Written By: Andrea Polanco
There is a growing movement in the fishing community in Placencia. Fishers, for the most part, have abandoned unsustainable fishing practices. They’ve had to unlearn a lot of what they knew about fishing. That’s because for decades they have overfished; used destructive fishing gear and engaged in other bad fishing practices. And in the last ten to fifteen years they have been feeling the effects of those practices. So, they have had to learn to fish in ways that ensure Belizeans will have fish to eat for years to come and they will always be able to provide for their families doing what they love – fishing.
Lowell ‘Japs’ Godfrey has been fishing for more than forty years in the waters of Placencia but a few years ago he transitioned some of his strong traditional fishing habits into sustainable fishing practices. This is his take on fishing in Belize.
AP: Set the stage for us. Tell us what it is like working as a traditional fisherman in the industry right now?
LG: From my point of view, it is struggling to keep our head above water. We’re barely surviving. I don’t see that changing right now. We need drastic changes to save it. The eco-system itself – right now, the reef, everything is crumbling. It is in a bad state right now, from my point of view. The challenges for us out there are overfishing; fishermen are also catching undersized products like the lobster and conch. They are catching them before they reach reproductive stage. The fishermen from Placencia are conscious of the environment, leaving the small products but the next guys who come behind us would take it.
AP: It sounds like a lot of present day challenges. You’ve been fishing for many years, so what was it like back then?
LG: I grew up in Placencia and I have been fishing all my life. I became a member of the Placencia Cooperative when I was eighteen years old. Twenty to thirty years ago, marine products were in abundance, especially what we would call the market products that we go after – the lobster, conch and scale fish. Gillnet has always been a part [of what we do] but it is the main driving force behind the depletion of stocks. It depends on how you work the gill net because if you check it for two times for the night then you could release what you don’t want. But if you just put it out there and you go in the morning, then you kill a lot of things. We also find that people use it along the estuaries, along the coast, closing off the mangrove estuaries where fish migrate through, where they have no chance to get tangled. So I think that the location where gillnets are used have a lot of impact on how it affects local fishers.
AP: Now, the gillnet issue is a national discussion in Belize, did you ever use gillnet to fish and what was your experience?
LG: Yes. We used to set it up and down the coast past Placencia – north and south. I could see how it would be encouraging for fishermen because you catch a lot of stock but I would discourage it today. From my own experience, I wouldn’t want to own a net now.
AP: What was the turning point for you – to move from using gillnets to find a more sustainable means?
LG: It was a long time ago. One of the major things is that you have to work at night and I think nights are for me to rest (laughs). But the killing of unwanted products, like rays, saw fish, sharks – which we don’t use commercially. We just dump those, with gill nets we have a lot of stuff that we just dump because we kill it and we don’t use it. That is one of the things that caused me to back off [from using gillnets]. I use the fishing industry not only to earn money but to educate myself about the marine environment. I kind of sponsored myself using the resources to learn about the same resources. After a while, I learn that I, too, was creating some damage. I could see my own trail and that prompted me to start to diversify and develop an alternative livelihood and to encourage other fishermen to ease the pressure on the reef – for example, by seaweed farming.
AP: People feel strongly about this gear, on both sides of the argument. How do Placencia fishermen feel about this gear? Is still being used down there?
LG: In Placencia, gillnet is a relic of the past. We don’t use that any more and we discourage even the idea of starting it up. Way back when we used to use gillnet, among the villages of Monkey River, Placencia and Seine Bight, there were about twenty gillnetters maximum. These days, it is mostly Seine Bight but there are only about three to four persons using this gear. What has happened is that a lot of fishermen have become tour guides and the fact that gillnet kills a lot of the prized fish that the fly-fishers use, like bonefish, permit, tarpon – it is an indiscriminate killer – and now we can catch and release day in and day out off the same fish. A lot of men in Placencia who are traditional fishermen still go and fish but as tour guides they use the same resource to advance their livelihood. Also, we have to go further and stay longer out sea. We are confined within the barrier reef of how we operate and work our fisheries. So, we have to go out there longer and work harder in good or bad weather because our stocks are no longer in the same quantities where we would go to fish.
AP: Some organizations and fishers have called for a ban on gillnets – is this something you would support, based on your experience?
LG: I would support the ban – but I believe we have to help fishermen to create alternative livelihoods. For me, right now, I am currently doing the seaweed farming and that is a viable alternative. So, I would suggest to the people spearheading this move to introduce some sort of alternative livelihoods for these fishermen. These fishermen have families and they have to eat and send their children to school, so I have to give them a right to survive. If I see that they get alternatives, I could wholeheartedly support the ban.
AP: So, there are fishermen who are engaging in irresponsible and illegal fishing – creating more problems for an already troubled industry – why do you think this is?
LG: Well, lack of education. I think the Fisheries Department doesn’t emphasize on it. I think they have to create a curriculum where fishermen have to be trained in laws and other things. So, when you go out there you don’t need to be warned because you’ve already been warned in a classroom. Indeed, some of our own fishermen are responsible for some of the issues and no one is above the law if they are destroying their own industry. It is actually killing the industry. One strike, two strike, three strike, and you are out. Offences like undersized products; operating without a license or fishing in no take zones are serious offences. They don’t need to have a license and should be taken out of the industry. We have to be serious about it.
AP: With all that you’ve shared, how do you feel about the future of fishing [in Belize]?
LG: I think we have future in fishing but we have to be organized. We have to take ownership – own the problems, own the successes – and fix what needs to be fixed. We have some major problems but they can be addressed. We need the fishermen cooperatives, the NGOs, everybody to come together and be partners in the rehabilitation and reconstruction of our industry.
**Note: Interview was condensed for brevity and clarity. Creole words were translated into English.