Gill-nets kill marine life, and they’re darn good at it. Long ago it was considered an efficient practice for commercial fishing, but today we know that they are a major detriment on ecosystems around the world. Recently a coalition of conservation-minded Belizians has gathered together to finally have the nets banned from use in their country.

From Ban Gillnets Belize:

Coalition For Sustainable Fisheries Launches Ban Gillnets

BELIZE CITY, BELIZE, July 9, 2019—Gillnets are seriously damaging Belize’s marine environment, and with it, the country’s tourism industry and commercial fishery. These nets—some up to a mile long—indiscriminately kill marine life while threatening commercial fishing stocks, sport fishing species, manatees, dolphins, turtles, and other marine life. With tourism representing 45% of Belize’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and 70% of all tourists visiting marine destinations, a healthy marine environment is critical to the country’s economic future. Likewise, Belize’s vibrant commercial fishery is directly dependent on a healthy marine environment.

A relatively small number of licensed Belizean fishermen use gillnets. Of more than 2,500 licensed fishermen in Belize, only 83 are currently licensed as gillnet fishermen. In addition to these licensed gillnetters, there are undoubtedly some illegal Belizean gillnetters. However, the major concern is an incursion of illegal gillnet fishermen from Guatemala and possibly Honduras. These foreign poachers visit Belizean waters—including protected marine reserves—on a nightly basis to collect their plunder. In the process, they devastate Belize’s marine resources. Foreign boats with gillnets of one mile long are very capable of eliminating all marine life within their reach. Much of the sea life collected in these nets—such as shark fins—is sold in black markets. In Spring 2019, investigative reporters followed poachers to the port of Livingston, Guatemala and discovered barrels of poached permit which covered the span of a football field. Permit caught in Belizean waters are designated a catch-and-release-only species by law.

Gillnets are the fishing gear of choice for illegal fishing and countering the invasion by Belize’s neighbors is difficult since resources are limited. The Belize Coast Guard supports a gillnet ban which will significantly enhance their enforcement capabilities. It’s important to note that commercial fishermen in Belize overwhelmingly support a gillnet ban. Recognizing that fish stocks are declining, they are concerned about the future of their fishery, their livelihood and their ability to support their families.

“My family has been commercial fishing for generations and my brothers and I transitioned to guiding sport fishermen from around the world,” said Eworth Garbutt, co-owner of Garbutt’s Fishing Lodge in Punta Gorda, located in Southern Belize. “In our culture, the sea is life. If we don’t put an end to gillnetting, this way of life and our community will disappear.”

The Coalition for Sustainable Fisheries (CSF) is a group of conservation organizations, commercial fishermen, tourism representatives, and sports fishing enthusiasts with a simple goal: to ban all gillnets in Belizean waters. Members include: Belize Federation of Fishers, Turneffe Atoll Trust, Yellow Dog Community & Conservation Foundation, Belize Tourism Industry Association, Belize Gamefish Association, MAR Alliance, Fragments of Hope, Southern Environmental Association, Oceanic Society, Fishermen Ecotourism and National Sports Fishing Association.

To-date, CSF has obtained support for the gillnet ban from key commercial fishing organizations, Belizean government leaders, domestic and international conservation groups, tourism interests and every single Belizean sport fishing lodge and fishing guide. The group produced an extensive report in March 2019, Net Loss or Net Gain, detailing the effects of gillnets on the Belizean commercial and sportfishing economies and the environment. Perhaps most importantly, CFS has piloted an Alternative Livelihoods Program in which Belizean gillnetters are trained in sustainable practices.

“As Director of the Belize Federation of Fishers, I can confidently state this ban is the top priority for our stakeholders. Banning gillnets throughout Belizean waters is very important to commercial fishermen for a variety of reasons, with the main one being gillnets represent an indiscriminate fishing method which is outdated and threatens the health of our stocks,” said Nigel Martinez.

The Coalition presented a formal proposal to the government calling for an end to all gillnet fishing in Belizean waters following a one-year phase-out period, paired with a commitment to raise substantial funds to assist licensed gillnet fishermen in transitioning to more sustainable fishing methods or other alternative livelihoods. A pilot program to train gillnet fishermen in sustainable shrimp trapping is underway. To be clear, this is not industrial shrimp trawling nor pollution-ridden shrimp aquaculture. This is the use of small traps—similar to lobster traps—operated by fishermen in a sustainable manner.

In Spring 2019 fishermen from Maine experienced with sustainable methods were brought to Belize for a cross-cultural educational program in which they showed Belizean fisherman how to run species-specific traps. In June of 2019, the Belizean fisherman who participated in the educational program visited Maine to receive additional training. In 2008, shrimp trawling (the major shrimp industry in Belize) was outlawed due to the disastrous impacts of the practice on reef systems. This method of harvesting shrimp does not destroy the sea floor as trawlers do nor does it contaminate ocean waters as is often the case with shrimp aquaculture.

“When I became fully involved with Belize’s gillnet ban several months ago, I realized that gillnets were a major problem,” said Craig Hayes, owner of Turneffe Flats, a saltwater fly fishing, SCUBA diving and marine eco-tourism destination. “Since then, I’ve come to realize that getting rid of gillnets is absolutely critical to saving Belize’s incredible marine resources, the tourism industry, the commercial fishery and the heart of Belize’s economy. Most of the hard work has been done and we need to get this over the finish line.”

The Coalition has raised $250,000 for this alternative livelihood training but needs to reach their $1 million goal in order to fully convert all gillnetters to new livelihoods and to encourage the Belizean government to finalize an all-out ban. The Coalition is calling upon anglers to help with this effort in saving one of the world’s most remarkable saltwater fisheries. Those interested in supporting the cause can donate to the Gillnet Transition Fund created by the Coalition for Sustainable Fisheries through their website and Go Fund Me platform: https://www.bangillnetsbelize.com/.

This gillnet ban will be a huge step forward for Belize in ensuring the sustainability of its incredibly diverse fishery and marine environment and will set a precedent not only for this small Central American country but for all marine ecosystems throughout the world.

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