Thursday, June 4, 2015

Belize 2015 | Enforcement in Marine Reserves

Aquarists from the New England Aquarium frequently travel to Belize as part of a long-term research program by Aquarium scientist Randi Rotjan, PhD, to monitor coral health near Carrie Bow Cay. Today's post by aquarist Peter Gawne is part of a series about these research efforts.

Being within the confines of a marine reserve for a week provides a constant reminder of the problems facing marine protected areas and fisheries worldwide. Even when catch limits and exclusion zones are in place, the goals of rebuilding depleted stocks requires the support of strong accountability measures. Effective enforcement of fishing rules is also needed to prevent illegal and unregulated fishing.

Belize Fisheries Department buoys mark the no-take boundaries of the marine reserves.

Illegal and unregulated fishing is a global dilemma. According to a 2014 study published in Marine Policy, illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing accounts for 13 to 31 percent of reported catches worldwide. In March of 2014, the European Union suspended all seafood imports from Belize, Cambodia and Guinea, citing evidence that the countries had not acted forcefully enough to deter illegal fishing in their waters. Belize is working hard to improve their global reputation as a steward for the marine environment and their spectacular barrier reef. Soon, the Belizean government intends to install GPS units onto commercial boats in order to monitor fishing activity, and highlight suspect patterns and behavior.

Enforcement of the marine reserves and fisheries regulations is an extremely complex issue. The enforcement of fisheries regulations spans multiple realms: sustenance fishing, community politics, ancestral rights and economic boundaries to name a few. Across the world’s oceans, people are making their living plying their local waters in hope of feeding and providing for their families. Coastal communities in Belize depend on the reef and its fisheries for food and income, but overfishing and coastal development provide unsustainable pressure.

Enforcement of fisheries regulations is a global dilemma. No matter where regulations are trying to be upheld, the threat of illegal and unreported fishing plays a role in preventing successful fish stock rebuilding plans. This problem is not limited to developing nations. New England fisheries are an iconic industry that attracts significant media attention, yet the illegal harvest of groundfish stocks has been estimated between 12 and 24 percent of the total catch.

A fleet of fishing vessels, hailing from multiple Central American nations, takes refuge in Belize City
as reports of inclement weather pour in.

Belize has only 70 fisheries enforcement officers to patrol 240 miles of coast, more than 200 islands, and numerous national and international fishing fleets. Within the South Water Caye Marine Reserve there is but one Belize Fisheries station, with few staff and limited resources. Their protection for the reserve involves some confrontation with poachers, but the most powerful deterrent to unlawful activities may just be the Belizean people themselves. The South Water Caye Marine Reserve provides substantial employment opportunities through tourism and tourism developments. These opportunities help to support communities in the mainland, particularly the towns of Dangriga, Hopkins and Sittee River.

Stewardship of the oceans amongst the operators with an economic interest in keeping the fish on the reef is a powerful tool. Guatemalan and Honduran boats fishing within exclusion zones are promptly reported, and, according to locals, illegal fishing by those boats has decreased. Developing nations like Belize often lack adequate resources to enforce fisheries regulations, so public involvement becomes essential to successful small-scale fishery management.

Belize has begun pilot projects to more effectively manage the conch and lobster fisheries. Termed “managed access,” these programs are similar to “catch shares” in the United States. Essentially, catch shares is a system of rights, rewards and responsibilities that provides long-term privileges to participants, which is theorized to provide incentive for efficient, sustainable use of fish stocks. Science-based catch limits are set for commercially fished species, and fishermen receive access rights to specific areas. While catch shares are controversial within the United States, roughly 65 percent of fish caught in federal waters are under catch shares. If these pilot programs are deemed successful, Belize may implement them nationwide.

Belize is also the testing ground for a new-age enforcement tools: drones. While this project is still in the initial stages, it highlights Belize’s commitment to improving their global reputation as ocean guardians. Already the implementation of marine reserves has helped to enforce their dedication to maintain the barrier reef as a World Heritage Site. Perhaps greater regulatory enforcement measures and tools can help with that goal.

Catch up on previous trips to Belize—lots more amazing pictures!
  • See the beauty of hermit crabs and ride out a tropical storm during their 2013 trip
  • Learn more about threats to corals, plus signs of a late-night visitor to Carrie Bow Cay, in 2012
  • See what other researchers are up to at the research station in 2011
  • And read the exciting post where the marine protected area was announced in 2010

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