Belize Lobster and Conch Fisheries: Collective Impact of Managed Access Program Puts Fisheries on Path to Recovery
Port Honduras and Glover’s Reef, Belize
Acclaimed for its beauty, biodiversity, and economic bounty, Belize’s barrier reef is the impetus behind a transformative rethinking of the country’s fisheries management system. The wild-capture fishery sector contributes significantly to the country’s economy, bringing in approximately $29 million in 2012 and employing 3,000 Belizeans, according to the Belize Fisheries Department. But the open-access system that characterizes fishing in Belize has allowed uncontrolled numbers of fishers with readily obtained licenses to harvest more fish than the oceans can replenish. This has resulted in a threat of overfishing, declining stocks, and fewer economic benefits for fishers over the long term.
To address this challenge, Belize has designed and implemented a coordinated managed access program for its fisheries, including the country’s main seafood exports, lobster and conch, that effectively unites the goals, efforts, and interests of fishers and fishing sector stakeholders with ocean stewardship at two pilot sites, Port Honduras and Glover’s Reef. Based on territorial use rights in fisheries (TURFs), the new paradigm aims to protect the health of the world’s second-largest coral reef ecosystem while ensuring the livelihoods of the fishers and fishing communities that depend on it.
Piloting policy reform: managed access
Starting in 2011, the government of Belize, the Belize Fisheries Department, and partners piloted a rights-based approach for managing fisheries at two of the country’s marine reserves (Glover’s Reef and Port Honduras). The program works to improve the overall health and biomass of the coral reef ecosystem and reverse overfishing and illegal fishing by using harvest controls and replenishment (no-take) zones to rebuild and sustain the lobster and conch populations—two of the country’s most important commercial species. While fishing is prohibited in replenishment zones, licensed fishers are permitted to catch a controlled portion of fishery stocks within designated general-use zones at the two marine reserves. Policy actions have included:
- Using a new area-based fishing licensing system and verification process that ended open access prior to the managed access pilot
- Collecting all catch data from fishermen to monitor total production from the two pilot sites
- An adaptive management framework to assess fisheries and make management decisions based on regularly collected data
Pride campaign fosters sustainability, science-based management
Rare trained four employees of the Belize Fisheries Department as fellows in its signature Pride campaign. The two-year program focuses on leadership, communications, social marketing research, and technical assistance to foster community support for the adoption of sustainable behaviors and conservation strategies among Belize’s diverse peoples. The fellows tapped Langostin the Lobster to serve as the campaign’s lovable mascot, who appears at festivals and other events, spreading key messages to generate widespread support for sustainable fishery habits.
The fellows serve as managed access coordinators for the pilot sites and will play a key role in rapidly scaling the program nationally. They will generate support for the range of fishery management methods, including credible science strategies such as protecting nursery areas and spawning populations, minimum size and weight limit regulations, closed fishing seasons, and inexpensive low-data stock assessment models for calculating catch limits and restoring fish populations.
How successful has it been?
The two pilot sites demonstrated improvements two years after implementation, including the following:
- The sites issued zero licenses to unqualified fishers (as determined by fishers in Community Managed Access committees responsible for making recommendations on license eligibility)
- More than 90 percent of fishers submitted their catch data, which helps determine stock assessments and Total Allowable Catch numbers
- Fishing violations dropped 60 percent
The managed access program has been so successful that Belize will expand it to eight sites (its entire marine reserve network) by 2017 to foster fish stock recovery and reduce fishing pressure. As in the pilot initiative, the Managed Access Working Group, which includes fishers, will develop policy and build support for and compliance with the program among Belize’s nearly 3,000 fishers. Results include the following:
- The majority of the fishing community supports Belize’s new policy
- Fishers feel they have a vested stake in the recovery of the reef and are adopting sustainable practices
- Fishers are stewards for long-term sustainability and play an active role in setting policy and carrying out enforcement
- Fish stocks are recovering
- After one year, fishing violations dropped 60 percent, and the department did not issue any licenses to unqualified fishers
- More than 90 percent of fishers submitted catch data
Belize’s fishery management reform model embraces a stakeholder-centered, participatory process that focuses directly on rebuilding fish populations to support and foster people’s livelihoods and marine resource stewardship. This community of innovative problem solvers is building sustainable and profitable fisheries at the right scale and pace to offer tremendous social, economic, and ecological benefits.
Lessons learned and recommendations
Economic incentives build support
Prior to the implementation of managed access, Belize’s open-access system allowed increasing numbers of people with readily obtained fishing licenses to harvest more fish than the ecosystem could replenish. This resulted in overfishing, declining stocks, and fewer economic benefits for fishers over the long term. Although they made a profit in the short term, fishers had to spend more time at sea to catch more fish while depleting the marine environment they depend on long-term for income and food.
Managed access creates economic incentives for fishers and fishing cooperatives to become better stewards of marine resources. For example, fishers helped enforce fishing limits through active participation in the monitoring and reporting of commercial species catches, resulting in a decline in illegal and unreported fishing. They also developed a new fishing licensing system and verification process, vetting the applications themselves to determine who would receive a managed access license and who would get renewed. “The fishers saw it was making a difference,” says Janet Gibson, WCS country director. “There was no need to race to get out there when the season opened. They were getting better catches in a shorter period of time.”
To succeed, the program must effectively unite the goals, efforts, and interests of fishers and fishing sector stakeholders with marine stewardship. It has already taken action to empower fishers:
- The Managed Access Working Group brings together fishers, fishing communities, government, and NGOs in a collective impact model
- Fishers participate in decision making so they have a vested stake in the recovery of the reef
- Fishers collaborate in the management of the fishery and provide monitoring and enforcement
- Hundreds of meetings with fishers and coastal communities have built relationships and engendered support
- The Belize Fisheries Department’s social marketing campaign fosters community support for the adoption of sustainable behaviors and conservation strategies among Belize’s diverse peoples
Gathering hard data on fishery health, catch, habitat, and so on is critical to scaling the program nationally and generating support for new fishery management methods. Credible science strategies include the following:
- Data-based catch limits and replenishment (no-take) zones rebuild and sustain the lobster and conch populations
- Catch data and fisheries’ independent data help determine stock assessments and total allowable catch (TAC) numbers
- The Belize Fisheries Department oversees efforts such as protecting nursery areas and spawning populations, setting minimum size and weight limit regulations, closing fishing seasons, and creating inexpensive low-data stock assessment models for calculating catch limits and restoring fish populations
New management interventions may cause potential income loss in the short term, and there is the need to generate revenues to cover operating costs of the managed access system and reduce reliance on philanthropic funding mechanisms. Activities include the following:
- A national plan of programs to diversify income sources from fishing and non-fishing activities
- Fostering access to new premium markets to meet international demand for sustainable seafood
- Establishing a local seafood certification brand
50in10 helped foster collaboration among partners and co-funded a market analysis with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and Rare to help Belize fishing cooperatives explore options to secure investment capital and access premium, higher-revenue export market opportunities.
Partners in the Managed Access Working Group include the Environmental Defense Fund, the Wildlife Conservation Society, The Nature Conservancy, and Rare—all active participants in 50in10—along with the government of Belize, local NGOs, fishing organizations, and fishing cooperatives.