Sharks- the apex predators of the sea- are being hunted in Belizean waters. Yesterday Mar Alliance, a non-governmental advocacy organization, posted several pictures on social media depicting a number of sharks being harvested for their meat. The practice is not illegal in the country put the topic always tends to strike a sensitive nerve- especially when at such large scale. The post alleged that the pictures represented at least 32 sharks captured in areas near the Blue Hole and Half Moon Caye sometime last week.
Among the carcasses were 3 shark species, including the endangered Hammerhead shark and several pregnant female Caribbean Reef Sharks. But while it is legal to fish for sharks in Belize, Mar Alliance claimed that only two of the group of men fishing for sharks were licensed.
The matter also brings into sharper focus an issue that Oceana Belize has been championing for a number of years. That is the issue of Gill Nets- the unbiased fishing trap that ensnares everything in its path. These 30 add sharks it is believed were captured with the use of these deadly nets. Today we spoke to Oceana Vice President Jannelle Chanona on the matter of gill nets and the sensitive topic of shark fishing.
Janelle Chanona, Vice President - Oceana Belize "What's happening here in this situation regarding the sharks is that these nets are being used to harvest all types of sharks; hammerheads, Caribbean Reef sharps - whatever sharks you can think about that's swimming around in Belize. And its creating the photos broadcast today by Mar Alliance which is a shark conservation organization s depicting. Because these nets are being allowed, these sharks have been captured in mass and as apex predators, as keystone species, you realize that if we continue to lose sharks at this rate, that can throw the whole ecosystem into vulnerable imbalance."
Emanuel Pech "Why does it become such a shocker when it is posted on Facebook if these licenses are being handed out?"
Janelle Chanona, Vice President - Oceana Belize "Shark fishing as I said, that's legal. The Fisheries Department, the government have determined that shark fishing should be allowed. The controversy comes up when people actually see that because gillnets are being used to harvest these sharks in these amounts and they see sort of the layout of carcasses on the beach, then they have an idea wow if this is one fishing camp, one capture and this is happening across the country, then they begin to get the size of the problem. We are in Lenten season. The demand for seafood related products too Lenten season cultures, then demand drives up price and this is the time of year where we see these sorts of mass captures and really, it hits home as how big this problem is."
While sharks are not generally consumed in Belize, Guatemalan and other neighboring countries pay a handsome dollar for shark meat and fins. We also note that Nurse Sharks and Whale Sharks are the only protected shark species in Belize. However fishing for hammerheads as well as Caribbean reef sharks is international recognized as an unsustainable practice due to their late maturing and slow reproduction rates.
Mar Alliance in response to this recent catch of sharks, which they say occurred sometime last week, has started an online petition calling on Government authorities responsible for fisheries to support equitable and sustainable fishing in Belize and to ban the use of gillnets and longlines. We attempted to get a comment from the Fisheries Administrator Beverly Wade on the matter but we were told that she cannot comment until properly briefed of the situation. We were however promised an interview later this week.
Location of the shark fishing camps at Lighthouse Reef Atoll. We were informed that fishing took place throughout the atoll with nets and longlines.
Shameful shark kill - World Heritage Lighthouse Reef Atoll
We have just been alerted by many people to a large kill of sharks in and near the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of the Blue Hole and Half Moon Caye at Lighthouse Reef Atoll. The Jewels of Belize's marine heritage and tourism have been hit hard by several unlicensed fishers using the unsustainable fishing gears nets and longlines.
These pictures represent a portion of a single day's fishing with nets and longlines and include at least 32 sharks representing 3 species including the Endangered great hammerhead and pregnant Caribbean reef sharks (and sources counted at least 50 sharks landed in the short space of time they were at the sites). The sharks were landed at Sandbore Caye and Hat Caye at Lighthouse.
Little to none of the shark meat is consumed in Belize (it's full of neurotoxic mercury) as it's traditionally exported to Guatemala. And Hammerheads (meat and or fins) cannot be legally exported across national boundaries without a specific export license that is ultimately approved by the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). This international convention, to which Belize is a signatory, notes that countries wanting to export listed species (such as the hammerheads and even conch - both listed under the Appendix II) must prove internationally through a process called a non-detriment finding prepared with Belize's independent Scientific Authority, that the fishery for the listed species is sustainable. However, fisheries for large long-lived, late maturing and low production sharks including hammerheads and Caribbean reef sharks are recognized worldwide as UNsustainable. This means they should NOT be fished.
The sharks in the pictures were captured by a handful of fishers apparently working under only two shark fishing licenses and targeting Belize's marine jewel in the crown, Lighthouse Reef Atoll. These sharks were a mainstay of dive and snorkel tourism at the atoll and helped to support many local businesses that rely on tourism for their income. These dead sharks represented millions of dollars in lost revenue, not only to Belize's tourism sector and the many families and politicians they support, but also to coral reef ecosystem resilience, as these animals play a critical role in maintaining reef health.
Live sharks and rays generate far more income to a country that shark fisheries. These swimming "Golden geese" of the sea generate a continuous and often rising stream of revenue as a destination becomes known for hosting expanding populations of sharks. An example from our region is the Bahamas where shark tourism was recently valued at over US$70 million annually and benefits countless families and businesses.
Considering the many costs and benefits to Belize, shark fishing no longer makes any economic sense for Belize. The inability of fishers to selectively target only the small rapidly reproducing shark species (and only if adequately monitored and enforced) along with the lack of enforcement means that there is no hope for fostering a sustainable shark fishery. If you add to this the small economic value gained by a handful of shark fishers compared to the economic importance of sharks to the country's largest GDP earner (tourism) and the country's immediate need to shore up both coral reef and fin-fish fisheries resiliency, then it's clear, there are no more clear rational or economic arguments as to why this fishery is permitted to continue.
We are all stakeholders of sustainable fisheries and by extension of shark and rays ... especially the tourism sector that earns millions and generates countless jobs from catch and release fly-fishing and other recreational fishing as well as snorkeling and diving with live sharks and rays. It's time to be heard: request a voice in decision-making regarding sustainable fisheries and sharks and rays (a key avenue is representation in the National Shark Advisory Committee run by the Fisheries Department). To the public, decision-makers, politicians, managers, fin-fish and invertebrate fishers, teachers and students: STAND UP FOR YOUR SHARKS AND RAYS. Whether you know it or not, they have brought you so much and will continue to support you if you protect them.
You want to see change? You CAN make a difference. Please contact our Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries, Forestry, the Environment and Sustainable Dev. Hon. Gaspar Vega and let him know that you support sustainable fishing in Belize, prefer to see sharks and rays alive and that you do not support the use of nets and longlines at: THIS LINK.
A post on social media depicting the slaughter of some 32 sharks, including the endangered hammerhead, and a couple of allegedly pregnant female Caribbean Reef Sharks, sparked much public outrage. The post was made by conservation group MAR Alliance who used the images as a platform to launch their petition against the use of gillnets and longlines and to pressure Government to support equitable and sustainable fishing methods. Today we spoke to the Government representative in the Fisheries Department Beverly Wade who expressed her disappoint at the way the matter was handled. She says the Government has recently launched a National Sharks Working Group in which the director of MAR Alliance is an active member of. So she argues that if there was a concern on the part of Mar Alliance they should have brought it up through this avenue instead o broadcasting it on social media.
Beverly Wade, Fisheries Administrator "In a recent correspondence to the department for the renewal of that organization annual research license, there is a line there telling is that in the 2 primary areas where there been conducting research and where shark fishing is being done that population seems stable. This is coming from people who are actually out there carrying out the research. So it's not that the shark fishing is functioning in a vacuum somewhere. There is no argument that there is a need for us to look at probably more regulations for our shark fishery, but regulations have to also be based on sound information. Because it's not putting in regulations or putting in regulations. It is a matter of putting in regulations to address whether there is conservation targets or whether there is sustainable targets at the end of the day. It depends on what is the recommendations coming out in terms of how you move forward with a resource like this."
Emanuel Pech "As far as you are concerned though, shark fishing is sustainable as no now."
Beverly Wade, Fisheries Administrator "That it is."
Emanuel Pech "Sustainable."
Beverly Wade, Fisheries Administrator "According to what we've been advised so far and as I said I am not going to make that recommendation. We depend on the advice that we are getting from the people who are working out there and at the end of the day as I said I am looking forward to what will come out of the shark working group through the national plan of action for shark. Let's say you what Miss B, maybe certain species may be protected. For some of them maybe we could continue fishing. In fact we have been getting some management advise already internally informally as to what species could continue to be targeted, which ones we need to pay more attention to. That is what management is about at the end of the day."
The Fisheries department says it currently licenses about 60 fishermen to catch sharks. This they say is representative of about 2% of the fishing population of Belize. The peak season for catching sharks is between the months of November to March, however there is no regularized open and closed season when it comes to sharks nor is there a cap on the amount of sharks that can be fished a year. But Wade told us the number usually amounts to about 25 thousand pounds annually that is fished for export by those 60 fishermen. This is notwithstanding the fact, and the department concedes to this, that the shark population is in decline.
It's a delicate balance according to the Fisheries Department. One that must involve the consideration of all stake holders that use the resource.
Emanuel Pech "Did Mar Alliance stepped out of line?"
Beverly Wade, Fisheries Administrator "No. I just want to be clear. We have no quarrels with Mar Alliance. Dr. Graham could come and see me in my office any day."
Reporter "Did they blow it out of proportion of what has happened in terms of harvesting of the sharks?"
Beverly Wade, Fisheries Administrator "I think from our end, it's something that could have been treated differently, especially given the fact that Dr. Graham has a close relationship with the Fisheries Department, sits on the national sharks working group and has the ability to have that discourse with the Fisheries Department. The only thing I will say that we are very much disappointed in is the treatment of the fishermen. Because I think that is wrong. I honestly think that is wrong and from the mere fact that the fishers allowed people to document what they are doing, it shows you that those people knew they were not doing anything that was illegal."
Currently there are three landing sites that are used to catch Sharks: Sanbore Caye, Rocky point and Robinson point. Fisheries Administrator Beverly Wade stressed the importance of consultation on the matter of shark fisheries and on the matter of Gillnet fishing. So until there is a national or international consensus on the banning of shark fishing and use of destructive fishing gear, these methods will continue to be used in our Belizean waters and our resources including sharks will continue to be exploited.
Belize Game Fishing Association Speaks Out Against Shark Kill
Images of a recent shark kill near Lighthouse Reef have sparked public outrage about the continued use of gill nets. While it is not believed that local fishermen are behind the lurid act, the use of this type of fishing gear is not outlawed in Belize. Earlier today, the Belize Game Fish Association spoke out against the incident which resulted in the deaths of dozens of sharks. According to Andrew Roe, the economic impact of decimating the local shark population can have a profound ripple effect on tourism.
Andrew Roe, President, Belize Game Fish Association
“The Belize Game Fish Association has been working for some time to fight gill nets and to fight shark fishing and, you know, shark fishing is something that worldwide has had a massive impact on the state of the oceans. So we’ve been pushing very hard to try to get shark fishing either extremely regulated but preferably completely removed from or banned on the laws of Belize.”
“So now upon seeing these images with these sharks being killed in large numbers, what was the initial reaction or what has been the position taken by your organization with regards to what has happened?”
“It’s a hurtful thing seeing something, sharks are magnificent creatures, seeing them underwater is an amazing experience. Seeing them all lying dead on the beach it is hurtful and as far as the association is concerned, these guys they technically are operating legally. They’re fishing under, it’s not illegal to fish for
sharks in Belize. Our position really is that it would, it has a massive impact. It has a massive detrimental impact to the economy of Belize. Belize is completely, Belize is largely dependent on tourism. A quarter of our GDP comes from tourism and I think one in five jobs are tourism-based or at least benefit from tourism. And removing sharks or using gill nets to capture sharks on our reefs means that tourists can’t go see them and being able to take the tourists time and time again to Lighthouse Reef, as most people have come to expect, to see sharks is no longer going to be possible if this sort of shark fishing continues, especially using nets because nets, it’s not just removing sharks it’s going to move everything else along the reef.”
Continued shark fishing w nets and longlines at Lighthouse Reef
We apologize for bearing more bad news but shark fishing efforts continue and have apparently intensified at Lighthouse Reef. The previous post showed catches from one fishing day out of supposedly five days. If all fishing days equated the day for which we have a count of 50 sharks, then Lighthouse Reef Atoll lost ~250 sharks. In 5 days between 13-17 February.
Yesterday and today the fishing continued and is expected to continue as this and the use of nets and longlines, even near reefs, is considered legal. Apparently not all fishers now need to have shark fishing licenses and many can work under one or two shark fishing licenses. This places into new perspective the 62 shark fishing licenses permitted by Fisheries for 2016 (Ramon Carcamo, Fisheries Officer, pers Comm). There is no indication that these fishers have CITES export permits from Fisheries for the regulated hammerhead products. And a CITES permit for these fished species cannot be given unless the Government can prove that the fishery is sustainable - and it's not. Moreover, Hammerheads are not supposed to be fished commercially per Belize's agreement with the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT). This is a commercial fishery.
The fishers continue to use nets and longlines with strobes to improve night-time captures of Caribbean reef sharks, endangered Hammerheads, mako and more. They are even catching gravid LOBSTER out of season.
What bait are they using? We understand they are netting BONEFISH - highly valued and protected recreational fly-fishing species - to bait for sharks.
All sharks are filleted and placed in barrels with salt, each barrel holding the meat of between 300 small sharks to 20 large ones. These barrels are shipped to Guatemala. So that the fishers can fish continuously, they are being supplied by a boat that brings then food and takes away the barrels of sharks and the fins.
We ask, why is this legal? It makes no rational, ecological and economic sense for Belize.
We suggest the following to have one site where sharks and rays and other large marine wildlife can thrive:
1. Promote sustainable fishing for the whole country and ban nets and longlines.
2. Make Lighthouse Reef Atoll a Marine Protected Area. This will align it with Turneffe Atoll and roll out of the widely touted fisheries managed-access program and help rangers to enforce a ban on nets and longline which is standard for marine protected areas in Belize. Also the traditional fishers of the atoll from northern Belize support this idea.
So make yourself heard. Sign the petition to push for sustainable fishing which will curtail senseless and large-scale capture of sharks from our waters.
Blame the messenger? Does Forest Dept or the BDF scold FCD when they post photos of Guate incursions into the Chiquibul? No. Wade is out of order. Fisheries are out of order. Minister Vegas is way out of order.