Features — 17 August 2012 — by Kenneth Gale

The present proposed amendments to the Fisheries Act still provide for gill net fishing that will continue the destruction of Belize’s fisheries. Gill net fishing must be outlawed in its entirety. In years past, Belize’s fisheries were of such great magnitude they were unequalled elsewhere. Older fisherman tell of the great schools of Crevale Jacks that were so large that when they were feeding on sprat, the waters were erupted in areas of more than a square mile.

Unfortunately, there are no longer such great schools of Crevale Jacks or schools of other species of fish that were so prominent and plentiful in Belize during earlier years. They have all but disappeared. Their decline and disappearance have been the result of gill net fishing. 90% percent of such gill net fishing has been done by Guatemalan gill net fishermen who come to Belize in their boats loaded with miles of gill nets.

Fortunately, during 2003 and early 2004, Belize had an exceptionally fine Minister of Fisheries, the Hon. Servulo Baeza, who showed great interest in protecting the fisheries and the country’s economy. Baeza held public meetings, took polls, and made surveys regarding gill net fishing and its effect. He eventually arrived at the opinion that, to save the fisheries, gill net fishing had to be outlawed in its entirety.

The first public meeting was held at Monkey River on April 22, 2004 and was recorded. The meeting was attended by Southern gill net fishermen. The fishermen explained the great harm to the industry that resulted from gill net fishing, and how and why employment in the fishing industry would be increased and the fisheries saved if gill net fishing was outlawed. They further explained that the only reason that they fished with gill nets was because the Government of Belize allowed the Guatemalans to do so. Their position was that they would gladly give up gill net fishing if the Guatemalans also were prevented from gill net fishing. Six years later they repeated the statements on television.

At the time of the meeting there were at least forty Guatemalan boats with about 100 Guatemalan gill net fishermen who came to Belize annually, with miles of gill nets, to fish in Belize’s waters. Their catch is salted and the fish taken back to Guatemala for consumption. The boats return from Guatemala bringing back a large supply of gasoline to carry them through their next tour of fishing.

Fishermen were polled throughout the country, as to their views. The vast majority of Belize’s fishermen took the position that gill net fishing should be outlawed in its entirety.

On March 17, 2004, a Fisheries Officer from Punta Gorda was arrested for issuing false fishing licenses to foreign fishermen. At that time the views of the Hon. Baeza were known, and there was a Cabinet shuffle. Baeza was then removed as Minister of Fisheries and the charges against the Fisheries Officer were dismissed.

Action was then taken to amend the Fisheries Regulations that had reserved the right to commercial fishing licenses exclusively to Belizeans. The amendment was to make such licenses available to anyone having permanent residency. This allowed the granting of fishing licenses to Guatemalans after designating them as permanent residents, even though they came each season, with their boats and nets, from their homes in Guatemala.

It was readily apparent that some person(s) or company in Belize, of considerable influence, was in some manner financially or otherwise involved in the Guatemalan gill net fisheries.

If the Ministers and others involved would put aside their greed and treat gill net fishing in the same manner as countries that have successfully resolved the gill net fishing problem, Belize’s fisheries could be saved. If they continue to feed their greed and do not act promptly, it will soon become too late to save the fisheries. Political influence should no longer protect the Guatemalan gill net fishermen who are destroying Belize’s fisheries, or allow gill net fishing in any manner.

Gill net fishing is so destructive that it was outlawed in the Gulf Coast states of Texas, Louisiana, Georgia and Florida. After the outlawing of gill net fishing, endangered species of fish came roaring back. Texas now has a billion-dollar sport fishing industry. If the Ministers of Fisheries and Tourism really have the best interest of the people and the country of Belize at heart, and act before it is too late, Belize’s fisheries can be saved and at the same time Belize can create a billion-dollar sport fishing industry, an industry that will increase the economy and employment, thereby helping to reduce crime.

Any regulation that continues to allow gill net fishing in any form will continue the problems. Many of the small number of Belizeans who use gill nets use them to fish illegally in restricted areas, taking protected fish. The Fisheries Department has not been able to stop such illegal gill net fishing. The only way it can be stopped is to outlaw all gill net fishing.

Gill nets have earned the name “Walls of Death,” as they capture and kill anything that comes in contact with them. If the Prime Minister considers the devastating effect that gill net fishing has had on Belize’s fisheries, there can only be one response – that is, the immediate banning of all gill net fishing in Belize’s waters.

The Government has enacted laws to protect Permit, Tarpon, Bonefish, Nassau Grouper, Parrotfish, Manatees, Turtles and others. The Walls of Death do not discriminate between species or observe Belize’s laws. They kill all species, regardless.

The Walls of Death capture and kill all of Belize’s protected species of fish, including Manatees. Belize’s protective laws have very little effect, as gill netters can now fish undetected in waters where fish are protected by law and fishing is illegal. Waters that include spawning grounds, river mouths, and migratory routes of fish are now easy prey for gill netters.

Gill netters set their nets at night without markings on the surface. They are the only ones who know the location of their nets. When they return at night, they identify the net’s location by either GPS or pop-up buoys.

Ninety-five (95%) percent of all gill net fishing done in Belize’s waters is done by foreigners, primarily Guatemalan fishermen.

If the fish are saved, a single Permit that was caught and released 5 times could have earned the country as much as $10,000. An avid tourist might spend $2,500 to catch a Tarpon. The same is true in respect to Bonefish. However, it appears that ignorance and greed reign supreme in Belize. The Permit, Bonefish and Tarpon, together with Manatees, will continue to be food on the table for Guatemalans and Belizeans. The Manatees taken in the nets are considered a delicacy in Guatemala. Instead of a multi-million dollar sport fishing industry, Belize will end up with another increase in taxes to pay for the earnings the Permit, Bonefish and Tarpon could have provided.

Presently there are 1,800 jobs in the sport fishing industry. If the industry flourished, the jobs could easily increase to 10,000. The Southern gill net fishermen at the Monkey River meeting stated that banning gill nets would increase employment in the commercial fishing industry, a statement they again made on television six years later. Baeza, in his wisdom, stated that if the banning created unemployment, commercial fishermen would be trained to be guides in the sport fishing industry.

One must be careful of any representation of the Fisheries Department regarding gill net fishing. In revamping the fishing laws, the Department advocated the continuation of gill net fishing. It did so putting forward the bogus claim that fishermen want gill net fishing to continue. The Southern fishermen are virtually unanimous in their drive to outlaw gill net fishing. They very clearly and logically set forth the manner in which outlawing gill net fishing will save the fisheries and increase employment for the commercial fishermen.

The Fisheries Department came up with a bogus list of what they contend are Northern fishermen who wish to have gill net fishing continued. The list did not have the fisheries license number for any of the persons who signed it.

The list was a sleazy, unprofessional attempt to accomplish the bidding of a few against the interests of the country and the majority of its licensed fishermen. The list bore the names of persons who are not currently licensed fishermen.

There is another very serious adverse effect that will result if Belize continues to allow gill net fishing. On September 9, 2010 the Guatemala Congress unanimously approved the Special Agreement for taking the Belize Guatemala dispute to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Belize has committed the folly of also agreeing to take the dispute to the ICJ. The Prime Minister recently made the statement that he did not know what Guatemala had up its sleeve.

What Guatemala has up its sleeve is clear. Among other benefits Guatemalans could legally gain are fishing rights to Belize’s waters. The ICJ does not have to stick to the law. Like arbitrators, they have the inclination to give a little to both sides to make both sides happy. Belize has not outlawed gill net fishing and has for years allowed 90% of the gill net fishing in Belizean waters to be done by Guatemalans, manning Guatemalan boats. If gill net fishing is allowed to continue, one of the tidbits that ICJ will give Guatemala is the legal right for Guatemalans to fish Belize’s waters, without any restraint.

Allowing the continuation of any gill net fishing will encourage poachers who fish illegally. The Fisheries Department has not been able to catch them in the past. If any vestige of gill net fishing is allowed, they will not catch them in the future.

Panhandle Wildlife Officers Recover a Half-Mile of Hidden Gillnets

July 1 marks the eighth anniversary of implementation of Florida’s net ban, but some poachers still haven’t gotten the message.

Following a citizen’s tip, wildlife officers recently recovered an estimated 1,000 yards of monofilament and nylon gillnets from coastal waters in Wakulla County, south of Tallahassee.

According to Bubba Joyner, an officer with the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, an individual reported seeing a gill net in Apalachee Bay east of the St. Mark’s Lighthouse. When Joyner and officer Stan Tucker went to the area by airboat, they found five nets hidden in the salt marsh under canvas and palm fronds. Some of the nets were brand new.

While there, a recreational angler came up and reported seeing a large net roughly two miles offshore. With the aide of GPS coordinates, they were able to locate the abandoned net, which was full of dead fish, including hammerhead sharks, blacktip sharks, speckled trout, pinfish and catfish. It took officers two days to gather all the nets and entangled fish, which filled the beds of two FWC trucks.

“The unfortunate thing is these nets will keep on killing fish as long as they remain in the water,” said Lt. Jeff Schremser, the FWC’s patrol supervisor for Franklin and Wakulla counties.

In July 2002, wildlife officers discovered nine illegal gill nets totaling 4,500 feet in the waters off Wakulla and Franklin counties.

The time to abolish all gill net fishing is now, while the fisheries can still be saved, not later.

(Photo: http://www.nwfsc.noaa.gov)


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