We have been informed that shark fishing is taking place again at Lighthouse Reef Atoll and have been sent images of some of the landings. The shark fishers are refusing to vacate private land. We were informed that they hold shark fishing licenses and further hold the special Managed Access fishing licenses meant for long-time users and traditional fishers of Zone 7 / Lighthouse Reef Atoll.

One year ago exactly, fishers using nets and longlines killed an estimated 1,000+ sharks (per accounts of several occupants of Sandbore Caye in Lighthouse Reef). See our FB post from 21 February 2016 for details. We were informed that the shark meat and fins were exported to Guatemala. The impact of this fishing was substantial: dive operators and our annual scientific monitoring both registered a significant drop in records of sharks following the shark fisheries discovered in February 2016.

Belize was outraged that its long-lived marine wildlife that generates a conservative estimate of BZ$6.8 million in renewable income from protected area entrance fees and snorkel/dive tour costs from ONLY Lighthouse Reef Atoll should be fished unsustainably if at all. Belize is in a rare position worldwide of being able to benefit from sharks and rays for tourism and does not depend on these species for food.

Since last year, we have asked for but not received clarifications from Government on how positive changes can be made to improve protection for sharks and rays and reduce the use of net and longline gears. We were told that nets would be phased out. We also asked how these species and gears will be addressed by the Managed Access program, and whether nets and longlines will be prohibited in Lighthouse Reef Atoll. Many organisations have asked for transparency on which fishers have been assigned the different zones in Managed Access, and in this case Zone 7 which includes Lighthouse Reef Atoll and two World Heritage areas, Blue Hole and Half Moon Caye Natural Monuments. We further reached out to the tourism industry directly including talks with Minister Heredia, BTB representatives and BTIA to request clarification on their stance regarding sharks and rays and explanations as to why sharks and rays cannot benefit from similar protections afforded to Belize’s recreational fish species (bonefish, permit and tarpon). We have not received answers to these requested clarifications.

According to individuals residing at Lighthouse Reef last year, the parting words of the fishers as they left with the remains of more than a thousand sharks were, “We’ll be back next year.” It is clear that they will continue to come back until there are no more sharks left.

If you want sharks and rays to sustain Belize’s ecosystems and economy for years to come, please let our Government know. Contact Fisheries at species@btl.net and ask them to protect sharks and rays in Belize. And call our Ministers Dr. Omar Figueroa and Mr. Manuel Heredia to protect sharks and rays – just like recreational fish are - since they generate millions for Belize in revenue and bolster marine health.

Specifically, this latest news raises the following serious concerns:

1. Tourism and fishing are not reconciled in Belize when it comes to sharks and rays. These animals generate millions of dollars in renewable revenue for our largest revenue earner in country - Tourism - which employs 1 in 4 people. Especially marine tourism further provides a considerable means of generating foreign exchange to help the Government pay its superbond bill (due date has passed and has not been paid). Belize cannot have its tourism cake and eat its sharks too: sharks and rays are generally long-lived and late maturing animals that are easily devastated by sustained fishing effort yet provide many years of renewable income through marine tourism.

2. To stop the decline of Belize’s fisheries, a program called Managed Access (MA) has been implemented country-wide. This rights-based fisheries program is meant to provide user or site rights to fishers who have traditionally fished in certain areas – now called zones – to help authorities manage and ostensibly cap fishing effort. Belize has been carved up into 9 zones and all licensed fishers are awarded a maximum of two zones in which to fish, as well as access to Zone 9, the deep sea. This means that all licensed fishers can only fish in the zones they have been assigned. All fishers receiving a Managed Access license must provide all data on their catches and fishing effort to help the Fisheries Department to better manage the fisheries. To ensure that only traditional fishers are given licenses to each zone, Managed Access was originally set up with the provision to create traditional fisher committees, where a group of the zone’s recognized traditional fishers determine the rightful users of a certain zone and further determine if they should be awarded fishing licenses for that zone. At Lighthouse Reef, traditional fishers have been identified and recorded over many years by the Belize Audubon Society, the managers of the atoll’s protected areas and implementers of managed access. The fishers identified originate from Chunox and Copper Bank. The shark fishers now using the atoll are not recognized as the site's traditional fishers by either the Belize Audubon Society nor the recorded fishers. Neither BAS nor the traditional fishers know how they acquired their Managed Access permits for Zone 7.

3. How are shark fisheries managed within the context of Managed Access? This is a question that has not been clarified under the Managed Access program, especially in light of the fact that this fishery generally involves the use of longlines and nets, gears that are regulated and generally banned from protected areas. How are these gears to be treated in the Managed Access context and spirit, as they represent far greater fishing effort than traditional fisher effort using hook and line, hookstick, loopstick, and other gears. We call on the Fisheries Department again to clarify how sharks and rays and other large mobile fish are managed within the context of the Managed Access program, and how unsustainable gears like nets and longlines are regulated.

4. To protect traditional fishers and ease the burden of enforcement on the BAS, the atoll was supposed to see standardized regulations governing the use of fishing gears along with Turneffe and Glover's Reef Atolls, specifically prohibiting the use of nets and longlines. A petition to stop the use of nets and longlines at the atoll was further circulated to the fishers in 2013 by BAS at the request of Fisheries. This was signed by the vast majority of traditional fishers of Lighthouse Reef. The petition was disregarded and the requested standardization on prohibition of certain gear types has not taken place.

5. Private land in Belize is apparently no longer private. The shark fishers have refused to vacate private land that the owner has asked them to vacate through the intermediary of his manager in charge. This sets a dangerous precedent for any landowner in Belize.

6. Sharks are the bread and butter of marine tourism. They generate many millions of dollars in revenue in all other countries with strong tourism sectors (Bahamas, Palau, Maldives etc). Belize’s tourism industry, including the Minister of Tourism, BTB and BTIA reap millions of dollars annually from sharks and rays. Yet the sector is silent and has not engaged with the Fisheries Department to discuss protective measures for shark and rays species. In comparison, the recreational fish sector (bonefish, tarpon and permit), which are now protected species, generate millions for Belize annually through fly-fishing tourism. We call on Minister Heredia, BTB and BTIA to proactively support live sharks and rays – and all of the families, businesses, tour-guides and tour-operators who depend on them - as these represent one of the country’s main sources of renewable income and the bread and butter of Belize’s marine tourism.

MarAlliance