It seems like whenever the major holidays arrive, there's an accompanying spike in illegal activities. Christmas usually brings an increase in contraband goods, and for the Fisheries Department, Easter and its seafood cravings means that off season product is more likely to be illicitly traded.
So, the Department has set up checkpoints, and yesterday their diligence paid off in a major way. Daniel Ortiz visited with them today, and found out that they had busted thousands of dollars in prohibited marine products. Here's his report:
Daniel Ortiz reporting
What you're looking at is somewhere between 15,000 to 20,000 dollars' worth of illegal fisheries products which were confiscated by officers from the Department's Conservation Compliance Unit yesterday.
It's a variety of marine foods, which, no doubt, the owners intended to become a part of their meals over the Easter Holiday.
Hampton Gamboa - Supervisor, Conservation Compliance Unit, Fisheries Department
"Lobster, conch, even as far as marine turtles which is totally illegal in Belize and of course lobster season is closed until later on this year in June around the 15th of June when it re-opens. Outside of that as you all can see there are a variety of sizes of conchs and lobsters. It's bad already that lobster is closed and you find out you have people harvesting some extremely small lobsters. Even though the conch season is open as you all see here there is a lot of conchs and all of these are suspected undersized conchs."
Fisheries officers collaborated with the Belize Agricultural Health Authority and the Police to set up a crafty checkpoint which they ran for just over 10 hours straight.
"We engaged yesterday in a joint operation with the police department specifically from Ladyville to the Belize River Valley area as well as BAHA and we were able to set up a check point in San Hill whereby we checked every vehicle, buses, even private vehicles that pass through the check point and as a result the end of the day, yesterday evening we were able to confiscate all these products as you all see here."
Although the checkpoint was effective in netting the illicit cache, the persons trying to smuggle them home managed to escape prosecution by feigning ignorance.
"Unfortunately no one of the busses that we check that we retrieve these products from claim them, so what we did in that case was that we have the bus driver and conductor sign for these products as we remove them from their busses. What we did was that we educate the bus drivers - they need to be more vigilant in checking what people are bringing on their buses and remind the people that if their products are out of season or anything like that they won't take it on their bus because once we have done educating the bus companies we will start held them liable for prosecution if possible."
Though the law breakers have negatively affected the marine fish stock for the out-of-season harvesting, this is a lot of food that could end up being wasted. Fortunately, the Fisheries Department knows how best make use of it.
"The department will make a decision in how we dispose of it. We have our feeding program which is very active. A lot of schools as well as different institutions that does feeding for the elderly or even for the kids at the different hostels and safe homes, so things like those we always contribute these products to those institutions."
In separate operations Fisheries officers, collaborated with Belize Audubon Society and Police to catch fishermen fishing illegally in some of the lagoons in the Belize River Valley. We understand that there will be persons charged with fisheries offences for confiscated illegal nets thrown, and for illegal fishing.
2 fisheries busts yield $20,000 worth of sea food
With Good Friday and the Easter Holidays upon us, the demand for fish has increased and so has vigilance by the Fisheries Department for seafood that is out of season. The Fisheries Department is today reporting a major bust of fishy products which were confiscated during several patrols. From about nine a.m. on Wednesday, the Police and Fisheries Departments and the Belize Agricultural Health Authority have been cracking down on persons in possession of illegal fishery products. At check points in Sand Hill on the Phillip Goldson Highway, officers of the joint patrol conducted searches on several buses. Inside buckets, iceboxes and even a sack, undersized conchs and lobster tails were hidden under snappers and other boney fishes. It is a huge bust for the Fisheries Department because approximately twenty thousand dollars worth of undersized conchs, lobster tails, small turtles as well as a small quantity of fish was seized.
Hampton Gamboa, Conservation Compliance Supervisor, Fisheries Department
“What we did was that every vehicle, buses; every transportation that passed through the check point, we basically did a quick check of these vehicles and transportations as they passed through. As a result, on most of the bus that came in the afternoon, we found what you all see as a number of lobsters and conchs and as well as some confiscated turtles there—small turtles that we found at the check point. In addition to that, we also had at the same time, we were conducting patrols in the River Valley area whereby that also resulted in an individually being charged for illegal setting gill nets in one of the lagoons that is protected.”
“Now sir, it is the Easter Holidays and we all assume that fish is going to be on the menu, but it looks like it is not fish that these people are going for. It is fishery products that are one, not in season or undersized. What’s happening?”
“For the most part, all these things were found on buses so it can be presumed that most of the fishermen who came in for the Easter break, trying to get home up north; they basically took the law in their own hands to a certain extent and brought in some lobsters. And worse of all, as you can see, we have approximately three quarter sack of conch that was confiscated as found property off these buses. So it is only in our belief that most of these things belong to fishermen who were using the public transportation to get home before the Easter break.”
“No one claimed these items when they were asked…”
“Yes, of course no one claimed them hence the reason why we ended up with confiscating the entire buckets or the entire icebox that had in some fishes in there as you can see as well as all the different lobsters and conchs that were found in these different containers.”