Highlights — 23 February 2016 — by Adele Ramos
Butchered sharks the result of gill net fishing

BELIZE CITY, Mon. Feb. 22, 2016–Bloody images of butchered sharks went viral on social media today amid a campaign launched to petition the Government of Belize to ban gill net fishing, and to furthermore put an end to shark fishing in Belizean waters. Shark fishing is legal in Belize, and there are fishers licensed to fish for commercial sale both in Belize and abroad, where, on the high end, the fins could fetch nearly US$500 a pound, much more than the meat does. The reports indicate that much of the shark produce may he headed for the Guatemala marketplace.

This morning, MarAlliance, a San Pedro based conservation NGO, posted 17 graphic images on Facebook showing the butchering of sharks landed at Sandbore Caye and Hat Caye at Lighthouse Reef for commercial sale. The pictures show 1 of 5 boats said to have been engaged in shark fishing at Lighthouse Reef between from February 13-17, 2016.

Captioned “Shameful shark kill – World Heritage Lighthouse Reef Atoll,” the post says that, “We have just been alerted by many people to a large kill of sharks in and near the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of the Blue Hole and Half Moon Caye at Lighthouse Reef Atoll…

“These pictures represent a portion of a single day’s fishing with nets and long lines and include at least 32 sharks representing 3 species, including the endangered great hammerhead and pregnant Caribbean reef sharks (and sources counted at least 50 sharks landed in the short space of time they were at the sites).”

According to the report, at least 24 Caribbean reef sharks were killed, including one large, pregnant female, which was skinned. The dead sharks represent “millions of dollars in lost revenue,” MarAlliance claims.

The revenue could accrue, it said, “not only to Belize’s tourism sector and the many families and politicians they support, but also to coral reef ecosystem resilience, as these animals play a critical role in maintaining reef health.”

“Little to none of the shark meat is consumed in Belize (it’s full of neurotoxic mercury) as it’s traditionally exported to Guatemala; and hammerheads (meat and or fins) cannot be legally exported across national boundaries without a specific export license that is ultimately approved by the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES),” MarAlliance said.

We have been able to confirm that much with a source at the Fisheries Department, who said that while there are foreign trade restrictions on hammerhead sharks, those restrictions don’t apply for sale of the shark meat in Belize.

Even as Oceana is campaigning for a ban on gill net fishing, MarAlliance is advocating for an end of shark fishing in Belize.

MarAlliance says, “…shark fishing no longer makes any economic sense for Belize. The inability of fishers to selectively target only the small rapidly reproducing shark species… along with the lack of enforcement means that there is no hope for fostering a sustainable shark fishery.”

Amandala tried reaching Fisheries Administrator, Beverly Wade, for comment on the matter today, but she was unavailable.

Jose Alpuche, Chief Executive Officer in the Ministry with responsibility for Fisheries, told Amandala that as far as he is aware the matter is being investigated by the Fisheries Department. He said that Wade, who had raised the issue with him earlier in the afternoon, would be the best one to comment, as he does not know the details.

Alpuche told us that “the fishing of sharks up to now is not illegal” in Belize, as it seems that the impression was being created that something illegal was being done.

According to the MarAlliance, there was a group of fishermen working under only two fishing licences, which, they said, is illegal.

Amandala understands that under the existing licensing regime, fishers who operate in the commercial sector must, by law, operate under a license in their individual names, as there is no group licence. There is no restriction on the gender of sharks that can be caught – whether the sharks are males or females.

Janelle Chanona, vice president of Oceana in Belize, told the media today that some fishermen had been petitioning for the outlawing of gill net fishing for several years, and she cited one petition going as far back as 1997. Chanona noted that gill nets are the primary gear used to target sharks. (A rare scalloped hammerhead shark was recently snagged in a fisherman’s net in southern Belize.)

Of note is that Oceana recently released a documentary as a part of its campaign to have gill net fishing banned in Belize. Chanona said that the by-catch of this kind of fishing include a range of protected species. Among the fishes netted are tarpons, which would have a much higher economic and biological value if left alive for catch-and-release sport fishing.

MarAlliance is calling on Deputy Prime Minister Gaspar Vega to “support equitable and sustainable fishing in Belize and ban the use of nets and longlines. By doing so, you will support the vast majority of Belize’s fishers, your constituency.” The online petition to Vega, started earlier today on change.org, had over 400 supporters when we logged on about 7:30 tonight.

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