Caye Caulker Fishers say fisheries regs are unfair
The fishing community of Caye Caulker Village is up in arms over the new regulations set out by the Fisheries Department. The fishers say the changes, which came into effect on March 1, will negatively impact them and their families. The community says they have been requesting a meeting with the Area Representative, who is also the Minister responsible for fisheries, but the efforts have been futile. Today, reporter Vejea Alvarez and videographer Shayanne Dena headed out to La Isla Carinosa to get the story.
Vejea Alvarez, Love FM News:
The fishing community of Caye Caulker village is speaking out against regulations they say will jeopardise their way of life.
Maria Allen, Fisher:
This has been rammed down our throats because what happened is we’ve been trying to have a consultation with Mr. Perez from October, November and we have sent him two letters that we need a meeting with the fishers of Caye Caulker and to no avail. We have not gotten any consultation with him.
Vejea Alvarez, Love FM News:
Former fisherwoman of the year, Maria Allen, is spearheading the initiative which over 200 fishers have already signed up for. She says that the new regulations will cut deep into their coffers.
Maria Allen, Fisher:
“The 4.5 oz, which is the size of the lobster tail for the new regulations, we do not get these size of lobsters throughout the season. We do get it for the beginning but it will affect us very negatively and I know the fisherman of Caye Caulker, we don’t get these.”
Vejea Alvarez, Love FM News:
Carlos Tan has been fishing for over 40 years and he says the cost of operating his vessel has risen every year. He claims that the new amendments to the Lobster Regulations will only make his life as a fisher even harder.
Carlos Tan, Fisher:
“Eventually what will happen with that 4.5, our production will go way down half yearly. Say if I produce 500 lbs for the year, I will only produce 250. So that will drastically reduce the, production-wise, I don’t know if I will be able to survive that and with the gas prices so high, how can we manage our fishing industry? It’s pretty hard.”
Vejea Alvarez, Love FM News:
Ernesto Marin is another fisher who says he has been working in the area for decades. According to him, the lobsters that prowl in the waters near Caye Caulker use it as a nursery.
Ernesto Marin, Fisher:
“Most of them are from 3 ½ to 4, 4 ½ . The balance. You don’t get big lobsters here. I’m telling you. Down south, maybe but Caye Caulker here.”
Vejea Alvarez, Love FM News:
Boddy Magaña is a 3rd generation seaman who says that the new requirement gap size for escape traps will impact the investment they have already made.
Boddy Magaña, Fisher:
Many fishermen, they don’t work only during the lobster season. They work all year round so an investment is being made into the fishing industry, lobster fishing, constantly. Right? And as you can see right here, there’s a lot of lobster traps that are being made, that are being repaired. Does it? Change it? It’s going to take, I mean. It’s already made. You know? They already put the time into it and then for all their investment for years. It’s something that, you’re giving them double work and not just double work, you know. You’re letting them invest in something that will no longer benefit them, something that has, they have been working on for years. You know? And it’s just unfair.”
Vejea Alvarez, Love FM News:
Overall, the community says they mainly are requesting an audience with the Minister of Blue Economy, Andre Perez, hoping to reach a compromise which strikes a balance between their economic needs and sustainable fishing. Reporting for Love News, I am Vejea Alvarez.
Earlier in the news, we told you about the increase in the price of flour which will affect bakers.
But tonight they're not alone because another profession is also fearing revenue losses after a government-mandated regulatory change. Tonight, lobster fishers are dreading rather than anxiously anticipating the lobster season.
And that's because of new regs from the department of fisheries that came into effect on March 1st, ahead of the July 1st Lobster season, changing the required Lobster tail weight from 4 ounces to 4.5 ounces, and changing the whole Lobster from 3 inches to 3.25 inches, among others.
When it's all said and done fishers claim that the changes will result in an estimated 60% loss in revenue. Via Zoom we spoke to three Caye Caulker fisherfolk who couldn't hold back their fishing frustrations any longer.
Maria Allen, Lobster Fisherwoman "The Lobster catch today these two baskets here, these are 3 inches which is the regulations we are using now. This one basket here these are the bigger ones which are the new regulations which they have already implemented which will be for the next year and now we are gonna weigh them the ones that are three inches which is the regulation for now. I have 39 pounds in one basket and 16 pounds in the other basket. These are the three inches which are the regulations for this year. The new regulations for the 3.25 are 22 pounds, 22 pounds. So for my catch for today what I would be getting is if I would be going for the new regulations that will be implemented for March 30th, 2022 my catch for today and the fisherman going out for me would be 22 pounds at $14.00 a pound which the co-op is paying. That would be my catch for today, and this which is the three inches these will be my loss which will no longer be the three inches in the legal size which is 3 inches in the Carapace of this Lobster, so this would be my loss, I would be losing about 58 pounds."
Buddy Magana, Fisherman "Caye Caulker is a nursery ground and all the lonsters are juvenile lobsters, so it's a hatchery the island, right. So the, you it will be rare that you will get lobster with a tail weight bigger than 4.5."
"It's not just Caye Caulker but it's in Belize on a whole that the fishermen will be affected because there can be 150 fishermen on Caye Caulker but it won't be 150 fishermen that will be affected it will be probably 4000 people that will be affected and then there will be shortages in the restaurants if we cannot find the size of lobster how will we sell it to the restaurants."
Maria Allen, Lobster Fisherwoman "We have about 50 to 60% of our catch that we will be losing to these new regulations. This is our livelihoods and we stand to lose 60% of our income for this new regulation."
"The future generations that have grown up in Caye Caulker of fishing because it will affect future generations for us because like you said if all these regulations are coming into place, I have a grand daughter that says she wants to be a fisherwoman, by the name she is old enough to do it they will already phase us out."
Alex Chan, Lobster Fisherman "Just for the two months we have the big ones that you'd call 4.5 and up, just for that two shipment of production, we have that, after that it comes right down to the four-ounce and that is every year."
"We don't want to say it like political things but he believes in the likelihood that he's being attacked and that's why we are worried and so care about the future but if they don't want to listen to us, well."
And while they say that, tonight the department of Fisheries is claiming that they've yet to receive any petition to the amendments through any official channel or formal means of communication.
A release from the department says, quote: " There is a process and this could be done through their representatives in the Fisheries Council." End quote.
And despite that obvious frustration with the means in which the message has been conveyed, acting fisheries administrator Rigoberto Quintana sat for questions this afternoon to clear up the department's position on the comments made by the disgruntled lobster fishers. Here are some of the more salient points from that press briefing.
Rigoberto Quintana, Acting Fisheries Administrator "In 2009, the government of Belize through the then minister Rene Montero had sign a binding OPESCA agreement. We are a part of the Organization of Fisheries and Agriculture in Central America. Whatever we sign at the Ministerial level becomes binding for Belize. Part of those regulations is that Belize had to harmonize the closed season, which we had done over the past two years. These last two fishing season we have harmonized those from the first of March to the end of June. That also required for us to increase the size limit for lobster. So, in 2018, 2019, which Belize had not complied then, OPESCA wrote a letter to our government saying, you know what let's review why you have not implemented these regulations. So, Belize requested an extension to 2019 to implement some of these measures in place. We have had these ongoing discussions, especially at the levels of cooperatives and some of the fishers associations. June last year, we had these discussions again with the main exporters, which is Northern National and Rainforest to say you know what, let us move forward with this and let us do it for the next fishing season. That is why we passed that law last year, and maybe the public has it wrong, but the regulations come into force the first of March."
"We are to consult with the fisheries council, there is one thing that we are still having some discussions in terms of the escape gap."
Reporter "High gas prices makes fishing more expensive right now than it has ever been and the sizes that are have been implemented since March first, means that with all the gas that these fishermen are spending to go out there, the size of their catches are much smaller. This after the government already took away gillnets and people are saying effectively you've taken bread out of their mouth. How does the department respond to that?"
Rigoberto Quintana, Acting Fisheries Administrator "We cannot use the excuse of high fuel prices and not be a responsible institution to manage the fisheries, whether prices go for one dollar or twenty dollars, our mandate at fisheries department is to manage the lobster resources in this country. We have a program under the fisheries improvement program through National and Northern Cooperative, Belize's lobster is being rated among the 5 international countries participating - is being rated as B, meaning that it is well manage in the region - is one of the few lobster fisheries being properly manage in the region and we want to keep it as that so that then we can also continue to access those niche markets."
Reporter "If you do not put these regulations in now, what do you project with happen? if they continue to fish they always have for lobster."
Rigoberto Quintana "I think by increasing the lobster sizes, it gives lobster more chances of reproducing before it is harvested. We expect that there should be more abundance of stocks in the wild and I think the international community will give us higher rating and more access to premium markets. Yes, the cooperatives have indicated that probably initially they might see a 15% decline in production, but eventually that production will stabilize."
"In Belize we have not done a full evaluation of the lobster stock fisheries. We have done some preliminary assessments in the last 2 years with some expert from Nicaragua and we are engaging the environmental defense fund to bring some experts from Cuba or Mexico to do a complete evaluation of the lobster stock and if there is some recommendation to look at quota system and other management measure we will put those in place."
Quintana shared a press release that said quote: "The department is of the view that the implementation of changes to the escape gap for lobster traps will need to be deferred until further studies are completed that will be consistent with the size limits established."
Fisher-folks contend that the Department of Fisheries has not provided proper consultations on the changes. These fisher-folks are now requesting a meeting with the Minister of Blue Economy, to ventilate their concerns. On the other hand, Quintana contends that they are being consulted.
Rigborto Quintana, Acting Fisheries Administrator
“In terms of fisher-folks representation in Belize, maybe some fisher folks are not aware, but we have the highest decision body in this country, which is the Fisheries Council. There we have four representation of fishers, we have the Chunox Fishermen Association, we also have the two largest cooperative, which they form part of the Council, and they participate in these decisions. Whether this information is not being channeled to the other fishermen is something we have to discuss further. But they are informed of all the measures the Department is taking. They are being consulted.”
For the last few weeks, the officials from the Ministry of Blue Economy have been visiting fishing communities to put out public relations fires ahead of the start of this year's lobster season. On July 1, several new rules will be enforced on the local fishing community.
The rule change that is causing the biggest controversy for the local fishing community is a decision to increase the minimum size of lobster tails that can be legally sold from 4 ounces to 4.5 ounces.
It's a very small numerical change, but it's a big deal according to some fisherfolk. That's because most of the lobsters they can catch during the majority of the season are around 4 ounces, they claim. If the fisheries enforcement teams catch them with lobster tails that are less than 4.5 ounces in weight, they will immediately be charged for possessing undersized fisheries products.
We've seen a petition from the Caye Caulker community which demands that the government reverse this change.
Then, there's a press release sent out last month from a collective of fisherfolk who call themselves the United Fishermen Committee. They say quote, "We take this opportunity to reiterate that these regulations are not beneficial or sustainable for the fishermen of Belize." End quote.
Members of the fishing community in Sarteneja invited our newsroom to witness a community meeting that was organized to vent their collective frustrations with the new rules. Our Daniel Ortiz and camera man Abdul Zelaya traveled to the northeastern edge of the Corozal District to hear their views, and here's that story:
When our news team arrived in the Village shortly before midday, we found a crowd of fishermen and women from Sarteneja, Copper Bank, and Chunox. They were engaged in a community meeting to discuss why they have big objections to a fisheries regulation that the Briceno Administration has implemented.
That change to the fisheries rules is that on July 1st, 2022, when the new lobster season opens, all fisherfolk will have to deliver lobster tails of 4.5 ounces or more. Previously, they could deliver lobster tails that measured 4 ounces. If they are caught with lobster tails smaller than 4.5 ounces, they will be breaking the law.
The authorities want fishermen to start catching bigger lobsters, and although the change is only a difference of 0.5 ounces, these communities seem ready to resist it strenuously.
In the community, "Where the Sun Sets On The Water," the fisherfolk who talked to us said the same thing. To them, this change means a decline in their take-home earnings and an injury to their livelihoods.
Benedicto Perez - Sarteneja Fisherman, 20 years "Fishermen have never been consulted when the decisions are being made. For the many years I have been and experiencing this implementation of regulations, fishermen are the last ones to know what's going on."
Octavio Flores - Sarteneja Fisherman, 50 years "If that's the movement that he is trying to make, we will not survive. I used to deliver a thousand pounds [of lobster]. If he continues with this law that he is pushing, the most I can put for this season, if God gives me the strength, is 200 pounds. What will I do with a drum and a half of gas that I burnt, food, ice, water, everything? With what will I pay my workers?"
Daniel Ortiz "So, you're saying they're hitting your bottom line hard."
Octavio Flores "Definitely, with what will I come and maintain my family? I have little grandchildren who are going to school. I have one of my granddaughters who is going to high school. Where will I find this money now? What is he trying to tell me, that I should become a thief, or do something out of the way? No sir. I cannot believe that. I can't take this. We have to do something. We have to stand up like a fisherman and fight for our rights."
Rodrigo Lopez - Sarteneja Fisherman, 4 Years "Whenever the season opens, we, as fishermen, give the first 5 strong products. We come with a strong product, which is the big lobsters. Sometimes we bring 4.5, 4.6, 4.7 [ounces], and in our batch of lobsters, we bring 4.2, 4.3. but you will only get that on the first 4-5 trips. You will get the big lobster. After that, there will be a decrease, so you will only be fishing lobster from 4.0 to 4.5 [ounces]. I will not say that you won't get lobster above the 4.5. You will get it, but it is not as much as the beginning of the opening."
Daniel Ortiz "You're saying immediately that disqualifies all the other lobsters says later in the season that can be delivered because you will be breaking the law."
Rodrigo Lopez "Yes, we're going to be breaking the law, and I think that it should be - the law should stay [at] 4.0."
Neftali Verde - Sarteneja Fisherman, 20 Years "Gasoline went up. The food went up, and we're expecting an expense of $250. [On] some boats, they have $300 in expenses."
Daniel Ortiz "For every two-week trip."
Neftali Verde "Every week trip, [for] like four or five days fishing, and actually if you're making an income of five - let's say $600 average. You have $300 in expenses. 50% of that $600 will be deducted from the 0.5 ounces that we won't be catching anymore."
Daniel Ortiz "Or can't deliver."
Neftali Verde "-Or can't deliver, so we remain with $300, and that is just covering our expenses of the trip. So what will our families eat at home?"
Ovel Leonardo - Organizer, Fisherfolk Community Meeting "I feel like to regulate something, you have to get consultations, and if we had consultations throughout this country, and the fishers agreed, then I would support it. But so far, no consultations; I believe we live in a country with freedom of speech."
Benedicto Perez "It's going to affect me in my daily bread. You know, it's like you're taking away my tools, or your taking - because we just go and hunt. Whatever God provides for us, that's what we take home for our kids."
So, what do they think about the argument of sustainable fishing being in favor of this change? After all, the wisdom being offered is that a reduction in the overfishing pressures means that future generations of Belizeans will be able to make their livelihood out of lobster fishing.
Daniel Ortiz "They're trying to ensure that your kids and your grandkids will have lobster in the sea to catch if and when they become fishermen."
Benedicto Perez "Okay, there are certain parts of the entire Belizean waters that have different types of lobsters. Like in the north, this is - everybody knows this. Everyone who lives on the coast or has a link with fishermen knows that in the north part of Belize, they don't have big lobsters. Caye Caulker, the whole of San Pedro, Bacalar Chico, up to Goff's Caye, it's like one sized lobster. You can bearly find 5 or 6-ounce lobsters."
Neftali Verde "It's a certain amount of fishermen who fish outside the reef. Outside, the reef doesn't affect that much. But as soon as you jump inside the reef, the average size is 4.5 below."
Octavio Flores "Turneffe Island is a place that always - no matter what we do. The government can close the season for 100 years, and we go back again, the same size of lobster we will find in that area."
Daniel Ortiz "Which is how big?"
Octavio Flores "4 ounces."
Daniel Ortiz "So, you automatically can fish there."
Octavio Flores "Yes."
These fishermen also claim that according to their experience at sea, lobsters with 4-ounce tails are already mature enough to reproduce and that they aren't extracting juveniles.
Benedicto Perez "In my experience as a fisherman, I've seen four-ounce lobster tails having eggs. So, that is a sign that they are fully developed. They're ready to reproduce. So, I do respect and understand their scientific reasons. But I, as a fisherman, see different things out there."
Neftali Verde "So we believe that four-ounce lobsters are already mature; it's already an adult. And I think it won't affect the industry."
Daniel Ortiz "Explain why you do you think it won't affect [it]."
Neftali Verde "Because actually, they're on the reproduction level."
We understand that Andre Perez, the Minister responsible for fisheries, has met with different communities to hear their complaints and allay their fears. We are told that he will visit Sarteneja on Friday for a community meeting.
Consultation on Fisheries Amendment Yields Compromises
Minister of Blue Economy and Civil Aviation, Andre Perez has been meeting with fishing communities across the country to hear their concerns on the new Fisheries Act amendment which seeks to increase the size of lobster catch permitted to four point five ounces. From the first few consultations held, several decisions have been taken. The time allotted for fishermen to set traps has been extended from ten to fifteen days. The proposal to adjust the gap on the lobster trap is now shelved until next year. Additionally, the time span for the lobster season has been amended. But, there is still some work to do, because as it appears, fisher folks are still not pleased with the increase in the permitted catch size. Minister Perez was a guest on Open Your Eyes this morning where he explained the need for the amendments.
Andre Perez, Minister of Blue Economy and Civil Aviation
“First of all it is not a new regulation. That is the first thing. That has been in place since 2019 and signed by the previous administration. But, it is not about whether or not it was signed before from a different administration. Once it was vetted through the Fisheries Department, we look at it then it is a good regulation. It is being studied and we have to also let the people know that this is binding, that we have to be harmonized with the region, not only Central America, but the Caribbean because we are a member of OSPESCA from SICA, with Dominican Republic and of course we are a part of the CRFM, the Caribbean Regional Fishing Mechanism. So, we need to be harmonized. These are binding and for so many years it has been, let’s put it over. Let’s wait another year, another year, and also lacking political will as well. Who wants to take the bull by the horn? It must be done. And that is what yours truly is doing, facing the backlash. And, we are clearing it. We had a very fruitful meeting in Caye Caulkers. It was very robust. Our people there, and I know my people there are very passionate about what they do. But, in the end the spirit of compromise was able to come out. Sometimes we cannot agree, we agree to disagree. I can make changes as minister. I am able to make some amendments in terms of the time they will set in the lobster traps. There is a date when you can set those traps in the water, July first that the season opens, and it calls for ten days. But, they justified and gave us information. They are the ones on the ground, the experts, how it works. We recognized that and we respect that. We were able to make that amendment to say okay; instead of ten let’s do fifteen days. In terms of the escape gaps where certain lobsters can get out, we were proposing to make it bigger and it caused a stir. We were willing to look at that and say let us put it on hold. Let us see what happening in the next year. But certainly the amount that is most important is the weight. The four and a half ounces, that stands.”
While the Ministry of Blue Economy makes its rounds across the country consulting with fisher folks, we spoke with the Minister of Tourism earlier today to get his take on the possible impact of the revised Fisheries Act on the travel and leisure sector. After all, visitors flock to Belize to experience our seafood cuisines.
Anthony Mahler, Minister of Tourism & Diaspora
“Initially, I think it’s going to have some impact, but I think with the proper research, with the proper educational campaigns it is going to be beneficial in the long term and we want an industry that is sustainable. I believe that the Minister of Blue Economy and his team have done a tremendous amount of work in ensuring that they have the right information and making the right decisions and so, in short term, yes it’s going to have an impact, but in the long term it’s going to be for the betterment of the fisher folks.”