Written By: Andrea Polanco
It has been six months since the COVID-19 pandemic has grounded Belize’s tourism, which has resulted in a sharp decline in economic activity. And while it may be the industry that has taken the hardest hit for Belize, the two thousand seven hundred plus licensed commercial fisherfolk will remind you that their bread and butter, too, has suffered a massive blow.
The demand for seafood has dwindled on the local and international markets which means less money in the fisherman’s pockets and a dent in the country’s revenues earned through fisheries exports.
How is COVID-19 affecting fisheries?
Belize’s Lobster Season opened on June fifteenth but, much to the fisherfolks’ dismay, the prices for lobster tails and whole lobsters were down significantly compared to 2019.Fishermen were offered a first payment of twelve dollars and a second payment at a later date, because of the unstable international market.
Fisherman William Johnson has been operating in Turneffe for the past forty years – this price, he says, is one of the worse he has received for harvesting lobsters. “The price has dropped so much that I am simply not making the finance I used to make when the lobster was working and the fishing was good It’s one of the worse I have experienced and it is all because of COVID-19.”
The drop in demand for seafood on the international market has resulted in a sharp decline in prices for fishers. Lobster tails go for ten and twelve dollars to cooperatives for the export market. That price, according to fishers, is two and a half times less than last year’s price.
As a result, Sarteneja-Caye Caulker fisherman, Edwardo Arceo, called for a fixed price for lobster, “I believe that it is going to cripple the local economy. Why can’t they standardize the price of the seafood industry? Why do the fishermen have to go out there for twelve dollars a pound? You need to catch three lobsters to get one pound. And that is the reality.”
But fishermen are also struggling to sell their products on the local market because of the closure of hotels and restaurants. And the joblessness and salary cuts have forced many consumers to decide between one pound of fresh fish for eight dollars or pre-packaged frozen chicken for half that price. And as Johnson discovered, fish often can’t compete with the most affordable protein on the market.
“It is kinda tough for me to sell my fish because most of the people can’t afford to buy for what we are selling it for. So, we gotta reduce the price to sell. We also have to cut down the amount of products that we bring in because if we bring too much, we can’t sell it. Sometimes, we have to give away some of it to the people who want fish but can’t afford to buy.”
And containment restrictions and access to local markets have created other challenges for fisherfolk. Fisherman Jason Young describes how his livelihood has been crippled as a result, “It has been rough. Really, really rough. No source of income. Everything just locked down. No movements. [I was] stuck on the island for a month. It is really rough. We deh from hand to mouth .We are taking it one day at a time – all we can do.”
But months later and nothing has changed and Chairman of the National Fishermen Cooperative Elmer Rodriguez says that’s because it is out of their control. He points out that it is the demand in the U.S.A that determines the price.“The prices on the foreign market are not the same. It has drastically dropped everything by about forty to forty-five percent when compared to last year.”
How are fisherfolk responding?
Fisherfolk are scaling back on fishing activities to reduce their catch, while others are slashing prices to sell on the local market. Others are also seeking alternative livelihoods to supplement their income and provide for their families.
For the first time in forty years, fisherman Johnson is seeking to diversify by turning to seaweed farming. “I am thinking of going into this seaweed farming to help me out with my lobstering [sic] because the first lobster season is not good and now with the pandemic, I need to do something else.”
And Johnson’s partner agrees with him. Fisherwoman Jessica Gibson has only been fishing for the past couple years but she also recognizes that the fishing industry was already troubled before the pandemic dealt its blow. “It wah come in on the side because we do fishing and diving and sometimes the fishing and diving don’t work out because there are a lot of fishers competing for these resources so sometimes it doesn’t pay off and so the seaweed that we do on the side will give us extra to help us on the side.”
Outlook for livelihoods & recovery
Because the situation is fluid, it is not certain when the sector will recover and at what rate it will do so after the pandemic.
Rodriguez says that they may even be forced to make workers redundant in the longer run if the world market price plummets further. He likened the current state to the economic crisis of the early 2000s. He says it took years for the market to recover – he fears the pandemic has the potential to do the same. “We experienced something like this in 2005-2006, when the US economy contracted. It will take time for world market to recover – I would say it took years to recover the last time and with COVID-19 it will take some time, too.”
If the pandemic persists and the economic fallout continues, some fisherfolk may not be able to afford to earn a living through fishing. Currently, fisherfolk are experiencing hard times and many are struggling to support their households. And because the sector provides employment for vulnerable groups, it is not far-fetched that these challenges can give rise to secondary impacts of COVID-19, including poverty and hunger.
Is there any consequence for management?
With the collapse of the tourism industry and slowdown of the global economy, most marine protected areas lost their biggest revenue stream which has forced them to cut costs. The Association of Protected Areas Management Organizations calculates a loss of one point three million dollars with a projection of two point four million in financial loss through the end of the year.
And managers of these protected areas are concerned these revenue losses will result in scale down of monitoring and enforcement which will see illegal fishers and other nefarious operatives capitalizing on the situation to engage in illicit activities.
Valdemar Andrade, the Executive Director of the Turneffe Atoll Sustainability Association, shares the TASA experience, “We toned down a lot. For us, when we calculated the loss it was tremendous. At the start of the pandemic, we were minus seven hundred and fifty-thousand dollars and we gradually worked with partners and have it down to four hundred and seventy-thousand right now.”
Jose Perez, Executive Director, and Association of Protected Areas Management Organizations points out the serious consequence this can have, “If we should not recover, the situation could be dire; the many gains that have been achieved over the years when it comes to biodiversity protection and conservation and the safeguarding of our ecosystems will be very exposed. So, imagine how much that will affect operations; not just for the conservation work that needs to be done but also very importantly for the surveillance and enforcement.”
In a matter of weeks, the local commercial fishing hit rough seas because of COVID-19.
And with the global slowdown of the commercial fishing industry, it’s bad news for anyone who makes a living from the sea, however fishermen will feel the brunt of the economic impact. Despite the hardships this pandemic creates for the industry, it must also serve as an opportunity to demonstrate that fisherfolk must diversify their livelihoods and that there are more sustainable ways to manage these natural resources post-COVID-19. But, as a shared resource, it also highlights the need for additional interventions that can champion support needed to shape the economic recovery, as well as the sustainable future for fishing in Belize.