During earlier years the Belize lobster industry was among the finest in the world.
It provided major financial support that bolstered the Belize economy. But lobster fisheries today no longer produce such financial support, and the lobster season that just closed was the worst in history.
The destruction of Belize’s once great lobster fisheries, with its enormous decline in catch and loss of revenue, has been brought about by the Government’s eight year refusal to listen to its own expert.
When the decline in revenue from the fisheries reached major proportions, the Government employed a marine biologist, who was an eminent authority on lobster fisheries, to advise the Government.
This eminent marine biologist was Maria Estela de Leon. Maria Estela provided recommendations that were the same as the laws used in the major lobster producing countries such as New Zealand, Australia, Cuba and the United States.
The first recommendation was that the lobsters be brought ashore alive.
A second recommendation was that the measurement of the lobster to determine its legal size should not be the weight of the lobster tail. It should be the measurement from between the eyes, or horns, of the lobster to the back of thebody shell. The same method that is used by major lobster producing countries.
Belize’s then and present manner of determining whether a lobster is of legal size is to rip off its tail, killing the lobster. The tails are then taken ashore to be weighed. If the tails do not weigh enough, they are rejected. The rejects are tails of undersized lobsters that were illegal to take in the first place.
It is the epitome of ignorance to ignore procedures used by successful countries and kill off the small lobsters, by ripping off their tails, to determine whether they have grown to legal size.
It would not take more than ten seconds, to do like other countries and use a small 2 ounce hand gauge to determine whether the lobster is large enough to be considered legal size.
If it were not large enough, the lobster would immediately be returned to the water where it could grow up and reproduce. It would not have to suffer death by mutilation.
Bringing in lobsters alive is a universal practice. It is done in all major lobster producing countries and doesn’t create a problem.
When I was last in New Zealand, lobster fishermen accumulated and kept their catch alive in their receivers for more than two weeks, until there was a price increase.
Though it would have cost nothing, the Government has, for approximately eight years, sat on its hands and refused to follow the experts’ advice.
If the advice had been followed, the lobster fisheries would have been rejuvenated to where it again became a major source of fishermen’s income. But because the advice was not followed, Belize’s lobster catch has declined to a point where income from lobster hunting is so paltry, the industry is almost dead.
There was one other important recommendation by the expert that was also rejected. This was a recommendation to outfit lobster traps with escapes so that baby lobsters could escape from the traps.
All that was necessary was to leave an opening running along each side of the trap, near the bottom, some 2 3/4 inches high. The opening would allow undersized lobsters to walk out of the trap.
Traps with these openings are used by the world’s major lobster producing countries. But Belize would not adopt the modified trap, even though it would have saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of baby lobsters, which have since perished.
In any major lobster-producing country, Belize’s lobster traps would be considered illegal and would be destroyed.
Instead of returning tiny lobsters, that are trapped to the water, the prevailing procedure in Belize is to scoop them up, rip-off their tails and bring the tiny tails ashore by the thousands to sell to restaurants for lobster stew.
The practice is so prevalent, that when fishermen are questioned about why they take the baby lobsters, the common response is: “Well, if I don’t take them, someone else will”.
Thousands upon thousands of baby lobsters that were not able to escape from the traps are taken and killed each season. They are killed, before they have the chance to grow up and have babies of their own.
Now is the time to begin building new traps, or rework the old ones, so that sensible traps will be used in the coming season to protect the new generation of baby lobsters.
Even if the traps are not built or modified, lobsters can be properly measured by a small hand gauge.
Only legal size lobsters should be brought ashore alive, and there should be strict enforcement of the law to return undersized lobster to the water so that they may grow to adulthood and reproduce.
This one conservation measure would help prevent further depredation of the Belize spiny lobster.
The Government of Belize had a choice and it chose to do nothing! It is true that the previous government began this process of depredation, but the present government is squarely responsible for taking corrective measures.
Will the UDP continue to stand by and preside over the demise of the Belize lobster industry? Will it be inaction as usual, or will there be a vigorous response in favour of common sense?
Will the Old School fishing lobby prevail, or will there be young voices raised in favour of common sense? The Government has a clear duty to respond. But will it?From a letter To The Belize News Media by Kenneth Gale.
Mr. Gale is a retired judge from the U.S. currently residing in Belize.