It is possible that it hasn’t sunk into the heads of some leaders of this country, the ones who sit in Cabinet every Tuesday morning, that the Nassau Grouper, a fish of exceptional quality, a fish that is a part of Belizean lore, is now considered a critically endangered species, and for this reason fisher folk of our country are not allowed to fish in any of the 13 spawning areas in our country from December 1 to March 31 each year.
The experts say that we are guilty of overfishing this prized species. That means that our leaders sat by, and either didn’t make appropriate laws or, if they did, they failed to effectively enforce them. We can only hope that the measures being put in place are effective, so that in the near future our fisher folk can return to the spawning banks to harvest this precious resource.
On the matter of gill nets, we are not as puzzled as the Oceana representative in Belize, Ms. Janelle Chanona, about the government’s position to extend its use. Our leaders are suggesting that they made their decision out of concern for the welfare of fisher folk who use gill nets. We suppose there is some narrow political mileage to be made by a few selfish politicians out of this situation.
We listened carefully to the few gill net users in our country, and something very interesting was said that must be noted. It was said that the NGOs, in this case especially Oceana, are working for foreign interests, and that the NGO leaders are being well paid, so they had better fork up more money if they want the gill net users to support the ban.
Let’s make this very clear: it is not the business of any of us what foreigners pay our NGO leaders. Our business is what these NGOs do in our country. It is the Belizean people who must decide what we will accept and what we will reject. So, let us talk about the work the NGOs, especially Oceana, are doing in Belize.
We can start with banning shrimp trawlers from working in our waters. We suppose that this action has helped the fish population, because the trawlers weren’t only taking shrimp.
We can now turn to oil exploration on our reef, our precious Barrier Reef, our one of only “two of its kind in the world” reef. The Government of Belize expressed the desire to explore for oil on our reef. The NGOs, led by Oceana, said no. The people of Belize agreed with Oceana and the NGOs, and despite the government’s best efforts to bull ahead, they were thwarted. The people of Belize did not on a whim reject the government’s objective to explore for oil in our waters.
We have heard that a sister country in the Caribbean, Guyana, is on the verge of becoming one of the wealthiest nations in the world after oil in vast quantities was found offshore that country. Guyana, however, is not the custodian of the largest living barrier reef in the world.
Our reef is not only inspiring to behold, it also provides sustainable earnings in marine produce and tourism, and this will continue as long as we protect it with all our might. On the matter of oil, Belizeans are also wary of oil extraction laws that allow too much of the earnings from the resource to be siphoned away from the country’s coffers. On top of that, there is too much corruption in government, too much government disrespect for the systems that make for good governance.
Those leaders who pushed for oil exploration on the reef, if we are to judge them by the manner in which they have conducted the affairs of this country, their goal was not to enrich Belize. They were likely salivating after the spoils, they were likely counting the eggs from this goose and they were seeing gold, for themselves.
Belizeans might never agree to exploration for oil off our shores, but if they ever do decide to go ahead with it they want to be sure that the absolute best technology is in place to protect the reef, and, again, that corrupt leaders don’t steal the earnings so that their spouses and children can frolic with the rich and famous of the world.
In 2012, more than 95% of some 30,000 Belizeans who participated in an Oceana-sponsored “people’s referendum” voted against oil exploration in Belize’s marine territory. In 2017, the GoB backed down and enshrined an indefinite moratorium on offshore oil exploration, and in 2018 the United Nations, recognizing the excellent decision, removed our Barrier Reef from the list of endangered world heritage sites.
A great many of our government leaders, those who were pushing for oil exploration, are still smarting over the Oceana-led rejection, and they want to put Oceana in its place. The government really should not be spouting off about their great concern for gill net users. All this is about is spite against Oceana, and flexing their political muscles to show the organization who is boss. If the GoB truly was about love they would have been about finding honorable ways to sweeten the pot for gill net users to get them to put down the tool.
It is accepted that there are fisher folk who find it hard to break from traditional gear, but a few individuals can’t take precedence over the collective. The whole is concerned for the individuals, and that is why we applauded the NGOs for the Oceana-led incentive.
The gill net lobby has suggested that the environment lobby will quite likely go after other fishing tools after gill nets are banned from use in Belize. The gill net users are right in their observation that pure environmentalists will keep the pressure on fishing practices, and maybe they won’t stop until our waters are as they were before fishing became a lucrative business.
Fisher folk across this country, however, can rest assured that the people of this country will not support any outlandish demands from our environmental organizations. In the end, power rests with the people, and the Belizean people can be trusted to make the right decisions. If this matter were put to a referendum we believe the Belizean people would overwhelmingly say NO to gill net use because the majority of fisher folk say NO, and many of them used the tool and gave it up because they came to the conclusion that it is not good for Belize.