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Fisherman in Amatique Bay

The battle for the Amatique reef

A shrimp boat flees on an early morning in November 2017, chased by a dozen small motorboats off the coast of the Guatemalan Caribbean, at the mouth of the Sarstún River.

The persecutors are small, local fishermen, dedicated to traditional fishing. The persecuted are also fishermen but on a shrimp boat capable of removing up to half a ton of marine life in a single day before dawn. 

The dozens of white trails that stir the seawater in the morning hours are signs of a battle that began in the dark. 

Shrimp boats
Shrimp boats ready to go out on the night fishing journey in Livingston, Izabal / Credit: No-Ficción/Oswaldo J. Hernández

Shortly after the chase begins, the fishermen locate the shrimp boat near Guatemala’s border with Belize within the boundaries of the Mesoamerican Reef system, the largest coral reef in the Atlantic, extending along the coasts of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras. The giant marine ecosystem is divided into four sections within the Amatique Bay, a place where until a few decades ago sustainable, small-scale fishing was the norm and where today dedicated protected areas aim to preserve the reef and its surrounds.

“Shrimp farmers often don't respect [us]. They invade our fishing areas. And with their ships they break our trasmallos [a type of net fishing],” says Marcos Milián, president of the Fishermen Committee of Barra Sarstún, the last community in Livingston before arriving in Belizean territory. “We see them when they pass with their lights in front of the coast at dawn. And we see that more and more ships arrive. We don't know how long the sea will be enough for everyone.”

Milián says that every year, on average, a confrontation happens similar to this one.

"Each one is a story to tell," he says. And every story shows that Amatique Bay is reaching the limits of collapse. There are more fishermen and less and less fish. There is also a reef whose health is deteriorating, and a protected marine area that, according to environmentalists, could begin to collapse.

Foudara's coral reef
A picture of Foudara’s coral reef. On the coast of Izabal the Mesoamerican Reef is called Foudara, a marine ecosystem that is hidden 18 kilometers off the coast of Amatique Bay. / Credit: CONAP / Sergio Hernández

“The biomass of the reefs every year has been reduced,” says Ana Giró, a graduate in Marine Science and Aquaculture and representative of the Healthy Reefs organization in Guatemala. “Guatemala has the lowest percentage of commercial fish in the entire region, with a decline of 95 percent since 2006,” says Giró. 

A full, Spanish-language version of this story was published on No-Ficción on 9 Dec. 2019. Click here to read the complete piece.

Banner image: Jacinto Bolom, 72, picks up his net while fishing near the border of Belize and Guatemala during sunrise / Credit: No-Ficción/Oswaldo J. Hernández