Stakeholders, environmentalists and those involved in protecting our seas have been alert for some time now as it relates to the capturing of sharks for commercial purposes. It is an activity that OCEANA Belize has been lobbying against for some time and with a large kill of sharks that was uncovered at the Lighthouse Reef Atoll, the concerns by various individuals and entities have increased; so much so that a move to have gillnetting banned has been activated. Love News spoke with the President of the Belize Game Fish Association, Andrew Roe, who told us that our sharks have become vulnerable to what is referred to as gillnetting.
“Gillnetting is a form of fishing that is very indiscriminate, it involves just setting a long piece of net that can be from anywhere between 100 feet to several hundred feet and it’s cast across the water usually at night because it reduces the visibility of the net and it catches anything that it comes in contact with. It’s referred to as the walls of death. Anything can swim into it and anything can be killed. So a shark is extremely easy target for a gill net and not just sharks, Manatees, dolphins, turtles it’s not a targeted form of fishing. It’s not like going out there saying that you are going to catch some snappers, it’s more like I’m going to catch whatever comes into this net and that is why it’s so completely unsustainable. It’s usually used where there is spawning aggregations of fish which is not the time you want to be fishing for these species because it’s when they are reproducing and so they can maximize the use of the net and it catches as many fish as possible and wiping out a shoal of breeding fish has massive detrimental effects to that population. You’re taking away the mom and dad and if there is no mom or dad there will be no babies.”
As Roe mentioned, gillnetting is detrimental and so is shark fishing; an activity that is also frowned upon as several industries can end up failing in some years thus leading to a potential loss of jobs for hundreds of persons and severe implications for our economy.
“On both cases the shark fishing as well as the gill netting you sitting at home may think “They killed 50 sharks at Lighthouse Reef, big deal it doesn’t mean much to me but in reality Belize’s economy is one of the main drivers of the economy. I think that the effects of tourism in 2014 was somewhere in the region of $1.3 billion dollars on our economy. One if five people are employed either directly or indirectly with tourism so today 50 sharks killed doesn’t matter to me but if that trend continues or of the trend of catching using gillnets to kill snook, bone fish and tarpon if these sorts of things continue our tourism industry will be impacted. It may not be today or tomorrow but five or ten years down the road when the tourism industry has failed because people don’t want to come see a dead reef and they don’t want to go fishing and not catch anything, those one in five jobs will start to disappear; that $1.3 billion dollars today which will be multiple billion dollars in the future will no longer be there and it will have an impact on every single person in this country.
Efforts in having the gillnet fishing banned have been made and there have been some outreach to the Government officials.
“We have been working for some time with NGO’s as well as government authorities. We’ve had conversations with fisheries and it’s something that they are very concerned about. They see it as something that is of extreme importance to their ministries and portfolios. It’s difficult because they just like everything else they need the resources to fight it and they need the support of the public. At the end of the day the government works for the people and if we the people are the ones who want this changed we need to be the ones who fight for it and we need to be the ones to work for it and we’ve been at it for some time and I feel like it’s starting to gain ground. Unfortunately it takes bad events and something like this for people to begin to realize that something is going on and we need to make a change.”
The Belize Game Fish Association has been around for about 25 years and is made up of local sports fishermen who not only organize fishing events but they also lobby for the best interest of the marine life.
Petition Starts to Ban Gill Netting and Longlines
www.change.org is an online platform opened to persons and organizations around the world where they can lobby to their local decision makers for changes in their countries in various sectors. One such petition was launched over the weekend by Dr Rachel Graham of Mar Alliance to ban the use of nets and longlines. This petition on the website came about after a case over the weekend where a large shark kill was uncovered near the Lighthouse Reef Atoll. Noted on the petition page was, quote, “The use of unsustainable and unselective fishing gears such as nets and longlines are disproportionately contributing to the decline in Belize’s finfish as well as a host of other protected or threatened species including turtles, manatees, recreational fish, sharks and rays. These gears also represent an inequitable means of fishing where a few fishers capture large numbers of animals at the expense of many fishers who work hard to sustain themselves, their families and the country’s fisheries using sustainable hook and line fishing. Current legislation limiting the number and size of nets is unenforceable and the use of longlines is not restricted. Moreover surveys conducted have shown that the majority of Belize’s fishers support a ban on nets and longlines to reverse fisheries declines.” End of quote. According to OCEANA Belize’s Janelle Chanona, the numbers of fish being lost is alarming and have to be seriously addressed.
“Looking at this big picture wise. Last year we had a rare scalloped hammerhead that drowned in a gillnet off Hopkins. Scalloped hammerheads are down 95% across the world so that was a really good chance that that was the last of them in Belizean waters. Two weeks ago we had a documented case of another type of hammer head dead offshore Monkey River near Rocky Point. We have this one, 32 sharks in one weekend. If you begin to extrapolate from that and see one weekend 32 sharks if you add up, let’s say they don’t fish for Christmas, New Years and two weekends out of it you’re looking at 48 weekends that is something like almost 10,000 sharks that we are losing from one area. We really need to look at this issue big picture wise that if we don’t know quota wise what is coming out we can’t ensure the sustainability of it. As it relates to shark this is an important case study because sharks are apex predators and they are keystone species so they are used to judge the health of the ecosystem and if we’re taking out this many sharks then what does this say for the future of shark populations and for the wellbeing of the entire ecosystem as a whole. So it’s really using this incident to say, here is yet another incident for why we need to look very closely at this issue and try to resolve a way forward. The fishermen have put forward their case now we need to see what the response will be from the public.”
Andrew Roe, the President of Belize Game Fish Association, says that Belize could and should follow suit with the Bahamas, one of our CARICOM sister-country and others in managing our sharks and other marine life.
“If we look at countries like the Bahamas and countries like Honduras, Honduras has put in a moratorium on shark fishing meaning that there is no shark fishing until they can establish where the populations are. The Bahamas in 2011, who is one of our CARICOM countries, banned shark fishing completely in 2011. The feel that sharks as a tourist attraction are worth in the region of $70 million USD to them and that’s fish that are alive where you can take divers to look at them, swim with them and these people come back. This is not something new that we have to get around reinventing. We need to look at our laws and decide, shark fishing in the 1970s maybe it was sustainable when there were so many more sharks but today in 2016 it’s no longer sustainable and I think world projections say that somewhere in the region of 100 million sharks are killed every year and the world’s population of sharks has been decimated to the point where 90% have been removed. So it’s not something that we can continue doing.”
OCEANA Belize has also been at the forefront in lobbying for the ban of nets and longlines in our waters. Chanona says that the gillnets issue has been at the forefront for about two decades.
“I think it’s important to put in perspective that the issue of use of gillnets has been forefront for Belizean fishermen for more than two decades so since 1997 they have gone as far as writing direct petitions to ministers of fisheries over the years asking for this gear to be banned. Why are they asking? They have told us in their own words that they put together a documentary to document their feelings on this issue, that they have seen the impact that the nets are having on their livelihood. No fisherman wants to stop fishing so when he is reconciling and looking back and saying that he is fishing longer, harder and deeper and he is catching less his onus is trying to figure out what he is doing, how he can ensure the sustainability of his livelihood. Many of them have come away saying that gillnets are so indiscriminate that it’s hurting their livelihoods and they want it to be banned. Recreational fishermen are seeing where the sports fish that they depend on for that industry that are protected specie are also falling prey to these gillnets because of where they are being set. Though they are not the targeting specie they get chucked overboard and it’s just a waste. Fish that maybe someone coming into Belize wants to spend $1,000 to go offshore shore Belize then becomes fish food and is a waste. We have seen numbers from the bonefish tarpon trust that suggest that sports fishing contributes $200,0000,000 to the Belizean economy every year. So we really need to look at this from an economic perspective and a sustainability perspective. No one wants fishermen to just stop fishing but it’s looking at the type of gear so that we can ensure sustainability and across the world fishermen and experts alike are agreeing that the indiscriminate nature of these nets make them unsustainable.”
We will have more on this story in tomorrow’s newscast.