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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.

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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’).

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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.

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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 jwalker@tidebelize.org. 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 www.tidebelize.org

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

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[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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‘He’s your lobster!’

Today the masters students taking the marine conservation module hit the road to go visit the National Lobster Hatchery in Padstow. Padstow has earnt the amusing nickname ‘Padstein’ due to Rick Stein’s involvement in buying up the local area, and has put its seafood firmly on the foodies map. The demand for seafood is putting lobster populations under severe pressure, in fact in Norway the stocks have collapsed completely. There is now research looking at introducing some of our Cornish lobsters back up to Norway. The economic importance of the seafood industry is massive, and the effects on livelihoods in the UK are far-reaching, so it is in everyone’s interests to find a sustainable solution. Lobster fry are pretty pathetic in the wild and are more often than not dinner for other marine creatures. The juveniles are also slow growing, and can only grow between moults. A lobster can grow up to 25% bigger each moult! For these reasons the wild stocks could do with a helping hand…

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So how does the hatchery work? Females carrying eggs are brought in by fishermen or selected from a wholesaler; it is otherwise illegal to remove berried hens from the ocean. If the eggs are red it means they are almost ready to hatch and the hatchery will prioritise them. If they are black however, they will be put on ice to slow down development until there is space at the hatchery. The female lobsters are given back to the fishermen to either sell, or put back to sea to grow a bit bigger. Some fishermen put a v-notch in the tail meaning they cannot legally be caught until the notch has grown out and they are at an appropriate size. Once the eggs hatch they grow into juveniles in a cone shaped apparatus filled with flowing water to simulate as natural conditions as possible. Only about 20% survive this stage as (unfortunately for us) they are cannibalistic! The bad-ass lobbies that make it through are released from the hatchery at about 3 months old by divers and fishermen. It is difficult to quantify a return on effort investment (tracking tiny lobsters is currently impractical), but anecdotally fishermen have reported more landings.

Cones growing up juveniles

Cones growing up juveniles

sometimes it pays to go with the flow

sometimes it pays to go with the flow

maternity ward for females before being handed back to the fishermen. Notice the claws are taped to prevent fights...

maternity ward for females before being handed back to the fishermen. Notice the claws are taped to prevent fights…

Meet Claudia, she came with no claws (they aren't sure why) and had to be put in isolation as the others kept bullying her!

Meet Claudia, she came with no claws (they aren’t sure why) and had to be put in isolation as the others kept bullying her!

juveniles separated pre-release

juveniles separated pre-release

The hatchery is also involved in research such as optimising juvenile growth conditions, genetics work, and creating a sort of lobster farm out at sea. The later would be the natural progression for the project and is envisaged to be in a cage stacking lobsters in dairylea type triangles ( separately to reduce munching tendencies!) To find out more please see: http://www.nationallobsterhatchery.co.uk/whats-it-all-about/marine-conservation/behind-the-scenes/ Seeing all the work that goes into this process really makes you think before you indulge in a bit of lobster luxury.

a very rare white lobster morph, typically they are blue-grey (til they are cooked!)

a very rare white lobster morph, typically they are blue-grey (til they are cooked!)

spot the baby cuttlefish

spot the baby cuttlefish

spider crab, spider crab, does what ever a spider crab does...

spider crab, spider crab, does what ever a spider crab does…

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