Big Wins for Marine Conservation in Belize

Ray Jacobs (left) hands over his gillnet to Janelle Chanona, Oceana’s Vice President in Belize. Also pictured is Fidel Audinett (center), a Belizean fisher who had been petitioning the government to ban gillnets since 1997. Photo Credit: © Oceana/Alex Ellis

Wonderful news out of Belize!

Tackling a triple threat: Belize banned bottom trawling, offshore drilling, and now gillnets

For a country that’s slightly smaller than the U.S. state of Massachusetts, Belize boasts an inordinate number of ocean wonders. It’s home to the world’s second longest barrier reef, which Charles Darwin once described as “the most remarkable reef in the West Indies.” Here, you’ll find more than 500 unique fish species – enough to give every Belizean island its own mascot and still have about 50 left over.

Because this little Caribbean country has a lot worth protecting, it has enacted some of the strongest ocean conservation laws in the world – and they just got even stronger. Following hard-fought victories that banned all trawling and offshore oil drilling in Belize’s waters, the country has now outlawed gillnets, a fishing gear that kills turtles, manatees, and many other marine animals.

In addition to implementing a nationwide gillnet ban, the Belizean government signed an agreement with Oceana and the Coalition for Sustainable Fisheries to help licensed gillnet fishers transition to other jobs. As a result, Belizean resources and livelihoods will be protected well into the future.

As Janelle Chanona, Oceana’s head in Belize, put it: “This is a historic moment for Belize, her people, the Caribbean Sea and, most importantly, for everyone who depends on the country’s marine resources for their livelihoods.”

Belize’s Great Blue Hole, a massive marine sinkhole and World Heritage Site, is one of the many remarkable features that benefits from stronger ocean protections. Photo Credit: © Oceana/Alex Ellis

To say that gillnets harm marine life would be putting it delicately. The reality is far grislier. Nicknamed “walls of death,” these nets, which can measure a mile long when linked together, are indiscriminate in what they catch. They’re designed to snag fish by their opercula – the plate that protects their gills, also known as a gill cover – but they also trap non-targeted animals. Once ensnared, an animal might suffocate to death because they can no longer push air through their gills, or because they cannot resurface to breathe.

Many of these dead animals are chucked back into the ocean because they can’t be sold for profit. In Belizean waters, protected species like bonefish, tarpon, and manatees – and at least one species of endangered shark – have fallen victim to gillnets. In 2015, a rarely seen scalloped hammerhead got tangled up in a gillnet and drowned, making local headlines and sparking outrage. Gillnets have also ensnared critically endangered sawfish, a unique ray with a long snout and sawlike teeth that is said to be locally extinct.

For Lowell “Japs” Godfrey, a former gillnetter in Belize, the carnage and wastefulness were too much to bear. He handed over his net more than a decade ago and never looked back, instead switching to sustainable seaweed farming.

“With gillnets we have a lot of stuff that we just dump because we kill it, and we don’t use it,” Godfrey said. “That is one of the things that caused me to back off [from using gillnets]. I use [my vocation] not only to earn money, but to educate myself about the marine environment.”

‘Gear of choice’ for illegal fishers

Godfrey’s career change was part of a larger trend. Gillnetting has fallen out of favor, and nowadays, fewer than 100 licensed gillnetters remain in Belize. In fact, less than 3% of commercial fishers in Belize use gillnets, and some Belizean fishers have been backing a gillnet ban for more than 20 years.

The problem persists, in large part, because gillnetting is the “gear of choice” for illegal fishers, according to Chanona. Many gillnetters are coming from neighboring countries and fishing illegally in Belizean waters, then swinging by other countries’ ports to sell their catch. Doing so depletes Belize’s ocean and deprives local fishers and tourism workers of income that hinges on abundant oceans.

“COVID has reminded us that fishing-based income is more important than ever to protect,” Chanona said. “Foreign gillnetters come to their favorite fishing spot in Belize, then take all their marine products to ports in Guatemala and Honduras. Even though they are fishing in Belizean waters, none of the fruit of that labor comes through the legal economy here in Belize. Belizeans will have nowhere to fish if everything is depleted by destructive fishing practices.”

Read the entire article here.


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