizens for Sustainable Development