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Managed Access fisheries in Belize

I have been working for the Toledo Institute for Development and Environment (TIDE) for several months now and want to share some of the wonderful work they are doing to protect southern Belize and empower local communities to develop in harmony with nature.

One of TIDE’s key strengths is artisanal fisheries management. They co-manage the Port Honduras Marine Reserve (PHMR) with the Belize Fisheries Department, safeguarding the biodiversity and integrity of some of the most pristine marine habitat in the Mesoamerica Reef (MAR). PHMR’s mangroves, seagrass beds, and coral reefs contribute important functionality to the MAR by providing nursery habitat for reef species, including what is believed to be one of only three major nursery grounds for the critically endangered goliath grouper (Epinephelus itajara) remaining in the world.[1],[2]. Juvenile E. itajara from PHMR are even restocking populations as far away as Mexico and Honduras,1,[3] and since goliath grouper is an apex predator and probably a natural regulator of invasive lionfish (Pterois volitans),[4],[5],[6] this marine reserve is important for resilience throughout the entire MAR system.


GoPro coral shots off East Snake Caye- protected by the reserve

Management decisions are grounded in scientific research and TIDE recently won the GCFI/NOAA award for “exceptional contribution to the Caribbean peer-to-peer learning network on marine protected area management”. The fisheries management tool in use is called ‘Managed Access’ (MA), a licensing system based on traditional user rights, which has been piloted in PHMR and Glover’s Reef Marine Reserve since 2011.

The Port Honduras Marine Reserve Community Managed Access Committee (composed of representatives from the local communities of Monkey River, Punta Negra, Punta Gorda, the Rio Grande Fishing Cooperative, Toledo Tour Guide Association, Belize Fisheries Department and TIDE) identifies fishers who qualify and recommends them to the Fisheries Department based on the following criteria- hold an existing commercial licence, are Belizean and have a history of landing their catch in Belize. The particulars are important, as essentially MA is a spatial zoning tool and excludes illegal transboundary incursions from Guatemala or Honduras, a major problem in PHMR.  To secure fishing livelihoods for the future, it is also important that licence holders fill in catch logbooks accurately and do not break any of the reserve regulations. Patrolling is important to ensure that only Managed Access license-holders are conducting commercial fishing. Unfortunately, the constant need for enforcement is costly and the long-term financial sustainability of PHMR is an issue for TIDE (see coming post ‘balancing the conservation books’).


View from Abalone TIDE rangers station

The pilot was considered a success with fishers reporting benefits in terms of increased catch rates. There are still concerns posed by the threat of illegal fishing and licence holders are demanding increased enforcement. The success led to the Belize government’s landmark decision to expand it nationally. For a developing country this will be a world first, and a major milestone for sustainable fisheries in the Belize Barrier Reef system.

The national expansion of MA is due to happen slowly from this year onwards. I was recently lucky enough to be part of development of a 1 million euro multi-partner proposal to support this ‘soft roll-out’. This includes activities such as training workshops for fishers and meetings between key stakeholders to achieve a better compliance and implementation of the new regulations. The ultimate aim is that Belizean fishers, scientists, community organisations and fisheries authorities are collaborating to manage Belize’s fisheries and fishing areas sustainably, securing the livelihoods of >16,000 people and, by 2020, resulting in measurable improvements in biodiversity, stocks of commercial species, fishing household incomes, and the health of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System.


GoPro under the sea

As I have alluded to, conservation is very expensive. If you are reading this and know of any possible sponsors that might be interested in protecting this corner of paradise, or just simply want to learn more, please do not hesitate to get in touch with me as TIDE’s Development Officer at Fisheries is just one of the areas TIDE works in, to read about our other ongoing projects, or even make a small donation yourself, please visit

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more tales from the Caribbean Sea!


[1] Graham RT, Lewis JP, Gleiss AC, Scales K and Thompson S (2010) Annual report of research activities to the Department of Fisheries, the Department of Forestry and primary NGO partners from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). December 2010.

[2] Dr. Rachael Graham, personal communication.

[3] Graham RT (2009) Annual report of research activities to the Department of Fisheries, the Department of Forestry and primary NGO partners from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). March 2009.

[4] Sadovy Y, Eklund AM (1999) Synopsis of biological data on the Nassau grouper, Epinephelus striatus (Bloch, 1792), and the jewfish, E. itajara (Lichtenstein, 1822). A technical report of the Fishery Bulletin, FAO Fisheries

[5] Mumby, P.J., Harbornei, A.R. & Brumbaugh, D.R. (2011) Grouper as a natural biocontrol of invasive lionfish. PLoS ONE 6: e21510

[6] Frias-Torres, S. (2012) Should the critically endangered goliath grouper Epinephelus itajara be culled in Florida? Oryx 47: 88-95

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Welcome to Belize!

A few months in to my internship as Development Officer for the Toledo Institute for Development and Environment (TIDE) and I am beginning to reflect on my time here so far.

TIDE ( is a community-based NGO with a clear mission:

‘To engage stakeholders in the sustainable management of natural resources within the Maya Mountain Marine Corridor of southern Belize for the benefit of all’.

The following post is a travel log with my initial impressions of Belize, but stay posted for the inside scoop on what TIDE’s been up to in the coming blogs!


Belize City

Touched down in Belize City late on a Saturday night; having read many a horror story online (never a good idea) of tourists being mugged on the streets, or even robbed in their sleep, I went straight to bed at the Bella Sombra Guest House. Basic, but safe, as reception is locked behind two grates…the murders happen south of Haulover Creek apparently, which is near the bus station, oh good.


View from my guest house…


I’d been advised to wait out and get the ‘express’ James bus down to Punta Gorda at about 3.30pm, or PG as it’s affectionately known. Takes about 5 hours (rather than over 7) as it doesn’t stop every 100 metres or so for people to jump on/off (no- really). However, this was misinformation and the express actually doesn’t run on Sunday’s. Not knowing this, I was killing time in the BAKING heat (honestly haven’t been that hot in Belize since as PG is coastal) and tried to get to the museum, which apparently has got some great Mayan artefacts…unfortunately that was also closed…being a Sunday the streets were dead and even all the restaurants were shut! As a Christian country everyone was likely at home or in church. Giving in to extreme hunger I got directions from a helpful Chinese-Creole lady in a corner shop to the only place open apparently- a Chinese take-out (I couldn’t really understand this fascinating accent combo so she drew me a map!). 60% oil, 35% noodles, 5% veg. Classic Belize.


Deciding I rather wait on a longer bus than hang around any longer, I got the long bus down south…wanting to keep half an eye on my large suitcase which was stowed behind the seats, I sat towards the back. The ticket guy ‘Junior’ found this hysterical as apparently only the ‘trouble makers’ sit at the back! I now understand what he means, between Belmopan and Dangriga every man and his dog climbed aboard, so skipping the fare is common. Buses are one of the few things in Belize that are excellent value, at 25BZ for the entire 7 hour ride that’s only 12.50usd. It’s actually illegal to squeeze on so many bodies but the conductors know everyone just wants to get home on a Sunday afternoon and turn a blind eye. The guy I was stuck next to for the first half of the journey was trying to convince me that he’d met Anne Hathaway when he’d worked as an film extra, and that I looked like her…as miss Hathaway is incredibly pale skinned, albeit a beauty, I realised my UK winter skin was going to make me stand out like a moonlit beacon- ‘white gal’. In Hispanic Central American countries since (El Salvador, Honduras etc) I’ve been called ‘Chele’ as a compliment meaning essentially the same thing- back home I’d be praised for a decent tan, funny how we are always intrigued by the exotic!



Punta Gorda, my home for the next few months, is a sleepy fishing town at the edge of The Gulf of Honduras. Most visitors here are heading on to Puerto Barrios/Livingston in Guatemala, and Puerto Barrios is also a short bus ride away from Corinto (the border with Honduras). The Toledo district of southern Belize is predominantly indigenous Maya, which makes for an interesting melting pot with Creole, East-Indian and Mestizo cultures.

IMG_0165 IMG_0110 IMG_0143home

Not much happens here but there is a good market, especially on Saturday mornings. The Belizean diet doesn’t really do vegetables, other than maybe a little coleslaw bathed in coconut milk to accompany your stew chicken, rice and beans, and I was surprised at how pricey the food can be. Bananas are super cheap (maybe 7 for 50p) but other than that expect to pay a premium. I cracked at one point and spent about 5 dollars on a lettuce, opps. This is largely because Belize is such a small country so the majority of food has to be imported.

Tornado the cat- so named because he can turn any minute..!

Tornado the cat- so named because he can turn any minute..!


Kibbles- the world's softest 'guard dog'

Kibbles- the world’s softest ‘guard dog’

Garifuna drumming in the square

Garifuna drumming in the square

The happy trade off is that subsistence farming and small population has allowed an impressive 60% of Belize to remain forested, unlike the neighbouring countries. Parts of Guatemala have been akinned to looking like the wildwest, and in Honduras large areas of crop monocultures are essentially controlled by a farming ‘mafia’ with links to the narcotics trade.

ya'axche forest cover

It’s not all rosy in Belize however, land conversion for agriculture is expanding, and as a proportion of the geographical space at an alarming rate. Forest cover has decreased from over 85% in 1980, to approximately 65% in 2010, and now 60% in 2014 (Ya’axche Conservation Trust, 2015). Traditional Slash and burn can be detrimental to soil condition and may contribute to an increased amount of wildfires. In addition, two Menonite communities (seem similar to the Armish to me on a surface level) have a monopoly over large-scale agriculture, and in particular dairy. They have fairly unsustainable farming practices (cows or rainforest- take your pick), and as extremely traditional communities they have resisted outsider influence. There is evidently a need for land-planning and greater enforcement of forestry policies (many of which are actually very progressive for Belize). The Ya’axche Conservation Trust, another NGO down here in PG, is working on these issues, see their paper for more details:

With lessons learnt the hard way from her less fortunate neighbours, Belize is now in the position to do this right, and ensure that forest resources and watersheds continue to provide for her people.