Belize is a country rich in fish spawning grounds, which ensure that fish populations continue to grow and replenish. Those fish not only feed the country’s waters – and its people – they also help guarantee the health and vibrancy of the Mesoamerican Reef, the largest barrier reef system in the Western hemisphere.
But according to the Belize Spawning Aggregation Working Group, which has monitored eight spawning sites since the early 2000s, the fish populations in those areas have declined over the past 15 years. The Nassau Grouper has seen such a drop in numbers that it is now listed as critically endangered.
Fishers, tour guides and officials say transboundary fishing from Honduras is one of the greatest threats to fish populations in Belize.
“Illegal fishing is our Achilles heel. It is the activity which undermines everything we have put into place. It undermines the willingness from the fishers themselves to put down restrictions, it undermines all of the limited resources that we have, that we put into the management of these areas, and of course it undermines the very resource that we’re trying to protect,” said Beverly Wade, director of fisheries at the Belize Fisheries Department.
The fisheries department and other organizations that manage Belizean waters say they lack the staff and funding needed for effective patrolling. So over the past two years the coast guard has committed to working with the fisheries department to increase night patrols at spawning aggregation sites in the hope the collaboration will deter illegal fishers.
A fisheries reform law recently introduced in the house of representatives could also act as a deterrent through increased fines and penalties. But, as Courtney Weatherburne reports, more research and regional collaboration is needed to fully understand all the factors leading to a decline in fish populations at these spawning locations.
Banner image: A school of snappers pictured at Gladden Spit / Credit: Tony Rath