Written By: Carolee Chanona
Side-skirting downtown Belize City, the zinc roofing of Conchshell Bay’s open-air fish market glistens gold with a setting sun. Fishers are here with their catch of the day from inshore and offshore expeditions: deepwater snappers, hand-speared hogfish, daunting barracudas, rosy strawberry groupers, plentiful mackerels. Walk too close, and you’ve got rogue scales—airborne from the back of a trusty, dull butter knife—as proof of your visit.
When the fishing crews come home, Belize’s coast comes alive with activity.
Here in the city, skiffs pull straight up to this canal’s small structure and its cement tables laden with yawning indents from years of use. Fed by the Belize River, iceboxes line your feet to keep things just cool enough from the heat of the Caribbean—you won’t find anything frozen here. Although more often than not, you will find a small flask of local rum, a long-awaited comfort of civilization for the returning fishermen after days at sea. Women sort the catch while the men charge a dollar per pound extra to scale, gut and fillet your choice of fresh finfish. There’s rarely a slow day at the fish market—unless there’s inclement weather—which is half the testament to Belize’s accessibility, availability, and weight of demand for marine resources.
This is Belizean fisheries in motion.
“Blessed with wealth untold” is no exaggeration from Belize’s National Anthem. A proud people, the average Belizean springs at any given opportunity to remind you: we’ve got the second longest barrier reef in the world. The Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System—which runs the entirety of the country’s 185-mile long coastline—comprises the 625-mile Mesoamerican Reef system with its seven key marine protected areas (MPAs), over four hundred cayes and three of the Western Hemisphere’s four total atolls.
The stand-alone phenomena is inherently in our blood.
And for more than 15,000 of Belizean fisherfolk, it’s more than just their bread and butter: it’s how every single day starts and ends. That’s just on the commercial end of who directly benefits from Belize’s fisheries, who hold a unique vantage point in the industry. You see, Belize’s coastal fisheries mainly focus on three resources: lobster, conch, and finfish. Artisanal or small-scale capture fisheries—where fishers operating from the shore or small fishing vessels use selective methods to catch fish from coastal waters for local human consumption—are an often irreplaceable source of nutrition and income in developing countries like Belize. In the context of our national financial landscape, the total annual output for commercial fisheries export—such as Spiny Lobster and Queen Conch—was approximately $37.2 million dollars in 2018.
Local Fishery, Global Commodity: The “Hidden” Power of Artisanal Fishers & Their Regulations
In 2012, a research report entitled Hidden Harvests championed by The World Bank provided admittedly rough first estimates that small-scale fisheries take 38% of the total fish catch from the ocean and, when inland waters are included, almost half of the global fish catch.
According to this report, these small-scale fisheries could account for more than 90% of the world’s commercial fishers, processors, and other people employed along the value chain—that's roughly 108 million people.
That would make small scale fisheries the ocean’s largest employer. Because these small-scale fisheries are often found in coastal waters with high biodiversity like Belize, fishers have served as traditional stewards of these ecosystems. On the economic frontier, artisanal fishers hold great potential to be a maritime superpower; they’re the first to see climate change or fish stocks decline, but they’re also the first to see functioning fisheries regulations.
Governments around the world are therefore beginning to recognize the unique, shared characteristics of small-scale fisheries and the challenges they face, and Belize can be a model example. Especially when it comes to applying practical, sustainable stewardship to the ~2,716 commercially licensed Belizean fishermen—the latest 2018 figure.
Tangible, Historic Regulations
Many of Belize’s gains over the years are tangible, with notable additions in recent years. For generations, Belizean fishers have been exemplary stewards in the management of national fisheries.
For one, that’s the establishment of seven marine protected areas (MPAs) and replenishment zones. In July 2020, Belize expanded the Sapodilla Caye Marine Reserve in Southern Belize seven times its size, as one of the most underrepresented habitats in Belize's MPAs system. The affectionately known “Sap Cayes'' act as a spawning aggregation site for numerous finfish species, including the endangered Nassau Grouper, and as a habitat for deep-slope snapper and bottom-dwelling species. Live coral cover within the complex ranges as high as 60%—an equivalence to the healthiest reefs in the entire Caribbean—faces continuous threat of transboundary illegal fishing to neighboring Guatemala and Honduras. Now, challenges lie ahead to equally expand biodiversity monitoring resources and law enforcement presence.
And in another bold step, the Government of Belize has approved a plan to set aside 10% of its territorial waters as no-take MPAs, nearly tripling the size of all its existing zones from a mere 3% beforehand. Acting locally, global recognition comes in the form of Belize’s impact of its sustainable fisheries. According to 2020’s ‘Mesoamerican Reef Report Card’ by Healthy Reef for Healthy People, Belize’s no-take zones show growing fish populations and biodiversity, with a Reef Health Index (RHI) at 3.0 out of 5.0—the highest in the region. Hand-in-hand, that biodiversity helps to support populations of conch, lobster and reef fish inside its mangroves, corals, seagrass and cayes.
In the last decade, while Belize continues to bank on its own regulated seasons, the minimum lengths and quotas for commercially-critical Spiny Lobster and Queen Conch remain vulnerable to increased fishing pressures, enforcement and even climate change. Fisherfolk of Lighthouse Reef report mature Conch going deeper each year into cooler waters, while Lobster shows a decline in stocks—with less adult lobsters found in the traditional wooden traps long before the season is over.
Research indicates there’s urgent room in the water to revisit the science of measuring adult Conch for harvest, and further consideration into the seasonal length for Lobster. While empirical studies of Conch suggest relationships between lip thickness and sexual maturity vary spatially, it's the most reliable, easily measurable proxy indicator that can effectively restrict the harvest of juveniles. Belize's current regulations demand a minimum shell length of 178 mm (7 inches) or minimum meat weight of 85 g (3oz), but average shell length of adult queen conch are recorded to be smaller and smaller—a phenomenon previously studied in fish species subjected to overfishing. Instead, refinement of the individual size-based regulations for conch in Belize to lip thickness can facilitate local recovery and maximize long-term benefits to fishers.
A Legislative Legacy
And culminating Belize’s most recent fishery win: a nationwide gillnet ban in November 2020. The widely flouted, highly unregulated and loosely enforced gillnets ravaged Belize’s fisheries as an indiscriminate gear targeting anything in its path, laden with bycatch and more often than not, discards.
After all, we’ve seen the deadly damage of gillnets first-hand: the disappearance of sawfish in Belizean waters. These large rays with long, chainsaw-like nose extensions—called rostrums—are the most endangered and poorly known of all sharks, rays, and by some measure, of all groups of marine fish. Although, how one of the world’s largest fish species managed to blink out from Belize’s waters is no question: their demise and gillnets are inextricably entangled.
By ridding Belizean waters of gillnets, protected species like bonefish, tarpon, permit, manatees and even endangered sharks face one less threat. And as an optimist at heart, perhaps the gillnet-free murky waters of Belizean estuaries holds a relic of the past, for those of us still in pursuit of a ghost — the sawfish.
More than 97% of commercial fishers in Belize don’t use gillnets, but for the 3% that do, the Belizean government signed an agreement with Oceana and the Coalition for Sustainable Fisheries in August 2020 to help licensed gillnet fishers transition to other jobs. This was done in addition to implementing a nationwide gillnet ban in Belize’s maritime territory, including its Exclusive Economic Zone.
With this, Belize tackles a triple threat head-on: gillnets, bottom trawling and offshore oil drilling. Besides a historic policy win for Belize and the Belizean people, all of the above is a resounding conservation call to the global community that Belize takes its fisheries, the livelihood of local fishers, and policy plans for a truly Blue Economy seriously.
Combined with strong legislation mandating the conservation of marine reserves for rebuilding depleted fish stocks, managing access to these expanded replenishment zones, and the non-use of destructive fishing methods such as trawling and gillnets, the bite-sized beauty of Belize is one example of the possibility for setting fisheries on a sustainable course. Governments ultimately make the decisions that shape the oceans, but accordance and implementation starts with the artisanal fishers—including the very same ones found at Belize City’s Conchshell Bay.
If policymakers can empower small-scale, artisanal fishers and their communities to secure their fishing grounds and follow a trajectory to alternative livelihoods for diversifying their use of the ocean, it could represent a sea of change for the environment and the people who depend on fishing—beyond just the shores of Belize.
That tide is now, with the less than 50 legally registered and eligible gillnet fisherfolk transitioning to alternative, sustainable livelihoods. Instead, a thriving, abundant sea can be our legacy.
- Oceans Economy and Trade Strategy: Belize. DRAFT Report prepared for UNCTAD and DOALOS (2019)
- Fishing for a Future, Oceana Belize (2019)
- SI No. 107 of 2020 Fisheries Resources (Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve) Order (2020)
- Foley JR, Takahashi M. 2017. Shell Lip Thickness Is the Most Reliable Proxy to Sexual Maturity in Queen Conch (Lobatus gigas) of Port Honduras Marine Reserve, Belize; Informing Management to Reduce the Risk of Growth Overfishing. (Foley and Takahashi 2017)
- Tewfik A, Babcock EA, Appeldoorn RS, Gibson J. 2019. Declining size of adults and juvenile harvest threatens sustainability of a tropical gastropod, Lobatus gigas, fishery. (Tewfik et. al. 2019)