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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