BELIZE CITY, Wed. June 23, 2021– There is a growing rift between the Ministry of the Blue Economy and many local fishermen, some of whom already felt aggrieved after their efforts to overturn a ban on gill-net fishing failed. Fishermen countrywide are now decrying a Statutory Instrument (SI) that allows permanent residents to apply for licenses to fish in Belize’s waters. Many in the local fishing community are claiming that SI No. 57 of 2021, which they say was passed without their consultation, places Belizean fisherfolk at a disadvantage.
The first issue raised by the Belize Federation of Fishermen (BFF) was the lack of consultation on the issue. Director of the BFF, Nigel Martinez, said, “We learned of this late last week, and it immediately sounded an alarm. We scrambled to get our members up to date as to what has transpired. We believe what the Ministry of the Blue Economy did was completely undermine the rights of Belizean fisher folks.”
The fishermen further pointed to the reduced likelihood of ensuring a sustainable fishing sector when an excessive number of fishers are engaged in extracting marine products from fishing grounds that are steadily shrinking in size due to laws prohibiting fishing in certain areas as a result of strict zoning laws and the establishment of marine reserves. Martinez added, “They have now opened up the door back for permanent residents to access our natural resource of fishery, which is already overpopulated, which is already crowded. You have a number of fishers here today that will tell you the same sentiment. They are frustrated because it’s not getting easier. It’s very expensive to go out there. The issues are the same. There is no enforcement. The managed access program is not working. There are several components that are not working that are affecting the fishery right now.”
The managed access program to which Martinez referred is, according to the fishermen, an area-based fishing licensing system, through which fishermen are assigned specific areas in which they are authorized to fish. Many fisherfolk have noted that they have been finding it increasingly difficult to catch fish in recent years. Fisherman Dale Fairweather commented, “When I started to fish, there were a lot less fishermen, so we used to do good. But as the years went by, you’ll get more and more fishers, and now I catch, let’s say about a quarter where I used to catch. So I know everybody here is catching less. And if you bring in more people, then we are even gonna catch less.” He further noted that allowing persons from across the border (and it is being claimed that many of the permanent residents who will be receiving fishing licenses indeed reside across the border) will only further disenfranchise the local fishing population, making them less likely to fend for themselves.
Another issue the fishermen raised was their ability to access fishing licenses. The fishermen lamented the fact that that persons who were not born in Belize can come to the country, stay for six months and get a license to fish while native Belizeans are still unable to acquire these licenses. Andrew Usher, local fisherman, said, “I have [children], but If I go to Fisheries right now and they no want give my [children] fishermen license. Then a ‘balli’ just told me that [the SI allowing permanent residents into the industry] happened about a week. Fishermen out there, they kill one another for a lee piece of lobster ground. The way the Minister is going right now, not knowing that we have a serious problem. If in Guatemala, Honduras or Mexico, we have them come fish in our water, because right now we Belizean, we barely could get along with the [little] bit of ground that we have here.”
The Minister of the Blue Economy, Hon. Andre Perez, however, has flatly denied these claims that Belizean fishermen cannot access licenses. “I don’t know anything about that right now. Anybody right now has a right to apply for fishing, providing they meet the requirements. So let’s not go into that. I can make it clear there’s no way. No way in our department. That is just rumors. I would have wanted that person, if they are feeling that, to come and see us, because that is not true. I make it clear one time and categorically that does not exist in my department.”
According to Perez, the primary purpose of the recent SI was to ensure inclusion. He cited the example of a family in Sarteneja. “We went to visit the village of Sarteneja, and right there is where I was approached by a family who were Belizean — the children and everybody. But the husband, who is a resident, cannot fish. And it’s a big family. So how do you tell that family you cannot do fishing? How will he sustain his family and including that the [gillnet] had been included. So how do you do that?” Perez said that the family had been living in Belize for 35 years. Hon. Perez thus feels that certain persons were being unjustly excluded from the right to fish in Belize’s waters, and it was hence decided that permanent residents who have met all legal requirements would be afforded the opportunity to partake in the industry.
Hon, Perez further asked the public to not confuse this SI with condoning illegal fishing. These issues are completely unrelated, said the Blue Economy Minister. He noted that some areas, especially in the south, have very limited fish stock as a result of illegal fishing. His ministry has been entrusted with the task of creating legislation that protects against such actions. Hon. Perez claims the ministry is actively engaging with the Coast Guard and the Police Department to minimize illegal fishing. On the other hand, he argued that what SI no. 57 is doing is allowing approximately 44 immigrants who are now living in Belize the permission to fish for their livelihoods.
A release from the Government of Belize Press Office of Belize further states, “It is not justifiable to identify permanent resident fishers as being the sole culprits in illegal fishing. Illegal fishing is a complex matter that requires a multi-prong approach to ensure its deterrence and elimination.”