Lobster season is closed from mid-February to mid June - but in those four months of off season, many of the 38 major lobster trap operators leave a good number of their estimated ten thousand traps under the sea.
They shouldn't, but it's a lot of work to haul back up all those traps - only to send them back down four months later - and so many times the traps are just left ther.
And in the interim, lobsters are caught out of season. The Fisheries department says it's a practice detrimental to the entire industry and it has to stop - we went out on the waters near Mapp Caye, 8 miles off the city's coast with the enforcement unit today to find out how they are trying to stop it:
Jules Vasquez Reporting:
With the coppery tones of the early morning setting the scene, Coxswain Sabal took the big plunge - he wasn't going for an early morning swim, he is looking for lobster traps. Of course, lobster season is closed between the months - and so they are looking for lobsters that have been illegally trapped during this time. To find the lobster, they have to find the traps and these are denoted by these sticks in the water - they are left by the lobster trappers to mark their territory.
They should pick them up at the end of the season - but they don't and lobsters remain trapped inside for either the owners of pirates to have. The appearance of the rope means they've found one - it's heavy - with hew water weight, about a hundred pound. They haul it out of the water - and it's loaded with good sized lobsters - legal size but out of season.
They are all thrown back into the sea - set free as it were to go about their lobster lives maybe until another season starts - or if they've learned their lessons - never to go back into another trap:
Mauro Gongora - Fisheries Officer, Capture Fisheries Unit
"Fishermen have left these traps, either deliberately or for other reasons during the close season, and what we are doing is to tell the fishermen - tell the fishing community that this is illegal, and this not helping us in sustainability of our lobster fisheries."
It is a persistent problem. In this same area the fisheries team marked another trap, which they had to locate by use of the GPS.
But this haul was no conventional trap, it's a tractor tire neatly converted into a trap. This one had all undersized lobster - and amongst them even a baby nurse shark! It's their lucky day, they are all set free - thrown back into the water
It's a good end to this story, but it hardly solves what is a persistent and widespread problem:
"This has to be an area of continued concern - these out-of-season traps - you have maybe 10,000 traps all over during the lobster season. Out of season, how many you think remain active?"
"Jules, it's hard to say. It's really hard to determine exactly how much are left out at sea during the closed season. But from our investigative work we've done so far, we think that there is anything between 40 to 50% of those traps still at sea. That, of course, is a major concern to the Fisheries Department, and that is exactly the reason why we are here today, because we want the fisherment to understand that this activity is illegal. They should not leave their traps at sea during the closed season. Jules, Fishermen will have various reasons why they leave their traps at sea during the closed season. And in this recent survey that we carried out in the last few months, fishermen claimed that their traps were lost at sea with the last hurricane. The other reason why they don't remove their traps is related to illegal fishing, and thirdly, I believe that fishermen would leave their traps because they simply do not want to invest money to take them out of the water."
The fisheries enforcement unit does this to ensure the continued viability of the fisheries resource - but they can't check every trap hidden under the sea:
"The only way that we would be able to have any kind of measurable success in this effort is to engage the fishing community to ensure that they understand why we are doing this - to ensure that fishermen cooperate with us, by removing their traps during the closed season. Lobster stocks in Belize are considered stable. In the last 5 to 6 years, what we have seen is a stabilization in production volume."
Of course, as long as this practice continues - the lobster resource will inevitably be diminished:
"We want to make sure that fishermen, particularly those that use traps, understand that this is something that is not helping them as individuals; It's not helping the fishery - the resource, and it's not helping the country."
But skeptics will ask - if we weren't there - would these fisheries officer have helped themselves to these lobsters
"Now a lot of people will see this on TV and say, 'Well, if the media wasn't here, dehn deh lobster mih wah never get throw back dah sea. Unu mih wah tek deh lobster dah City and sell them on the black market.' - cynical people would think that. How would you defend yourself against such an allegation."
"I think what needs to be understood is that the Fisheries Department has a job to do, and for each and every lobster that is confiscated by the Fisheries Department, there is a record for it, and we know where it ends up. Jules, we have a mandate, and our mandate is very clear, sustainable management of fisheries resources for present and future generations. I don't think that the fisheries officers involved in enforcement have any other mandate to follow, so these people have supervisors, and they are guided by what policy the Fisheries Department has in place."
Such patrols are regular but with the traps numbering possibly in the thousands, it's impossible to check all of them.
The Fisheries department plans to start registering every trap for stricter controls