Editorial — 19 June 2019
It will be better for the fishing family when gill nets go

Ten, twenty years ago, many fisher folk who used gill nets noticed that their catch was dwindling, realized that that method of fishing was unsustainable, and destructive, and on their own, without any prodding or legislation from the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, they gave up their nets.

The fisher folk of today who are clinging to their gill nets don’t seem to realize that the reason they are still making a catch is because many stopped fishing that way. If those fisher folk who quit using gill nets started setting them again, the fishing industry, where it concerns scale fish, would be in much deeper trouble.

Marine species, the world over, are under great stress. Some experts predict that if we continue putting pressure on marine species as we are now, the fishing industry the world over will experience a total collapse in less than five decades.

In this age when fish stocks are depleting, countries the world over are placing great emphasis on how they manage their marine stock. Recently, in 2018, Somalia sold China the rights to harvest tuna in Somalian waters. This raised quite a few eyebrows, with many predicting the end of Somalia’s rich fishing grounds. There’s a lot of Chinese in the world and the Asians love fish.

Takudzwa Hillary Chiwanza, in the article “President Mohammed Farmajo gave up the country’s fishing rights to China,” on the website, www.africanexponent.com, said the Somali president gave up fishing rights to China “in an attempt to cut down illegal fishing from foreign boats.”

Somalia has been racked by civil war these past few decades, and this has resulted in a breakdown of the rule of law. Chiwanza said “Somalian waters have been prey to large, foreign boats, and the local fishermen…have pleaded for assistance from the government to keep these foreign boats away…” The Somali government is hoping that controlled “legal exploitation” will remedy the situation.

Chiwanza says the fisheries minister explained that up to 24 nautical miles offshore is reserved, exclusively for Somali fishermen. Chiwanza says that if Somalia leaves the waters unregulated, there is trouble, and that inviting China is trouble. He concludes that whatever the way, the primary consideration should be “for those whose lives depend on fishing…”

In Belize, we have our own fishing industry to defend. We depend on our leaders to try to do the right thing too. When the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries established marine reserves, areas in which the exploitation of marine stock was prohibited or severely limited, it did not go down well with many fisher folk, especially those who traditionally worked in the areas that were being completely locked away from commercial use.

The Belize Fisheries Department lists nine marine reserves  on its website, www.fisheries.gov.bz: The Bacalar Chico National Park and Marine Reserve (BCNPMR), 1996; Turneffe Atoll Marine Reserve (TAMR), 2012; Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve (SCMR), 2009; Port Honduras Marine Reserve, (PHMR), 2000; Gladden Spit and Silk Cayes Marine Reserve, (GSSCMR), 2003; South Water Caye Marine Reserve (SWCMR), the largest marine protected area in Belize, covering 117,875 acres, 1996; Glover’s Reef Marine Reserve (GRMR), 1993; Hol Chan Marine Reserve (HCMR), 1987; Caye Caulker Marine and Forest Reserve (CCMFR), 1998.

Today, it is hard to find a member of the fishing family who isn’t happy about the marine reserves established all across Belize. The reserves allow marine species a safe place where they can grow and reproduce, and in a relatively short time, if the fish weren’t devastated, as was the case with groupers, the marine population returns to what it was before being exploited and there is a spillover that enriches the marine stock outside of the reserve.

Largely, it is this spillover that gill net users are harvesting, but it is not sustainable. The type of fishing is also very hard on species that are nearing endangered status. Protected species, manatees and sea turtles, and species that are not used for food, for example dolphins, are snared in gill nets.

Far too often gill nets catch what fisher folk are not allowed to take. Apart from manatees and turtles, gill nets also catch tarpons, permits, and bone fish, three species that are protected by the laws of Belize because of their great value to the sports fishing industry. These fishes are strictly for catch and release.

Gill net fishing is easier than hand-line fishing. In hand-line fishing the fisher has to be on the spot to make his/her catch, while the fisher who sets out a net or nets goes off to rest. A conscientious fisher will check his/her net(s) every few hours, because dead fish spoil quickly. This also gives the fisher a chance to release protected and unwanted species. The not-so-conscientious fisher will leave the net(s) overnight, and longer hours, and what they get they get, and they throw away the rest.

Oceana is an organization that is held in the highest esteem in Belize because of its work to rid Belize’s seas of the unproductive and destructive shrimp trawling, and its strong leadership in the fight for a moratorium on oil drilling in the sea. Oceana was at the fore, mobilizing citizens to resist the oil companies, and thanks to that effort our Barrier Reef was spared, a development that spurred UNESCO to recognize us internationally as dedicated guardians of a World Heritage Site.

Oceana has condemned gill net fishing not only because of all the aforementioned problems with the method of fishing. Oceana, on its website, belize.oceana.org, says that when nets get caught on the reef they “not only catch fish, turtles, crustaceans, birds or marine mammals, they also destroy hard and soft corals, wiping out complete ecosystems while tossing around in the current.”

Oceana, after studying gill net use from many angles, proposed “a phase out of gillnets over two years in order to protect endangered species and livelihoods in tourism and fishing.” Oceana said that during the period the organization was “committed to support Belize Fisheries Department in advancing the transition of the less than 200 licensed Belizean gillnet fishermen to alternative economic activities and fishing gears, and in reducing the impact of illegal fishing on Belizean fishermen.”

It must be noted that Belizean fisher folk who use gill nets are not entirely dependent on that type of fishing for their livelihoods. Fisher folk who use gill nets also use hand lines, dive for lobsters and conch, and use fish traps.

The overwhelming consensus is that gill nets should be banned, but the Fisheries Department is stubbornly sticking by the few gill net users in the country. They, the few gill net users, make a strong argument that our government turns a blind eye to poachers who set gill nets at the river mouths, and even in the marine reserves. They argue that it is unfair for gill nets to be taken away from Belizeans, when illegal fishers with gill nets have a free run in our waters.

We cannot blame these fisher folk for fighting a ban on using gill nets until the government stops the practice of ignoring poachers from abroad. However, we must point out that it will be much easier for the authorities to put the clamps on poachers if there is a total ban. Presently, poachers can hide behind unscrupulous Belizeans. When a total ban is in place the rangers won’t have to ask questions when they see a gill net. If we ban it no explanations will be necessary.

Fisheries Department, you’ve made some good decisions in the past, but on this one you are pussyfooting. It’s hard to see your justification.

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Deshawn Swasey

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