BELIZE CITY, Fri. Mar. 26, 2021– With tensions rising around the issue of gillnet use in Belize once more, many fisherfolk have been stepping forward to speak out about the benefits of using the gear. The fishermen in the Belize Fishermen Co-op Association believe that OCEANA has been spreading false claims about gillnet use and as a result has been robbing them of their livelihood, and forcing some of them into a life of crime.
Andy Jones, a fisherman from Punta Gorda, told the media, “I don’t apply for any of the relief programs. I don’t think I would qualify. But I do know that my gillnet used to help me with my family. I have six children, one on the way. OCEANA is not helping me. The government is not helping me. Only the most high God is helping me. You are taking away a livelihood from us.”
Jones further questioned OCEANA’s motives, “One minute they’re having two million dollars for the fishermen, the next minute they’re having one point five million. Who knows how much money they have for the fishermen. How much are they using for their commercials to try to ban gillnet? What is the deal? The other day, around 5,000 pounds of Jack passed by PG ended up in Guatemala…Whatever goes into Guatemala stays there. Those same fish were being brought back to PG and sold to Belizeans.”
The reality, as explained by Jones, is that there is an array of gillnets in the waters of Guatemala, waiting to capture fish that pass from Belize. Due to the restrictions on the use of gillnets, none of these fish are being caught by Belizeans, but the fish are instead being harvested by Guatemalan fishers who resell back to Belizeans for a steep price. Jones further pointed out that if the gillnet law is passed, the price of fish will rise even more.
Another fisherman, Sidney Fuller, is alleging that OCEANA has been making false claims in its commercials. Fuller referred to what the organization is suggesting to the public by using a graphic design that features a dead turtle near a gillnet. Fuller remarked, “Get a turtle and then put a net in front of it. And the electronics and the technology. They did that, so I just want to bring that to attention. So it is misleading to the people to believe that it had killed that turtle.” The fisherman noted that the turtle shown in the slide advertisement is disconnected from the net and was not killed by it.
Fuller also noted that gillnets are not used to catch turtles. Turtles are caught in turtle nets, he said. He further insisted that gillnets are safe and are non-destructive, and that OCEANA has never proven its claims that gillnets are destructive. “Gillnet has been rated out of ten, five point four by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, which Belize is a part of… We signed to that, the Belize Fishermen Co-op Association, which is the umbrella for all fishermen in the country,” Fuller said. He further pointed out that the size of the net mesh allows small fish to pass through, and only ensnares fish that have already reproduced.
Banning gillnets, on the other hand, will do more harm than good, asserted the fishermen of the BFCA. They claim that a gillnet ban poses huge risks to the environment. They then noted that since southern Belize banned gillnets, there has been a scarcity of snapper. The fishermen claim that since snapper is the preferred fish for meals, fishermen have been selectively overfishing snappers. BFCA believes this is a direct result of the gillnet ban.
The Chairperson of the Belize Fisherman Co-op Association, Armando Ramirez, also agreed to the idea of allowing fishermen to use their nets. Ramirez mentioned that gillnets are the large-scale industry standard in fishing and are utilized by neighboring countries like Honduras and Guatemala.
Additionally, Ramirez mentioned that a gillnet ban is an injustice to the fishing community. It forces them into a life of crime, when they cannot make an honest living. “In the Dangriga area, we noticed a lot of crime that will also increase because you are removing a direct income. Now people are crying for a 10 percent reduction that the government wants to implement. You removing gillnet is not 10 percent that we’re losing. Our people are losing 100 percent, 50 percent, 75 percent. Take that into consideration,” he said.
Ramirez noted that the fishing industry is one of the most important and sustainable industries in Belize. “Belize was founded upon four pillars. And one of those is the fishing industry, not tourism. Everybody wants to get into tourism. One pandemic come and destroy tourism completely, not just in Belize, but globally. Through 2020, there was one thing that sustained the Belizean people, and that was commercial fishing. All the tour guides that were against fishers, they had gone back to fishing, and they are still doing fishing. So, gillnet plays an important role, and we need to keep that to feed our children, to educate our children and to make Belize grow, the fishing industry withstood,” he said.
Norman Castillo, of the Hopkins’ Fisherman Association, added, “The fishermen will not back off from their gillnet and send this message clear. We are tantamount serious that we will not back off of our gillnet. We have done this; we have seen no destruction of the gillnet.”