The Mesoamerican Reef, the world’s second longest coral barrier, extends some 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) from the northern tip of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula to Honduras’ Bay Islands. That vast natural monument is home for more than 50 coral and 300 fish species, but many of them are threatened by over fishing.
In Belize alone, more than 3,000 fishermen depend on the reef. For many coastal communities, though, that resource now plays a more important role as a tourist attraction, since tourism has become the country’s top money earner. In Belize as in neighboring countries, the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System Project, an international program known by its acronym in Spanish, SAM, is heavily promoting sustainable tourism and encouraging fishermen to get involved in conservation. SAM is a project of the Central American Commission for the Environment and Development, is implemented by the World Bank, and is funded by the Global Environmental Facility.
Belize has 10 protected areas that cover sections of the reef, but none of them has been spared the impact of lobster, conch, and fin fishing. The protected areas are scattered along the length of the country, from Bacalar Chico Marine Reserve, which borders Mexico, to Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve, which lies near the borders of Guatemala and Honduras.
In both reserves, SAM project funds are being used to construct visitor centers, buy equipment and provide technical assistance to local fishermen. The project has also resulted in new tourism policies and other regulations for the entire reef system, as well as for the tourism industry. According to project managers, a principal SAM objective is to decrease pressure on fishing resources in border areas, with similar efforts underway in neighboring countries.
Noel Jacobs is the Regional Director of the SAM, whose principal office is in Belize. He explains, “We can protect everything within the borders of a protected area, but just as with international borders, they are imaginary. Just outside the areas, we find unsustainable uses, extraction, and uncontrolled exploitation.”
According to Isaías Majil, coordinator of marine protected areas for the Belize Fisheries Department, the marine life around the Sapodilla Cayes is threatened by Guatemalan and Honduran fishermen. To try to protect these resources, Belize is part of two international alliances: the Belize-Mexico Alliance for the Management of Shared Coastal Resources and the Tri-national Alliance for the Gulf of Honduras.
“These alliances, which bring together protected area managers, non-governmental organizations, and academic institutions, have contributed to the formation of policies and the exchange of experiences and lessons learned,” says Majil.
The regulations governing Belizean waters range from a complete ban on fishing in certain areas to restricted seasons for commercial species and required permits for traditional fishing in restricted zones. The Belize Fisheries Department, together with the SAM and conservation groups, has organized training seminars and environmental education activities to convince fishermen to abandon unsustainable practices and to help them take advantage of tourism’s potential.
According to Majil, fishermen used to be indiscriminate in their capture of fish species and sizes and knew little about the growing potential of sport fishing. After workshops like those organized by the SAM project, they have a better understanding of why it’s important to keep only the largest of their catch and to respect closed seasons. They also are aware of the economic benefits of guiding foreigners who come to Belize for catch-and-release fly fishing.
As Jacobs explains, one of the principal objectives of the project is to help fishermen find economic alternatives. A program starting in August will train 40 fishermen per year to work as guides for local sport fishing, scuba diving, and kayaking businesses. “Priority is given to fishermen who can demonstrate legitimate economic losses due to our investment in protected areas,” he notes.
The fishermen receive free training and can rent the equipment they use in the course for a symbolic fee upon completing it. According to Jacobs, a new guide should be able to earn enough money during his first year to purchase his own equipment.
Training fishermen to become tourist guides is part of a larger initiative to ensure the sustainability of protected areas. Majil admits that the principal problem in the management of Belize’s marine areas is financial, which is why tourism has been identified as an option for strengthening sustainability. The Hol Chan Reserve, the closest protected area to the tourist town of San Pedro, receives some 45,000 visitors per year, and admission fees paid by tourists supply a large portion of the area’s operating budget.
Despite the lack of studies to determine their carrying capacities, areas such as Hol Chan have zoning systems that permit tourism only in certain areas. But according to Heider Pérez, an administrative assistant at the reserve, Hol Chan has reached the saturation point with 30 tourist boats visiting the small reserve each week during the high season. Majil would like to channel some of that tourism flow to other areas, which could greatly benefit from the income.
The impressive growth in tourism does not mean that all Belize’s fishermen have the talent for, or are interested in working with tourists, so they are still allowed to fish in certain sectors of the marine reserves. The SAM is promoting the co-management of the reserves with the fishermen. One example of this innovative cooperation can be found in the Bacalar Chico Marine Reserve, north of San Pedro, where fishermen from the Caribeña Fishing Cooperative are participating in a study of lobster, conch, and commercial fish populations.
“If we know that a no-fishing area over here will conserve the fishing in the rest of the reserve, we will take care of it,” says Manuel Heredia, vice-chairman of Caribeña, who explained that he and his colleagues want their cooperative to become involved in the reserve’s management.
“Our principal accomplishment has been the support of the people, the guides and fishermen, in vigilance and monitoring activities,” adds Majil.
— Katiana Murillo
Contacts in Belize:
Coordinator of Marine Protected Areas
Belize Fisheries Department
tel 501/224-4552, 501/223-2623
Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System Project
Princess Margaret Drive, P.O Box 93
tel 501/223-3895, 501/223-4561
Read more about this project in the Eco-Index: