Worth the Wait

Belize officially enacts a new fisheries bill to protect both marine species and livelihoods

By Nicole Auil Gomez and Janet Gibson | February 14, 2020

Today, Belize will officially enact its new bipartisan, forward-looking fisheries bill that protects both marine species and livelihoods: the Fisheries Resources Act. As conservationists, we are excited to support what will be a huge undertaking to realize its full implementation.

This is substantive legislation. Its 94 sections start with its principles and measures using the Precautionary Approach to protect and preserve aquatic resources. The Act also aims to stymie overfishing and improve the livelihoods and welfare of fishers and their communities. Declaration and management of marine and inland water reserves will allow for more conservation efforts to be directed toward freshwater fish species, as well.

Significantly, this new bill gives fishers a greater voice. Four seats on the 12-member Fisheries Advisory Council, which will advise on the implementation of the Act and further development of the sector, will be set aside for them and fishing co-operatives.

Another exciting component of this Act is its view of the holistic foundation of a healthy fisheries sector that includes not only the fishes themselves, but their habitat, and the community of actors that can harm or benefit the sector.

The sheer size of the Act made it difficult to socialize with the general public. It does increase fines for fishing infractions, but we feel this is an important step, as it provides a real financial deterrent to illegal fishing. Looking forward, we expect to see more grassroots involvement in the management of fishing areas. It will no longer just be conservation NGOs in this position, but fishing groups can be as well.

The Act also provides the legislative backbone for the fishing rights and licensing system Belize calls Managed Access and will motivate fishers to be stewards of the areas where they fish. Additionally, it allows data, collected from various sources, to be used for the management plans for specific fisheries, and designates a seat for a fisheries scientist on the Advisory Council.

This is important progress and it was years in the making.

As secretary to the Glover’s Reef Advisory Committee for a long time, one of us (Janet) had repeatedly recorded members’ concerns on enforcement and the shortcomings of Belize’s fisheries regulations. The officer in charge of marine reserves then, the late Isaias Majil, pointed out that many of the regulations passed at the time did not mesh with the old, anachronistic Act on the books. As a result, cases were frequently thrown out in court.

In August 2008, I (Janet), as WCS Belize Director, began discussions with the Fisheries Administrator, Beverly Wade, about the idea of submitting a proposal to revise the Act. The Oak Foundation generously supported this, which started with the appointment of a multi-agency steering committee. With international and local legal consultants, we began a very intense two-year period of work that included an analysis of the existing legal framework, first and second drafts of the Act that were reviewed and amended, development and implementation of a communications plan, and three rounds of national stakeholder consultations.

With the assistance of our excellent fisheries and technical consultants, as well as the input of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN’s legal office, these efforts culminated at the end of 2011 in a comprehensive Fisheries Resources Bill for the Minister of Fisheries to present to Belize’s Cabinet at the beginning of 2012.

But that’s when politics intervened. Snap general elections were called in March 2012 and presentation of the bill was postponed. Little did we know then, it would be another eight years before the bill finally moved forward.

We at WCS, along with the many others who have supported the Fisheries Department and the Ministry in getting this vision realized, are ecstatic about the future of the fishing sector.

Now that it has, we at WCS, along with the many others who have supported the Fisheries Department and the Ministry in getting this vision realized, are ecstatic about the future of the fishing sector.

A huge undertaking still lies ahead as we work toward full implementation of the Act and subsequent Regulations. At WCS, we look forward to further supporting this process of securing livelihoods and healthy coral reefs — by providing scientific information on lobster, conch, and finfish to help maximize fish stocks; supporting protected area management; strengthening local capacity to understand and combat wildlife trafficking, including unreported and unregulated fishing, ; and increasing stakeholder inclusion, in particular for women in the fisheries sector.

The Fisheries Resources Act is landmark legislation. It finally brings the country’s fisheries management into the 21st Century and, now that the wait over, we see a brighter future for Belize’s people and its waters.

Janet Gibson is the retired Country Director of WCS Belize. Nicole Auil Gomez is the current director.

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