Belize pioneers managed access for its coastal fisheries

In the past year, Belize, a small Central American country located between Guatemala and Mexico with a coastline of about 400 kilometers and generally a low profile in global affairs, has quietly become a world leader in marine conservation.

It has done so by changing its entire coastal fisheries from open access to managed access. The new managed access program began last year and now requires Belize's 2,800 fishers to obtain licenses to fish in two designated areas of their choice along the coast and keep accurate records of their catches. The program uses a rights-based approach to motivate fishers to respect geographical and seasonal fishing restrictions, catch size, and some quotas.

“Belize is one of the first countries in the world to have a managed access fisheries along the entire coast,” Gavin McDonald, project researcher with Fish Forever which helped establish Belize's managed access program, told SeafoodSource.

McDonald said there are eight access areas in Belize's coastal waters, where fishermen involved in export fish mainly for lobster and conchs. An article posted on the Belize Fisheries Department's Facebook page noted that Belize's fisheries brought in USD 29 million (EUR 24.7 million) in revenue in 2012, the most recent year for which statistics are available.

According to the article, “Key to the success of managed access are several components which include, but are not limited to: improvements in the licensing/registry system and process; a good monitoring and fishery dependent catch data collection program; a dedicated presence of enforcement personnel and use of new enforcement technologies; and most importantly, the greater active involvement of fishers themselves in the program via fishing area based committees.”

Belize's water had been overfished “for quite some time” said McDonald, and “one issue was the increasing effort within the fishing fleet, with more fishers entering the fleet.”

“They have had a number of management controls for lobster and conch...and they have been making some effort to get it stable for a very long time,” he said. “It was a cabinet-level decision that led to managed access” being implemented, he said.

The Belizean government had been working for a number of years with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) on several projects to protect its marine environment.

EDF has formed a partnership with Rare and the University of California, Santa Barbara, titled Fish Forever, whose aim is “to catalyze a global movement of near-shore fisheries reform in the developing tropics to ensure profitable and sustainable fisheries,” according to Alejandro Arrivillaga, Rare's director of monitoring and evaluation for the Fish Forever program.

Rare had the responsibility of winning over the Belizean fishing community to the idea of managed access after a lifetime of open access fisheries. Arrivillaga told SeafoodSource in an e-mail that there were a few challenges in accomplishing this.

“Coordination with the multiple stakeholders in Belize Fisheries [Department] was challenging, but in the end an agreed upon plan was developed and implemented successfully. Other obstacles involved the political cycle in Belize, with elections taking place in the middle of the campaign implementation. Much of these obstacles were not unexpected, and the Fish Forever team, together with the Belize Fisheries Department, were able to achieve success,” he said.

Several attempts by SeafoodSource to obtain an interview with the Belize Fisheries Department were unsuccessful. However, Arrivillaga said the government had been a key partner in the effort.

“Rare trained four staff of the Belize Fisheries Department as managed access coordinators. The training involved both social marketing techniques, as well as fisheries management…Other than the training, Rare also developed a national level 'Pride Campaign' to promote adoption of managed access by Belize’s fishers.”

The campaign included a mascot and a song which whipped up enthusiasm among members of the community, Arrivillaga said. Feedback Fish Forever received regarding the campaign showed that fishers were particularly pleased that the logo, mascot, and communication materials reflected their culture and values.

“Overall, fishers were pleased with the managed access program and were highly supportive of it,” he said.

“The main implementing partner for the Fish Forever program in Belize was the Belize Fisheries Department,” Arrivillaga added.

McDonald said it is too early to say as yet what impact the managed access program is having on Belize's fish biomass and habitats.

“In the coming years, as the data continues to be collected, we will be able to say more,” he said.


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