New amendments to Belize’s Fisheries Regulations have the country’s fisherfolk up in arms. But according to the Fisheries Department, the updated regs are more than ten years overdue.
By Khaila Gentle
BELIZE CITY, Wed. May 11, 2022
As Lobster Season, which is scheduled to open on July 1, approaches, several fishing communities and a large number of fisherfolk are expressing their ire at the new regulations introduced by the Fisheries Department to govern the minimum size of lobsters that can be legally harvested. Many of those fishers are claiming that the amended Fisheries Regulations, which took effect on March 1 of this year, will severely affect their livelihood.
The amendments now prohibit the capture of lobsters with a tail weight of less than 4.5 ounces (rather than the previous 4 ounces) and require that whole lobsters be at least 3.25 inches, rather than the previously required 3 inches, in length—something which one group of fishers says will reduce their catch by 25% compared to last year, since lobsters larger than the newly required size are rarely found. Furthermore, changes have been made to the number of lobster traps allowed for each fisher, and an increase in the required escape gap size of lobster traps is reportedly also in the works.
In response to the growing complaints, which have come from fishers in all corners of the country, the Fisheries Department held a press briefing this week. Acting Administrator of the Department, Rigoberto Quintana was there to answer questions. He told local media that the department has been having discussions with various entities about the amendments since June of last year. Many fishers, however, have claimed that the department never consulted with them prior to implementation of the new rules.
Quintana also noted that the changes in the Fisheries Regulations are long overdue. In 2009, Belize signed a binding agreement with the Organization of Fisheries and Agriculture in Central America (OPESCA) to update its Fisheries Regulations, which it then failed to comply with for almost a decade. In 2019, OPESCA wrote to the Government of Belize, inquiring about the lack of compliance.
“Belize requested an extension to 2019 to implement some of these measures in place. We have had these ongoing discussions, especially at the levels of cooperatives and some of the fishers. June last year, we had these discussions again with the main exporters, which is Northern National to say, you know what, let us move forward with this and let us do it for the next fishing season. That is why we passed that law last year, and the regulations come into force the first of March,” he stated.
According to Quintana, the only issue left to be discussed with the Fisheries Council is the required size of the lobster trap escape gaps. The other regulations are already in effect.
In response to the fishers’ claims that they had not been consulted, Quintana said that the department has had several discussions with entities that provide representation for fisherfolk, with the most recent meeting regarding the new legislation having taken place in October of last year.
“Maybe some fishers are not aware, but we have the highest decision body in this country, which is the Fisheries Council, and there we have four representation of our fishers. We have the Chunox Fishermen Association. We have the Hopkins Fisherman Association. We also have the two largest cooperatives, which they form part of the council and they participate in these decisions. Whether this information is not being channelled to the other fishermen is something that we have to discuss further, but they are informed of all the measures the department is taking, and they are being consulted,” he said.
The new regulations come at a time when fishers, like the majority of the Belizean population, have been seeing their livelihood threatened by rising fuel prices and the overall increased cost of living. And while the amendments will certainly have an immediate effect on the fisherfolk, Quintana noted that it is what’s best for Belize’s fisheries in the long run.
“We cannot use the excuse of high fuel prices and not be a responsible institution to manage the fisheries, whether prices go for one dollar or twenty dollars, our mandate at Fisheries Department is to manage the lobster resources in this country,” he stated.
Quintana also noted that as a result of an increase in the minimum size of lobsters that can be legally caught, lobsters will be allowed a better chance at reproducing before being harvested, which will ultimately increase the number of lobsters in the wild.
“Yes, the cooperatives have indicated that probably initially they might see a 15% decline in production, but eventually that production will stabilize,” he further said.
In regard to the fishers’ method of voicing their qualms—which so far has included a petition— Quintana stated that they should approach the Ministry and the Fisheries Department formally. One group, a community of fishers from Caye Caulker, has stated that they are currently seeking an audience with the Minister of Blue Economy, Hon. Andre Perez.