Belize, UN Try to Save Reefs and Help Fishers

Brian Handwerk and Lauri Hafvenstein
for National Geographic News
March 7, 2003
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Belize is a tiny Central American nation that's been blessed with an enormous natural treasure—the Western Hemisphere's biggest coral barrier reef. The reef system is a riotous assemblage of colorful marine life that attracts naturalists, snorkelers, and divers from around the world.

The reef system and nearby ocean waters are also essential providers for the inhabitants of coastal Belize, many of whom depend upon their rich bounty for economic survival.

But the sea's vast resources are not limitless, and the waters of Belize are showing the strain of years of unchecked fishing as well as damage from increased tourism, pollution, and disease.

Conservation organizations have enlisted the help of the Belizean government, which maintains 12 marine protected areas throughout the reef. A cluster of seven of these areas have even been accorded UNESCO World Heritage status—a designation reserved for the world's most outstanding examples of cultural and natural heritage.

Positive strides were made last November when a series of regulations were passed to preserve the spawning areas of the endangered Nassau grouper. But protection comes at a price to the people who have made their living fishing these waters, and the new laws cannot be effective without their support and cooperation.

Popularity Hurts Nassau Grouper

A telling example of the overfishing problems plaguing the reef system is the story of the Nassau grouper (Epinephelus striatus). This fish is vital to the reef ecosystem as a predator of smaller fish, lobster, crab, octopus, and shrimp. In turn, groupers are prey for larger animals including barracuda, shark, and dolphins.

Their most voracious predators, however, have been humans.

The active local fishery for Nassau grouper began about 70 years ago, focusing on a 10- to 14-day spawning period each year during the full moon of late December or early January. This is when the fish leave their reef lairs and congregate by the thousands on traditional spawning banks to the seaward side of the reef.

At the same time, locals left their villages and towns in small dug-out boats equipped with handlines, spearguns, or traps and headed to these banks to fish for the groupers. For years, the picking was easy, and it seemed the bounty would never end.

But recently, it's been a radically different story. Many spawning beds are empty—and so are fishermen's nets.

"In the late '70s and early '80s, each fishing trip we used to catch over 1,000 pounds [375 kilograms] of Nassau grouper per fishing crew," fishermen Victor Jacobs Jr. told a spawning aggregation group charged with establishing regulations for the beleaguered fishery. "Nowadays we only catch one."

"We used to have to stop fishing by two [o'clock] in the afternoon just so we could get all the fish cleaned by ten [o'clock] at night," added fellow fisherman Tuli Lara. "We never imagined we could fish that out."

But science has confirmed the observations of these fishermen.

"Overfishing of the Nassau grouper spawning aggregation sites is taking fish at the most vulnerable time—while they are reproducing," said Janet Gibson, regional coordinator of marine programs for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). Researchers at Glover's Reef World Heritage Site have documented a population decline of Nassau groupers of more than 80 percent since the late 1970s. Enric Sala, a scientist for WCS and the San Diego, California-based Scripps Institution of Oceanography, estimates that if fishing of the spawning aggregations were to continue at the current rate the grouper would vanish entirely from the Glover's Reef site by 2013.

More than half of Belize's traditional 13 spawning sites are already considered extinct because reproduction-size aggregations no longer form. And it's not only the grouper that has been wiped out. Many other fish gather to reproduce at these same vital spawning areas—including snapper, jacks, and grunts.

Help Has Arrived—But Is It in Time?

But help has arrived for the Nassau grouper in the form of new legislation. Regulations were passed in November 2002 that halt fishing in 11 offshore spawning areas and establish a four-month closed season for grouper fishing.

"We commend the government of Belize for having the foresight to protect this unique marine resource," said Janet Gibson. "Without this new law, the demise of the Nassau grouper in Belize would be imminent."

But what about the fishermen?

"If we don't ensure that the fishermen get the support that they need to maintain themselves, nothing good will come from any of these initiatives," said K. Mustafa Toure of the Belize Fisherman's Cooperative Association.

Philip Balderamos, national coordinator for the United Nation's Community Management of Protected Areas Conservation, agrees. "The challenge to maintain the globally important biodiversity and resources…will be much greater [if we don't] work on involving communities and supporting their livelihood aspirations."

Enric Sala and his fellow researchers at Glover's Reef began that support process as soon as the fishing grounds were closed, putting fishermen to work helping with research efforts such as tagging and collecting information about the fish. Other groups are at work on more long-term alternatives.

"The Nature Conservancy has been training local fishermen to be tourist guides and diving guides," Sala added, "and some of the young fishermen now spend part of the year taking tourists out for catch and release bonefishing. A culture shift is needed, and the young are most likely to change."

Sala and his team made a strong case for preservation in terms of cold, hard cash. "We did a very simple economic analysis for the fishermen, essentially [the grouper's] value dead and alive. The conclusions were that if fishing continued at Glover's Reef, for example, the fishery would collapse in [less than] 10 years. But if there is no fishing, and only 20 divers are taken to the site for two weeks in December and January, the revenues would be 20 times higher each year. Some fishermen seemed to be impressed by that."

A Sustainable Future for All?

No one knows how the depleted populations of Nassau grouper will respond to their new protections, or how effective legislation can be. While the Belize Fishery Department has rangers (some former fishermen) who patrol marine reserves, enforcement is weak according to Sala. "We just got back two tags from local fishermen [researchers offer a reward for the return of tagged fish], and they were caught in December during the protected season by Belizean fishermen at Glover's Reef, which is probably the best known protected area. So enforcement is not great."

Although enforcement alone can't protect the reefs, cooperation can. For the most part, it seems to be working. Because the fishermen have been included in the process of protecting the sites, Sala believes that "although there may be some poaching…the larger fishing community won't fish these sites." That means the Nassau grouper population should have a fair chance to regain its place in the reef ecosystem.

If the plan is successful, the grouper and other spawning reef fish may not be the only beneficiaries. The cooperative effort could serve as a model for balancing the interests of local populations and the environment for the good of all. In the end, all have the same goal—the protection of Belize's precious natural heritage.

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Related Web site

Glover's Reef Marine Research Station

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