From inland rivers to the deep seas
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Officials of Northern Fishermen Cooperative Society Limited, Oceana Inc., Oceana in Belize and the Belize Bank today penned agreements that conclude six months of negotiations to buy out the last two Belizean trawlers as a part of a government-backed move to universally ban all forms of trawling—not just bottom trawling for shrimp—in Belizean waters.

The cooperative and Oceana signed a vessel purchase/sale agreement and a security agreement Wednesday afternoon. The parties also signed a separate loan/grant agreement with the Belize Bank.

Audrey Matura-Shepherd, vice president of Oceana in Belize, told the media that Oceana is giving $800,000 to the Northern Fishermen Cooperative — $650,000 to purchase the two trawlers and $150,000 to be retained by the Belize Bank.

According to the agreement, $100,000 is for micro-loans for fishers, and $50,000 is for disaster relief.

The $650,000 goes to the Belize Bank, which had the trawlers held as collateral against the cooperative’s bank debt.

Last December, Ovel Leonardo, chairman of the cooperative, told Amandala that they had an $800,000 balance on their loan for the trawlers, and they had gotten about 20 years to repay the loan. He indicated today the Oceana grant had enabled them to dispense with the debt for the trawlers.

Leonardo, who indicated that the revenues from trawling had been in the region of $750,000 a year, said today that the trawlers in question had not been on the seas for the past 3 years.

Matura-Shepherd said that the original law permitting trawling in Belize has now been repealed. Although the draft statutory instrument (SI) was signed last December, the final SI was not signed until February 4, 2011, and published in the Government Gazette on February 11.

The signed SI says: “No person shall engage in any form of trawling in the (a) internal waters, (b) territorial sea, [and] (c) exclusive economic zone.” (Internal waters, by definition, include rivers and lagoons.)

Now that the trawlers can’t be legally used again in Belizean waters, Oceana is inviting proposals from organizations or government departments that can make use of the boats. Those proposals should be sent to Oceana in Belize, and a review of the proposals should begin within a month, said Matura-Shepherd. A final decision should be expected within 6 weeks, said an Oceana press release.

Matura-Shepherd did assert, however, that Oceana would not put any more money into the boats, but deemed them to be in decent condition, with cabins and a cooking area.

According to Oceana, there are only two other countries that have instituted some form of ban on trawling. Venezuela and Palau had previously been reported as two countries which had completely banned bottom trawling.

Belize’s ban, however, also extends to other forms of trawling, including mid-water trawling for fish species.

Oceana has cited environmental concerns for wanting a ban on bottom trawling.

“Now, no one should be trawling,” said Matura-Shepherd.

Oceana wants its money reimbursed by the Government if it reverses the trawling ban at any time during the next 25 years.

Oceana has also joined a national lobby by the Belize Coalition to Save Our Natural Heritage, calling for a ban on offshore drilling—a ban to which the government has not conceded. The buyout of the trawlers, Matura-Shepherd indicated, does not set a precedent for multi-million or multi-billion-dollar companies with offshore oil concessions.

The buyout deal was struck with the fishermen cooperative, because it provides benefits for ordinary Belizeans, said Matura-Shepherd.