Changing Planet

European Union Fisheries Ban Ignores Belize Conservation Success Story

By Britt Groosman and Janet Gibson

Belize is a small nation that has been making some big headlines lately due to the rogue fishing practices of some of the vessels its government has flagged. Unfortunately, this makes it look like the 15,000 Belizeans whose livelihoods are directly tied to fishing are all bad actors and that the Belizean government is not doing anything to promote sustainable fishing. Both assumptions are wrong.

In its coastal fisheries, Belize is leading the way in innovative management strategies designed to preserve biodiversity in a manner that keeps fishermen on the water and focused on the long-term sustainability of fish stocks. Future generations of Belizeans will be able to carry on their rich fishing traditions thanks to the decisions, at times quite difficult, being made right now.

These fishers have managed access licenses that grant them the right to fish at this site. Photo © Julio Maaz/WCS
This fisherman has a managed access license that grants him the right to fish at this site. Photo © Julio Maaz/WCS

Beyond Belize’s Exclusive Economic Zone, the European Union (EU) and Belize are working to resolve the issue of pirate fishing by Belizean flagged vessels. The current situation, which has led to an EU import ban on all Belizean fisheries products, is untenable on both sides and deserving of immediate remediation.

This ban – and the illegal fishing practices beyond Belize’s waters responsible for it – obscures one of the most significant success stories in oceans conservation and sustainable fisheries anywhere in the world. A coalition of fishermen, fishery managers, marine scientists, and non-governmental organizations are crafting sustainable fishing regulations that simultaneously protect biodiversity and Belize’s vital coastal fishing industry.

Local Belize fisherman dive for lobster, conch, and reef fish. Photo © Julio Maaz/WCS
Local Belize fisherman dive for lobster, conch, and reef fish. Photo © Julio Maaz/WCS

Belize is home to the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the largest such reef in the Western hemisphere and whose magnificent ecosystem is seriously threatened. As more and more people turn to fishing for their livelihoods, a race-to-the-last-fish mentality sets in and leads to overfishing and declining incomes.  In the developing world, this perverse dynamic allows natural capital to be extracted at a net economic value loss given daily sustenance demand for nutrition and income.  Fish represent one of the most important renewable resources on the planet, as governments, NGOs and institutions continue to address poverty and global development challenges.  They are underwater and, as a resource, under-represented.

Belize’s Glover’s Reef lies along the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the largest such system in the Western hemisphere. Photo © R.T. Graham

It’s important to remember that fish aren’t simply a menu option in Belize, where so many people are dependent on them for jobs and protein. Since 2009, the Government of Belize, Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and a range of other organizations have worked to formulate management techniques that set appropriate catch limits and establish restricted areas. 

Individual catch quotas are then apportioned and eligible fishermen are determined.  After all, the first step in addressing overfishing is to reduce it. The key is to do so in a manner that retains as much value in the resource as possible. Catch share – or “managed access” – programs have been constructed to deliver numerous co-benefits, including ending overfishing, preserving biodiversity, and strengthening the fishing industry.

Belize is preserving biodiversity in a manner that keeps fishermen on the water and fish stocks sustainable.  Photo © Julio Maaz/WCS
Belize is preserving biodiversity in a manner that keeps fishermen on the water and fish stocks sustainable. Photo © Julio Maaz/WCS

Guided by this philosophy, Belize is developing a national network of Territorial User Rights for Fishing, or “TURFs,” which allocate privileges to groups of fishermen that allow them to fish in specific areas. Strong science is central to the management of the TURFs. Teams of scientists from the government, academic, and NGO communities are collaborating to assess the status of Belize’s fisheries and fashion policies based on accurate data.  

TURFs also include replenishment zones, where fishing is prohibited so that fish stocks can repopulate. This is a win-win system where fishermen have a direct stake in the health of the area where they fish and by extension have more incentive to help protect the replenishment zone. As these fisheries recover, fishermen can catch more fish and become vocal stewards of the ecosystem.

Belize has adopted replenishment zones where fishing is prohibited so fish stocks can repopulate. Photo ©Enric Sala
Belize has adopted replenishment zones where fishing is prohibited so fish stocks can repopulate. Photo ©Enric Sala

Belize started the program in 2011 in Port Honduras, aided by the Toledo Institute for Development and Environment, and Glover’s Reef – areas known for their rich biodiversity and rampant overfishing.  They are ideal locations to demonstrate that catch shares can arrest the pernicious cycle of overfishing.  Only two years later, the results are striking.  Illegal fishing is in sharp decline. Fewer juvenile fish are being caught, critical habitats are being protected, and fishermen are honoring closed seasons. 

Because the government does not have adequate resources or capacity necessary to manage their fisheries and protect the replenishment zones, forging a partnership with fishermen is essential. Fishermen recognize better than anyone when a rebound is underway and they are enthusiastically assuming increased responsibility for managing fisheries.At Port Honduras and Glover’s Reef, they have formed community-based committees to provide oversight assistance and decide who is eligible to fish in the TURFs.  They are also teaming up with government rangers to enforce regulations and monitoring compliance.

Belize is now scaling up this model. During the next two years, the system will expand to include 45 percent of Belize’s insular waters and potentially go nationwide by 2020.  Other countries are taking notice, including some major fishing powers.  Indonesia, Philippines, Brazil, and Honduras are among the many countries also considering a national catch share system and looking to Belize for guidance. 

Artisanal fishermen collecting Queen conch at Glover's Reef.  Photo © Julio Maaz/WCS
Artisanal fisherman collecting Queen conch at Glover’s Reef. Photo © Julio Maaz/WCS

Illegal fishing is a global problem. It is depleting our oceans, threatening their fragile and essential biodiversity, and imperiling the livelihoods of fishermen around the world. As nations and world bodies move to rein it in and set market and conservation incentives for the long term, a diversity of approaches are necessary. 

In the end, international policy-making bodies must work to amend or repeal regulations that inadvertently exacerbate the very problem they were designed to correct. At the same time, countries around the world must work on all fronts to build more sustainable, equitable, and transparent fishing industries.  Belize’s fisheries reform process demonstrates the challenges and opportunities presented by each on the path to sustainability.


Britt Groosman is European Program Director for the Environmental Defense Fund. Janet Gibson is the Belize Program Director for Wildlife Conservation Society.

WCS saves wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature.
  • James

    Interesting that two of your pictures that presumable are depicting “overfishing” in Belize showed Lionfish, which are not native to Belize, and which need to be eradicated from the Caribbean to protect the reefs.

  • Mary Saunders

    When I was in Belize, June, 2013, Lionfish were being targeted, and chefs were competing for prizes for best dish prepared with lionfish. It appears to me that native species are being conserved with specific rules to protect them. I was heartened by the knowledge and care I saw for the diversity and beauty of life by the humans of Belize.

  • Huracan Diving

    James… the caption is “Belize fishermen are now helping to craft sustainable fishing regulations” however I agree… though the article doesn’t focus on the lionfish, but sustainable fishing practice, I guess a mention on this devastatingly invasive species could have been mentioned.

  • The authors appreciate the thoughtful comments posted in response to two images with lionfish that were inadvertently included with this commentary as originally posted. Those images have been replaced and we continue to welcome all comments.

  • James R Foley

    Great article Janet and Britt, although given the strong collaborative spirit of this initiative it is a pity not to mention TIDE (Toledo Institute for Development and Environment) for its key role in implementing Managed Access in Port Honduras Marine Reserve, as well as other locally based NGO partners in the new Managed Access pilot sites in Belize. Let’s keep the collaborative effort strong!

  • Seleem Chan

    Very wonderful article indeed, but I must agree with James Foley.

  • David

    An unfortunate example of how a nation’s open vessel registry can tarnish the good work of local fisheries management.

  • Britt Groosman

    James and Seleem are right. This is a collaborative effort led by the Government of Belize which includes many Belizean NGOs and fisherman organizations. TODE is a leader in the Managed Access project and oceans conservation in Belize, and they have successfully co-managed the Managed Access initiative in Port Honduras Marine Reserve. Thank you for highlighting this.

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