Why We Should All Care How Our Food Is Caught
For generations, Belizean fishers have been exemplary stewards in the management of national fisheries. Testament to this has been fisher support in national efforts at sustainability such as the establishment of marine protected areas and replenishment zones (and their expansion); seasons and quotas for products like lobster and conch; and most recently, the zoning of national waters to manage access to fishing grounds. Expected and unexpected challenges have naturally impacted the implementation of each of these initiatives but given that a strong, sustainable fishery is the big picture, support for these efforts endures. You see, Belizean fisheries directly benefit more than 15,000 of us every day. And that’s just on the commercial end. For these men and women, fishing is not just a way of life, it’s their lifeblood.
Long before science confirmed it, Belizean fishers have appreciated the benefit of making choices today to avoid a lack of options tomorrow. Around the region and the world, Belizeans have witnessed how corruption, a lack of transparency and unsustainable practices have resulted in fishermen risking life and limb in a desperate race to fish smaller and fewer species in deeper water; and never has it been more expensive to do so. We’ve also had a front row seat to the mayhem that plays out every day at sea in illegal and destructive activities.
The fact that one such practice has undermined national efforts has not been lost on Belizean fishers. For decades, they’ve seen this gear mock the protected status of creatures like turtles, dolphins and manatees. For decades, they’ve seen first-hand the destructive and indiscriminate nature of this gear for species that ought to be released. For decades, fishers have recommended that we don’t use this gear. And yet today, we’re still talking about gillnets.
So, what’s a gillnet? A gillnet is designed to catch fish by allowing only their heads to get through a walllike mesh, thereby entrapping them by the gills. Everyone accepts that gillnets are very efficient at trapping fish. But they’re too “good”. Gillnets trap everything, meaning they kill both targeted and undesired species. To make matters worse, most of the time, these undesired species end up discarded as “by catch”; hence the adjectives most commonly associated with them: indiscriminate and destructive.
The adverse ecological and economic impacts to Belize is glaring in the context of our national financial landscape. Belize’s economy depends on healthy marine resources via a) tourism; since marine attractions are the backbone of our tourism product, and b) commercial fishing in terms of jobs, food security and national export commodities. Lobster and conch are Belize’s most lucrative seafood exports. The total annual output for commercial fisheries is approximately 30 million dollars. Finfish generates just under a million dollars. Since not all finfish are caught using gillnets, gillnets represent a fraction of that figure.
But then there’s cultural pride. The fact that we are home to the second longest barrier reef in the world is our national claim to global fame. It would be impossible to attempt to describe Belize without beautiful and bountiful marine resources. And fresh fish is always on the menu—breakfast, lunch and dinner. So, it’s also just as hard to imagine a Belize where Belizeans cannot enjoy a fresh from the sea seafood meal. But the reality is that fish, especially finfish, is already hard to source in some parts of the country. In fact, the importation of all kinds of fish, even catfish, is already happening to meet the demand of both citizens and tourists. Just as disturbingly, sometimes these imported fish are being sold as local favorites. The reality that one day frozen fish might be our only option is a powerful incentive to identify and use ways to catch finfish sustainably in Belizean waters.
So what’s the plan?
Of the 2,716 commercially licensed Belizean fishermen, in 2018, there are 83 licensed gillnet users country wide. The proposal already being endorsed by fishers, including current and former gillnetters, is that following a phase-out period, the use of gillnets would no longer be allowed in Belizean waters. During the phase out period, there would be activities, including access to financing opportunities, to give those fishers access to alternative gear, entrepreneurial skills training, financial literacy and access to valued added marketing opportunities and support. Some of the 2,633 commercial fishers, as well as recreational fishers have even offered to share their fin-fish catching methods with their counterparts. Isn’t that a thing of beauty? Fishers keen to help each other to ensure that everyone can keep fishing! That should be music to the ears of decision-makers. You see, it would be far easier supporting 83 families replace their incomes from gillnetting than help 2,500 Belizeans find entirely new jobs.
That’s right, 2,500 jobs. That’s how many Belizeans are directly employed in the sports fishing industry. That’s the kind of fishing where anglers fly into Belize from all over the world, head out to a fly-fishing resort or lodge, pay for a sports fishing license, wake up at dawn, cast all day in the hopes that a permit, tarpon or bonefish will bite. And if they get lucky, they’ll even get to land it and take a photo. And then you know what they do? They carefully take the hook out the fish’s mouth and they, wait for it, put the fish back in the water. And then they start casting all over again. And they’ll do this for days. Paying guides from sunrise to sunset to take them to the best spots to find these finicky fish. Whether they catch one or not, fly fishing guides get paid. And good money. Economic studies show that sports fishing generates approximately 100 million dollars, yes you read that right: 100 million dollars annually. And just as importantly, all that income flows through our entire economy via sports fishing licenses, tour guides, restaurants, taxi drivers, gas stations, shopping centers, vegetable stores, resort staff, government taxes, on and on.
But since the species that flyfishermen are paying to catch and release are often bycatch in gillnets, those 2,500 fishers and their families are keen on supporting gillnetters use different methods to catch fish. That way, everyone wins. That way, everyone gets paid. That way, everyone keeps fishing
So what’s the catch?
As a people, we’re still talking about gillnets two decades after the first petition went to the Minister of Fisheries to stop their use. You might be asking why. So are we. We have some good ideas about where the resistance is rooted. As many Belizean fishers will agree, gillnets are the gear of choice for foreign fishers; typically, the ones who sneak in illegally to pillage our waters and head home across the border. The reality is that some people benefit from allowing this practice to continue unabated. If you dive deeper into the issue of illegal fishing, it’s also about the types of fish and other seafood products that they are targeting.
Resources for monitoring and enforcement are always limited. But the reality is that by its very nature, gillnet fishing is very difficult to monitor, let alone enforce. Nets are often set overnight and because they catch everything, by the time the nets are checked in the morning, everything has already drowned. The Coalition for Sustainable Fisheries, a group made up of both fishermen and nonGovernmental organizations, maintains that those resources for enforcement would be much better used to stop illegal fishing activity, most Belize fishers say is the number one threat to all Belizean fishers.
Through constructive dialogue, the Coalition is in a position to support Belizean gillnetters lead on the next steps towards sustainable fishing practices. Through open communication and transparency, together, we can all play a role in safeguarding our food security, our fisheries resources and just as importantly, our fishing livelihoods. If we fish sustainably, we can always fish. If we fish sustainably, we can always enjoy fresh fish. If we fish sustainably, we can always catch and release sports fish species. And if we fish sustainably, then future generations of Belizeans can always rely on fishing as a way of life.
So never be afraid to ask what you’re paying for…and what your eating. Ask where your food came from and how it was caught. By voting with your dollar and your fork, you will help to keep Belizean fishers fishing.
Vice President, Oceana Belize