Written By: Wil Maheia to the supporters of the Belize Territorial Volunteers (BTV)
Organized fly fishing came to Punta Gorda (PG) about twenty years ago. At that time, it was not yet a major industry or a major sport in PG. The Toledo Institute for Development and Environment (TIDE) had just been established around this time. Together, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and TIDE worked hard to conserve one of the most biodiverse marine areas known today as the Port Honduras Marine Reserve (PHMR). Located north of PG, the PHMR was heavily hunted for manatees and was overfished with gillnets, a destructive weapon that harvested and killed a lot of fish and by-catch.
To find a more sustainable alternative to the gillnets, TNC and TIDE worked hand-in-hand with the fisherfolks in search for a better solution. During this time, my friend Perk Perkins, was on the TNC national board and his sister was on the TNC Ohio Board. These siblings are huge fans of Belize and with friends like these, we were well on our way to finding an alternative to gillnetting in Belize. Orvis provided generous assistance to TNC to organize the first fly fishing guide training course in Southern Belize and the rest was history. Today, fly fishing brings in more income than any other industry in Southern Belize.
With PHMR being patrolled to the north of PG, the area south of PG was left unmonitored and more vulnerable to gillnet activities. Many gillnetters were reluctant to abandon their ways and thus, moved their fishing operations south of PG. The waters here were already heavily fished due to the richness of bait fish flowing into the Gulf of Honduras from three major rivers. With the Guatemalan border just a few miles away, this area south of PG also attracts many Guatemalans, who continue to use gillnets as their main method to catch fish. With gillnets now banned in PHMR, the unprotected southern waters became a mecca for gillnet fishing.
During the past ten years, there have been much campaigning to ban gillnets in all of Belize. Belizeans saw the damage done by these nets to the environment and fish species and realized that a gillnet ban would help to improve water conditions. As a kid, I remember that catching a permit was a given when visiting these waters. Permit were frequently caught in seine nets. The waters are rich with shrimp and crabs due to the tall strands of mangroves, attracting the permit to feed in these areas. Due to gillnet and seine net fishing, permits have become an endangered species in the area. In the past twenty years, no one can remember catching a permit on a line in these waters, much less by catch and release.
The campaign to ban gillnets was further boosted with efforts from Oceana and a coalition of fishers. In December 2019, the government of Belize passed a law deeming it illegal to catch fish with gillnets south of PG. Although the law was passed, it was not well-known, so the Belize Territorial Volunteers (BTV), a radical group of proud Belizeans dedicated to saving the oceans and forest, set out to educate the people in the area about the new law. In addition, the BTV actually patrols these waters themselves on a regular basis. The BTV’s efforts are made possible by you, our loyal readers, and your continued support to help provide education, awareness, and continued surveillance of our precious waters and fish species.
Fast forward to the present time, several days ago, the BTV was on patrol in these southern waters, despite COVID-19 and closed border conditions. BTV suspected that a few illegal fishers from Guatemala were crossing Belizean borders regardless of increased surveillance by the Coast Guard. As is the norm during a patrol trip, a bit of recreational fishing took place. Well lo and behold! We were there not more than twenty minutes when the line went tight. There were five people on board the boat and no one would have guessed that the caught fish was a permit as it had not been seen in these waters in over a decade. As I reeled in the fish, it was obvious that it was a precious trophy catch. As it arrived closer to the boat, we saw the characteristic fins that confirmed it was indeed a permit. One guy shouted with excitement, “Damn! It IS a permit! Bring it in!” I reminded them that it is illegal to catch and keep a permit and of course, they swore at me. I had no doubt as to what the fate of this permit would be – to be released back into the waters. As the permit got closer to the boat, I was ecstatic but the guys kept yelling, “Pull it in! We gonna eat that!” None of these guys are into sport fishing so they could not fully appreciate the fish’s value. “Grab your camera and get pics for proof,” I instructed the crew. You should have seen the dismayed looks on their faces when I unhooked it and set it free. What an amazing feeling! I was grinning ear to ear, feeling so happy at this prized catch. And to top it off, this catch happened just in time for World Ocean Day – what a notable way to honor this day!
I want to thank each and every one of you for your continued support to the BTV’s mission. Your contributions especially help with fuel costs so that we can continue to patrol the southern waters of PG and keep this area gillnet-free. This area has enormous potential for sport fishing. Due to the amount of rainfall and silt from the rivers, the waters may not be clear as other areas. But these same fish migrate to areas with clear waters so keeping our fish stock healthy and protected would enhance the sport fishing industry. No one in the area can remember the last time they saw a permit. Everyone agreed that it’s been more than twenty years since a permit was caught and released. Every fisherman’s catch has a story and I just had to tell this one. Thanks for reading this and for helping us keep the work alive!