As game fish suffer, a handful of fishers in Belize threaten the livelihoods of thousands
By Allison Guy / August 2016 / OCEANA
Each year, visiting anglers spend about $41.3 million to catch the prized game fish that flit through Belize’s inshore waters. But the country’s sports fishing industry is in danger. A handful of local fishermen who deploy gillnets — a destructive form of netting that can kill animals from shrimp to whales — are wiping out the recreational species that are a major lure for tourists
Tour operators, activists, and fishers alike say only a total ban on gillnets can cut through the government’s complex web of laws and near total lack of at-sea enforcement of fishing rules. But in a move that perplexes many, the Fisheries Department has dismissed calls for a ban on these nets for nearly 20 years.
Better off alive
Belize’s quilt of sand flats, seagrass meadows, mangroves and river mouths nurture the so-called “grand slam” of flats fishing: tarpon, permit, and bonefish. These species, famed for their speed and acrobatics, can inspire anglers to travel great distances and empty their wallets for gear, guides and lodging — a big boon in a country where 35 percent of jobs depend on tourism.
Andrew Roe, president of the Belize Game Fish Association, recounted the tale of a visiting sports fisher who decided to pursue permit, a spade-shaped fish known for its knack at avoiding lures.
“He’s been at it for two years,” Roe said. “So far, he’s spent $50,000 and he’s not caught one permit yet.” Explaining that a permit would fetch only a few dollars as fillets, Roe added: “The value of that fish being alive and swimming around in the ocean far, far exceeds what it would be worth if it were dead.”
Though $50,000 and counting for a single fish might be extreme, anglers routinely outspend other tourists by a factor of three. According to Alissa Gentry of El Pescador Resort, a fishing lodge on Ambergris Caye, the resort’s guests spend around US $515 per day — the lion’s share of which goes to hire fishing guides, one of the highest-paid professions in Belize.
According to a 2013 report from the Bonefish and Tarpon Trust, Belize’s sports fishing industry supports over 2,100 full-time jobs. This is not an insignificant number in a country with a population of less than 400,000.
The gillnet scourge
Coastal development, habitat loss and other issues threaten the future of Belize’s flats fishing. But the one problem nearly everyone agrees on is gillnets — including the gillnetters themselves.
One fisherman from Punta Gorda, speaking anonymously for fear of reprisals, explained that he had given up these nets for good only a few weeks before the interview. “I love gillnets,” he said. “I can set them in the evening around four or five and go back to my bed. I check them one time at night, and in the morning I have some fish. It’s easy.”
“But,” he added, “I also see the impact gillnets are having on the country. I see the damage we do. I had to change.”
He said that he now works to persuade other gillnetters to switch to less-destructive gear like hook-and-line.
Gillnets, so-called because they snare their target fish by the gills, are invisible to most marine animals and indiscriminate in what they kill. Aaron Adams, a scientist at the Bonefish and Tarpon Trust, described witnessing their effects first-hand.
“There’s a bonefish flat near Belize City where fishing guides saw a guy stretching a gillnet . . . “