Tonight, Belizean fisher folks are up in arms against the Government. That's after it has become public knowledge that the Minister responsible for fisheries signed a new statutory instrument, which reverses a ban on permanent residents being able to obtain commercial fishing licenses.

It's called Statutory Instrument #57 of 2021, and it was Gazetted May 29th, 2021. In this new SI, Abner Andre Perez, the Minister of the Blue Economy, made a few adjustments to the Fisheries Regulations. Several sections have been repealed and replaced to allow permanent residents to apply. The changes are simple. 1 allows a permanent residency card to be accepted as a relevant identification document for the application process. If the applicant is a permanent resident, they will have to show proof that they've lived in Belize for 6 continuous months prior to the date of their first-time application. If the permanent resident is looking for a renewal of their licenses, he or she will also have to show a record of the sale of their fisheries products.

The other change says that the Fisheries Administration shall not grant a fisherman's license unless, quote, "the applicant is a Belizean by birth or naturalization or a permanent resident". End quote.

First to express outrage against this SI was the Belize Progressive Party. In a press release sent today, the BPP says, quote, "The... Party hereby condemns in the strongest possible terms the decision of the Government to sign Statutory Instrument Number 57 of 2021, which allows foreign fishers to participate in the fishing industry and be in direct competition with our nationals or local fishers. This is a major threat to the livelihood of our fishers, as well as a threat to the sustainability of the Fishery resources themselves." End quote.

They are asking for the SI to be repealed, and they are also urging fishermen and fisher organizations to agitate against the SI.

The first such organization to answer that call to action was the Belize Federation of Fishers.

They also sent out a press release today which asserts that they held an emergency meeting this week with their members. The Federation says that it has received numerous calls from fishermen who feel that this change, which was adopted without public consultation - and especially without their input - will compound the problems they currently faced with already overused fishing grounds.

The Federation goes on to explain that before 2019, permanent residents were allowed to fish in Belizean waters. These fishers were primarily from Guatemala and Honduras, and they lived most of the time in their home countries. They traveled back and forth to their home countries, where they bought supplies and sold their catch. The Federation points out that this prior arrangement provided no economic advantage to Belize while having a major negative impact on the country. In 2019, the then government implemented protection for Belizean fishermen by restricting fishing licenses for permanent residents.

They are also calling for SI 57 to be rescinded immediately, and this evening, they hosted a press conference at the Belize City Fish Market. Here are a few of their points against the change in fisheries regulations:

Nigel Martinez, Director, Belize Federation of Fishers
"We believe what the Ministry of the Blue Economy did was completely undermine the rights to Belizean fisher folks and because of that they have now open up the door back for permanent residents to access our natural resource, our fishery which is already over populated which is already crowded and you have a number of fishers here today that will tell you the same sentiment that they are frustrated because it's not getting easier, it's very expensive to go out there. The issues are the same, there is no enforcement, the management access program is not working, there are several components that are not working that are affecting the fishery right now. So when we found out about this we had to inform the fishers because by law you will hear it from them today that no one knew about this."

Dale Fairweather, Fishing for 35 years
"The biggest struggle will be the fact that we have too few fish and too many fishermen and if you bring in people from across the border then some of us will not be catching anything. When I started fishing there were a lot less fishermen, so we use to do good, but as the years went by you get more fishers and now I am catching like a quarter than what I use to catch. So I know everybody here is catching less, And if you bring in more people then we will even catch less."

"The minister might take the position that maybe we are unfairly locking out permanent residents. Is there any way in your mind that that could be a reasonable argument that you would accept?"

Nigel Martinez, Director, Belize Federation of Fishers
"No way in my mind. Let me explain why. In 2019, we had lobbied with the then administration to ensure that we protect the benefits of our Belizean fishers. Now how can you tell me that a permanent resident can come to our jewel, state that they live here for six months and get access to our fishery, when we have our fishermen right here, right now and some of their kids can't even access the fishery and unable to get a fisherfolk license. It's difficult, so we can't accept that. And we are asking the minister to ensure that he rescinds what he has done, because SI 57 of 2021 is unfair, its unjust and the fisherfolks are here today to state that."

Channel 7

Ministry of Blue Economy's Position on S.I. No. 57 of 2021

The Ministry of Blue Economy and Civil Aviation hereby provides clarity on the matter of Statutory Instrument No. 57 of 2021, which now allows for the participation of permanent residents in the fishing industry of Belize.

In 2019, the Government of Belize, under the previous administration, issued legislation (S.I. No. 81 of 2019) to exclude permanent residents from being eligible for commercial fishing licenses. That was done under the perception that these licensed permanent residents were responsible for the depletion and overfishing of fish stocks in Belize. To date, the Fisheries Department has not validated this as data from 2015 to 2019 shows that the maximum number of licensed permanent residents did not exceed 40 fishers. Given the evidence that the fisher population in Belize is over 3,400, this number did not provide justifiable basis for this exclusion.

The ministry differs from the position recently expressed in the media that national fishery resources are overfished. The Fisheries Department has not established the overfishing of any commercial fisheries.

It is not justifiable to identify permanent resident fishers as being the sole culprits in illegal fishing. Illegal fishing is a complex matter that requires a multi-prong approach to ensure its deterrence and elimination. As with all international and domestic fisheries activities, there are areas of concern, particularly illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing. The ministry is addressing these in coordination with fisheries enforcement officers as well as other partners including the Belize Coast Guard and marine protected areas personnel.

It is the firm position of the Ministry of Blue Economy and Civil Aviation that permanent residents who have met the legal requirements should be afforded the opportunity to participate in the industry. As persons who are legally granted residence in Belize, it is the country's responsibility to provide them equal opportunities to care for their families, especially their children, many of whom are Belizeans. The government's role is not to marginalize but rather to put in place policies and programmes that will result in a robust, fair and profitable sector for all.

It is important to highlight that this S.I. No. 57 of 2021 is in alignment with the new Fisheries Resources Act No. 7 of 2020 as well as the mandate of the Ministry of the Blue Economy to allow for non-Belizeans to participate in the development of the sector. Central to the ministry's mandate is the development and realization of the economic potential of Belize's "blue" resources while putting in place requisite social safeguards that are based on inclusion, equal opportunity and "blue" justice for all.

The Ministry of Blue Economy and Civil Aviation invites the guidance and input of all its partners in government, non-governmental organizations and the wider community.