Revamping Belize’s fisheries laws and ending open access to marine fisheries

Fishing is one of the last surviving traditional occupations for Belizeans—one that transcends the divide in ethnic backgrounds as well as the chasm between the youth and elders, its participants numbering in the thousands, who exploit what the experts now contend is a dwindling natural resource.

Are there too many men chasing too few fish? The experts and fishermen seem to generally agree on this salient point. How do fisheries managers and regulators ensure that every one who needs to, has fair access—without causing a collapse of the fisheries? That is the million-dollar question.

Amandala interviewed Janet Gibson, country director of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) - Belize (Global Conservation Program), Julio R. Maaz, community fisheries coordinator, also of the WCS; and Larry Epstein, program manager for the Environmental Defense Fund (RDF) for fisheries conservation projects in the Central American region, who are among a team of local and foreign experts exploring the way forward.

Revision of the Fisheries Act

Whereas indigenous fishermen tend to understand the dynamics of fishing based on sustainability – that is, ensuring that their children and grandchildren also have fish in the sea years ahead, the commercialization of fishing in the face of sometimes inadequate policing and enforcement, as well as unsound fishing practices in some quarters, have fueled a decline in fishing productivity and as a result have eroded the earnings of many fishers. Sound legislation is supposed to set a framework to compel sustainable fishing practices.

The legislation applying to the national fisheries are the Fisheries Act and the High Seas Fishing Act.

Gibson told our newspaper that the existing Fisheries Act of 1948 was last revised in 1989.

“So much has happened, as you can imagine, in fisheries management since then, and so it’s in dire need of complete overhaul,” said Gibson.

Two consultants, Bill Edeson of Australia, who formerly worked with Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) on fisheries legislation, along with Belizean attorney Elisa Montalvo are working on the draft legislation, she informed.

Gibson said that apart from the need to update Belize’s fisheries laws to reflect “more progressive, modern approaches to fisheries management,” Belize is also moving to incorporate international conventions to which it has been signatory, into domestic law.

The recommended scope of the new law covers fisheries conservation; management and development, protected areas; administration, licenses and authorizations; international obligations and high seas fishing; monitoring, control and surveillance; jurisdiction and evidence; and sale, release and forfeiture of retained property.
The preliminary recommendations also underscore the point that existing penalties for violations of the fisheries laws are “low,” and “ will be important to ensure that new legislation introduces a penalty regime that is effective.” Under the existing legislation, foreign fishers cannot be sent to jail for violations in Belize’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), due to a 1982 United Nations Convention.

The Fisheries Act revision project is a two-year program and the team hopes to see a bill tabled in Parliament by the end of 2011, she added.

Policy makers are trying to link the revision of the fisheries legislation to a new paradigm in fisheries management, said Gibson, speaking of a plan to limit access to fish in Belize’s territorial seas.

Gibson said they are trying, through the project that EDF has introduced, to end “open access” to fisheries, “ that we don’t have this tragedy of the commons.”

Status and threats

In a paper recently published in the Amandala on the state of Belize’s fishing industry, the Fisheries Department noted that large aggregating grouper and snapper species, such as the Nassau Grouper, are “moderately exploited,” but data indicate that they are moving into the realm of species that are heavily exploited.

Conversely, deep sea or deep slope fishes, such as Yellowfin Grouper, the Red Snapper and the Black Grouper, are among the underexploited in Belizean waters.

The paper highlighted excessive fishing efforts, environmental pollution and illegal fishing, as the three primary threats to sustainability.

A new paradigm shift: catch shares

“There is a challenge to the fisheries in Belize, which is that there is overfishing – there are too many fishermen chasing too few fish right now,” commented Epstein, in speaking with Amandala Wednesday.

He said that Belize has 3,000 legal fishermen and damage to the industry, which is a foreign exchange earner, would be a serious problem for Belize.

As long as you have as many fishermen as there could possibly be, fishing as much product as there can be, no amount of restrictions on gear or seasons or location can be enough to prevent overfishing, Epstein added. Even if all the laws are executed perfectly, there would still be a problem.

The solution, Epstein said, is implementing a system of “catch shares.”

According to EDF documentation, under the catch share system managers establish a fishery-wide catch limit, then assign portions of the catch (or shares) to participating fishermen while holding them directly accountable to fishing within their share of the catch limit.

Amandala first reported on the concept of catch shares in fisheries in March 2009, when an informational session was held in Belize City.

EDF reps had explained that catch shares “allocate a secure, dedicated share of the total catch or area” to individuals, groups or communities, and the allocation is scaled depending on the fishery and the community to which the program is applied.

A Cabinet paper on this has been passed over to the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, which should soon lay it before Cabinet for its consideration.

The Fisheries Department, according to Epstein, wants to implement the catch shares concept in April 2011 at Glovers Reef and Port Honduras, two marine reserves, but with the intent to expand the program for the entire seacoast of Belize.

Epstein said overfishing does have a negative impact, and their intent is to help people to understand that there is a problem and that the idea of “managed access”—or an end to open access to the seas’ resources—is not just falling from the sky without reason.

What about the fisher-folk’s voice?

According to Epstein and Maaz, there has been plenty of dialogue with fishers in Belize – roughly 800 of them from various communities. They say that the team underwent two years of community consultations.

Maaz said that in the consultations, fishermen said, “It’s too many of us out here,” and they asked why there isn’t a cap on the number of fishermen allowed. They also said, “We are not catching as much as we used to,” Maaz added.

Fishermen also point to the continued problems with enforcement, as they make the point that the existing laws are not being enforced properly. Some have said that they are afraid to report infractions, particularly when it is people from their community doing the wrong.

According to Maaz, fishermen for the most part understand that the regulations should protect them, but some because of necessity or others out of sheer greed do flout the laws.

One salient point expressed, they said, is the need for fishermen to be kept informed, but furthermore for them to be more involved in the management of the fisheries.

There is also a trust problem that the team is trying to overcome: “When we started, fishermen did not want to sign an attendance sheet,” said Maaz.

The fear or resistance they displayed, Maaz explained, is because of past experiences, as fishermen complained that even though they have been consulted in the past, at the end of the consultation what they supported is not what is passed into policy.

Maaz also indicated that some fishermen are indeed skeptical, because other previously implemented strategies which fishermen were told would work to save the fisheries just haven’t worked, in their view.

Getting fishers more integrally involved could help diffuse some of that skepticism. Fishermen have been asking to be part of decision-making, said Maaz. They are being engaged on working committees that include fishermen from stakeholder communities, he told us.

The consultants are scheduled to present the preliminary assessment report, looking at these impending changes in the regulation and management of Belize’s fisheries, on Wednesday, November 17, 2010, at the training room of the Coastal Zone Management Institute and Authority in Belize City.