By Nicanor Requena and Leobihildo Tamai
Whether you enter tropical seas as a tourist or a researcher, or to ensure your family’s sustenance and sense of place as we do, two divergent trends loom on the horizon. First, our coral reefs provide an astonishingly rich source of biodiversity, protein, jobs and income, and can for generations to come. But second, they face existential threats.
As native Belizeans, we know what’s at stake. Respected marine scientist Dr. John Bruno just delivered the latest diagnosis following his many summers visiting our backyard. Twice-daily surveys showed him irreversible degradation of the western hemisphere’s largest barrier reef. Worldwide, reefs are under siege from sediment, plastic, algae, polluted runoff, hypoxic zones, invasive species, and perhaps most importantly, overfishing. Worse still, a changing global climate has made tropical waters hotter and more acidic, transforming some reefs into bleached and barren coral graveyards.
These are urgent and dangerous threats. But there is every reason to be hopeful for a brighter future. Why are we so optimistic? Because in communities across Belize we have witnessed a practical solution that has turned fishermen and fishing communities into stewards of the sea, slowing and reversing overfishing, empowering fishermen and coastal communities, and bringing coral reefs and the sea back to life.
By stewarding recovery of the very resource on which they depend, these communities offer the suffering ocean a pragmatic and proven remedy – one that can be replicated and scaled in tropical waters around the world.
The Government of Belize, Environmental Defense Fund, Wildlife Conservation Society, an array of Belizean conservation and community NGOs, and Belize’s coastal communities have sparked a transformation. And now, fishermen, scientists, business owners, tour operators, government officials and civil society have been celebrating sustainable fishing and conservation due to the contagious force known as managed access – a powerful social contract with incentives for fishermen to steward the sea.
Under managed access, fishermen who agree to adhere to strict, science-based fishing rules will, in exchange, gain secure access to a clearly defined traditional harvesting ground. A collaborative community-based approach unleashes local stewardship incentives to conserve our reef ecosystems; people benefit as marine life recovers, catches increase and prosperity spreads.
At the first sites to adopt managed access in Belize fishermen helped bring about a 60 percent decline in illegal harvests. Nine out of 10 fishermen are reporting their catch data, using it to improve co-management decisions with government officials and scientists. Fishermen are reporting higher catches and our reef-related businesses are thriving.
Now Belize is building on this system, with ambitious new science, policy and project commitments: a new, modern national fisheries law by year’s end; sustainable management plans for all major commercial fish species by 2018; expanded no-take zones from 3% to over 10% of territorial waters by 2020; and a new blueprint for protecting important coastal ecosystems, including mangrove areas. In addition, a Fragments of Hope program is re-seeding our coral reefs with genetically robust, diverse and resilient corals that will rebuild areas that have been, or will get, bleached.
We know that the reefs – our underwater rainforests – need and welcome support from afar, but rather than wait for global interventions, local actions – anchored by fishermen with a secure stake in the fishery – are providing a bottom-up cornerstone of reef resilience.
At the recent U.N. Oceans Conference our Minister of Fisheries was joined by our fishing colleagues in showing how oceans are “a matter of survival,” and how Belize’s recovery can be replicated and scaled in tropical waters around the world.
We know that our seas face real and urgent dangers. But we also know that managed access works because it counters global threats with homegrown resilience, under the rights-based incentives and care of local stewards whose own survival depends on restoring diverse reef health, biodiversity, prosperity and hope.
Leobihildo Tamai is a fisherman from Sarteneja village. He is a founding member of the Sarteneja Fishermen Association, and a board member of the Sarteneja Alliance for Conservation and Development (SACD), which leads the work for the management and sustainable use of the Corozal Bay Wildlife Sanctuary. Leobihildo is also a member of the Glover’s Reef Marine Reserve Advisory Committee (GRAC) and the elected Sarteneja representative on the Managed Access Committee for Glover’s Reef. Leobihildo received the 2017 Belize fisher of the year award.
Nicanor Requena is a Fellow of the Mesoamerican Reef Leadership Program, and has 19 years of experience working on marine conservation and fisheries management in Belize and the Mesoamerican reef region. He is focused on research and community engagement—getting fishermen involved in the process that lead to the identification, characterization, monitoring and protection of reef fish spawning aggregations. He was one of the leaders in the implementation of Managed Access, Belize’s program of fishing rights for small-scale fishermen.