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Sunday, May 31, 2020
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20 years late better than never

News, via a press release, that a taskforce has been set up to “Develop Improved Measures to Reduce Harmful Effects of Gill Nets on Marine Life”, is welcome, though there is the temptation to ask, “What took you so long?” A lot of “lovers of marine life” across this country have been asking for gill nets to be banned from our waters for a long time now.

Okay, call me over eager, it’s just a task force and their business is only to “recommend improved measures to minimize the harmful effects of gill nets on marine creatures.”

The release includes a good description, the cold “graphics” of gill nets for folk who aren’t familiar with this fishing tool. Here goes, “A gill net is a wall-like mesh that hangs in the water column designed to catch fish by allowing only their head to get through the net, thereby entrapping them by the gills…There are various types of gill nets with varying mesh sizes, and some are more indiscriminate in the types of fish they catch than others.”

According to the release, the “main concern … is that they are efficient at trapping and killing both target and non-target fish species, such as undersized sharks and protected species like tarpon and permit.” Yes, gill nets are efficient, too efficient.

A harsh truth about “the walls of death” is they are “one day belly full”. A school of mackerels or jacks run into your gill net and they are wiped out. When was the last time someone in Belize reported seeing a sawfish? Gill nets are merciless on the by-catch, the “collateral damage.” The manatees are on the way out, and a lot of people suspect it’s not only because of boats’ propellers. I really don’t know what is wrong with Belize. Oh, we are enamored with concrete.

The Fisheries Department says (this release comes from them) that, “While gill nets are used locally by artisanal fishers or small-scale fishers who obtain permits, there is also extensive opportunistic use by illegal fishers, which causes widespread harm and over-exploitation including inside protected marine ecosystems. For this reason the use of gill nets is regulated in Belize and other countries, and use of certain types and sizes of gill nets is prohibited in some locations and at certain times of the year.”

This is a very interesting statement. The sense of this statement is that there’s no problem with gill nets used by fisherfolk who “obtain permits”. I think they’d better wait on the studies of their task force before making such a claim.

This department does get some excellent work done, but it really ought to check itself before it gets into bragging. A prime reminder is what happened to the groupers while they twiddled their thumbs. They might have been fiddling too, just like Nero, while he watched Rome burn. Well, that’s what I saw in the movie.

A Fisheries Department report says that “more than two tons of grouper were caught per day at Cay Glory in the 1960’s” during the spawning season. This same report says, “In 2001, fishermen reported catching only two fish per day at Cay Glory.” Fisherfolk had been reporting a dwindling catch of groupers for years before we landed in total collapse.

When I fished at Cay Glory in the 1970’s, groupers at that bank weren’t as abundant as the grouper bank where my mom saw a “dory load a roe” in the 1930’s. By 2000 the hurrah was over.

Suggestions other than overfishing were floated to explain the decimated grouper stock, as fisheries managers (in other Caribbean countries as well) sought for an “excuse”, but the obvious couldn’t be explained away. It was procrastination that did the grouper in.  I repeat, fisherfolk had been reporting dwindling catches every year, for years.

The Fisheries Department reacted when it saw the dwindling catch of wild shrimp. An FAO report (I think it’s an FAO country profile) says that “marine shrimp peaked at over 145 metric tons in  the late 80’s, but production had fallen to 74 metric tons in 2004.” This prompted the fisheries managers to limit the number of months to harvest shrimp, and only eight boats were allowed to work in our waters. Their reaction wasn’t sufficient.

Dragging nets (the other “walls of death”) to catch shrimp is notorious for by-catch too. The total value of the shrimp catch in 2004 was $950,000. The question was, knowing the devastation caused by shrimp boats, and the pilinki contribution that business was making to the national treasury, why the Fisheries Department was taking so long to outlaw it. It is well possible, watching the modus operandi of the Fisheries Department re gill net use, that if Audrey Matura and Oceana didn’t say whoa, enough, the shrimp boats would still be harassing the marine life in our seas. Oh, the nets devastate corals too!

Ah, near the very end of the recent release there is something encouraging to report, a little crack in the mad status of gill nets. There is this: “the scope and area of use of gill nets in Belizean waters will be given careful consideration, including the option of a total ban.”

Of course they will, must arrive at a total ban. Gill nets, as can be deduced from the release, are a big reason why the fishes are getting smaller and smaller at the market. There has to be a total ban because it depletes our fish stock.

I am aware of a law against spear fishing in our country, if you have an air source connected to your lungs. Quite simply, if you are using scuba gear the fish don’t stand a chance. Hence a law to protect the fish, so they don’t get wiped out. The fish don’t stand a chance against gill nets either. For some reason, the Fisheries Department keeps fumbling the ball on this one.

You don’t have to ask, there is a “lobby” out there that has kept this type of fishing legal, years after we got rid of the shrimp trawlers and their murdering nets. Or, somebody is playing sentimental, being nostalgic about a type of fishing that is too much diminishing returns.

The fact is that Belizean fishermen who use gill nets are not dependent on that tool for their entire livelihoods. One solution, as suggested years ago by some quarters, was to identify the gill net users, get an estimate of how much their catch from using this type of equipment is worth, and give them assistance to ease them out of it and into other businesses.

The discussion of the grouper lifecycle by Rodney Peñafiel, a fisheries technologist from the Phillipines, gives us a sense of what we are up against when we allow our fish stock to be decimated. Fertilized grouper eggs “hatch to very small forms (larval stages) which drift in ocean currents for 1 to 2 months. Less than one in every thousand of the small floating forms survives to settle as a juvenile in shallow water near reefs … one in every hundred of the young fish (juveniles) survives to become an adult.”

Gill nets should have been old history. We should have been reading a release from the Fisheries Department about how funds from the PetroCaribe had been and were being invested in marine research with an eye to restocking our reef. We shouldn’t be depending on universities in Florida, the Phillipines, and Australia, for everything.

The science of restocking the reef with desirable species might not have had raging success in the past, but its potential is too great to quit on.

I am aware of restocking of conch, Strombus gigas, some good years ago in Belize. I couldn’t locate any papers on the internet to tell us about the effect of this initiative.

There has been successful research conducted in laboratories to produce fingerlings of two excellent species native to Belize, mutton snappers and the cobia. We wouldn’t mind increasing our stock of those.

Peñafiel reported that more studies have been done on the red hind than on the Nassau grouper. I read somewhere that in the Caribbean they call the red hind, “lucky grouper”, but I think we know it as, “Jimmy Hinds”, a tasty little beast.

Bah, these people at the fisheries have all the opportunities to make things happen in our fish world. It is my belief that on the matter of gill nets they have been waiting for the cow to done gaan before they lock the barn. Still, only a fool can’t see that twenty years late is better than never.

By the way, is it true that these cruise ships are dumping their slimy waste just outside our reef? I’d rather the oil companies be drilling than have our reefs suffocating in the ugly sludge from their bilge. Too many people not doing right by our country.

Anybody who feels this article has too little praise, let me give you the sense of how things operate. From the highest degree to no degree, it’s all the same. Too many people in Belize only respond to negative stimulus. Ignore them and they fall asleep. Tell them they’re good and they drink more beer on the weekends.

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