The Coalition for Sustainable Fisheries is championing a move to ban the use of gillnets countrywide. Gillnets are indiscriminate and as such are depleting fish stocks. This morning, a news team set out to see where they visited a remote area about twenty miles north where fishermen are harvesting tons of fish using gillnets. Isani Cayetano reports.
Isani Cayetano, Reporting
The continued use of gillnets, an everyday method employed for commercial and artisanal purposes, remains a passionate argument for many in the fisheries industry. While there is a concerted effort among stakeholders who are lobbying the Government of Belize to outlaw this indiscriminate practice, there are others who are also fighting tooth and nail to keep this technique alive. To get an appreciation of the damage that gillnets are causing to our fish stock, we journeyed north along the coast to a remote area of the Belize District.
Andrew Roe, President, Belize Game Fish Association
“We are at a place called Salt Creek. It’s about maybe twenty miles north of Belize City and probably twelve or fifteen miles west of Caye Caulker. It’s a very significant location for a number of reasons. This is a very narrow exit from a lagoon that is in the northern Belize District out into the sea.”
The primary reason is that the adjacent lagoon serves as a rainwater basin for the entire northern Belize District. It’s an ecological wonder teeming with wildlife.
“Villages like Maskall, Bomba, Rock Stone Pond, all of those places, when the rainfalls the water drains out into this estuary and then out to the sea through a very narrow creek which is sitting behind us called Salt Creek which is about maybe a hundred feet wide at the most.”
“The location, I gather, is also ideal for fishing and all kinds of fishing is done here, both legal and illegal. Talk to us about what we’re seeing on the ground here at Salt Creek.”
“You’re right, this is a fantastic location, an ideal fishing location because, as I explained, it serves as an estuary for small fish. The larger fish enter through the creek, they spawn and then they leave and those small fish that they leave, that they give birth to are allowed to grow in the estuary because it acts as a nursery and then at one point or at some point they’ll be washed out of the creek by heavy rain into the sea where they continue the next of their life.”
But what is taking place at the bar mouth is an activity that is yielding more than what gill net fishermen ought to be harvesting. Placed across this section of water that meets the sea are rows of vertical panels of netting that suspend from a line with regularly spaced floaters or corks that hold the line on the surface of the water.
“For illegal fishermen who come here and use gillnets, it’s also ideal because they have the ability to lock off the entire creek which is only about six to ten feet at the most and capture everything that is being washed out of this creek which is entire schooling populations of important game fish such as tarpon, snook, and permit.”
Those species are protected from commercial fishery. In these parts, however, they are all fair game. On the banks of the estuary sits a piscine graveyard. The skeletal remains of all three species, as well as rays and catfish, litter the sandy surface. Along with those bones is garbage, a majority of which is contraband consumed on the fishing camp.
“The gillnet fishermen come, they catch their fish and they clean them here. And of course there’s commercial species such as snook and catfish that we saw which is sold on the market but very valuable fish such as permit and tarpon are also laying dead in this proverbial graveyard.”
“What one can immediately gather, having walked around this space is the fact that there is perhaps limited enforcement in terms of fisheries presence in the area to either monitor or to stave off illegal activity.”
“That’s correct. We understand that the Fisheries Department does do patrols here from time to time, but because of limited resources they can’t be here all the time and as a result there is a lot of illegal fishing activity that goes on here.”
From a broad perspective, perhaps a national view, the idea is to do away with the destructive use of this type of fishing gear and employ a more sustainable means of harvesting fish stocks. Salt Creek is the ideal microcosm.
“This is just one little speck of the overall picture, as you mentioned. This is just a visualization of what happens all over the country every single day. The coalition is pushing for us to get a, or for the government to pass a ban on gillnetting, on the use of gillnets in Belize because we feel that fishermen deserve a better alternative. This is short term; killing these fish right now is short term thinking. We might eat today but we’re not going to eat tomorrow. So what we want to try to get everyone to understand is that we want a long-term, sustainable, healthy fishery and what the coalition is doing is they are raising funds to make sure that if the government pushes through a ban on gillnet, we are able to provide those license gillnet fishermen which we understand from the Fisheries Department amounts to about eighty-three fishermen that they are given the opportunity to access alternative livelihoods.”