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Mar 20, 2019

The plight of the Queen Conch which is facing overfishing

It is difficult to imagine Belize without the queen conch. But that threat is real because the conch population is under pressure due to over fishing. Elsewhere in the Caribbean, the situation is dire; Belize exports more than seven million dollars of conch yearly and the livelihood of hundreds of fishermen depend on this. Now, Area Three of the Fisheries Map of southern Belize, is of particular concern, the area is vast and the queen conch is abundant but monitoring is difficult. In part two of our story on the conch fishery, Isani Cayetano reports on the challenges faced by the Fisheries Department and other agencies while patrolling the waters of Glovers Reef.


Isani Cayetano, Reporting

The Trade Database for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) indicates that between 2008 and 2017, approximately 6.2 million pounds of conch meat were harvested for commercial purposes, a majority exported to the United States.


Isani Cayetano

Isani Cayetano

“Glover’s Reef is considered one of the highest priority areas in the Mesoamerican Reef System, providing nursery and feeding, as well as a unique habitat for lobster, conch and finfish.”


Commercial exploitation of conch in Belize began in the early 1960s.  It has since grown to become one of the country’s largest overall exports.  According to the Statistical Institute of Belize, in 2017, it was worth 7.3 million Belize dollars.  Undoubtedly, high demand for produce puts tremendous pressure on certain areas where there is limited enforcement, particularly in Area Three on the Fisheries Map.


Hampton Gamboa

Hampton Gamboa, Belize Fisheries Department

“As it relates to enforcement in the particular area of Area Three which encompasses the northern part of Dangriga, in the area of Southern Long Caye to as far south as Coco Solo area which also extends into Area Four, is that we have been doing an utmost best to ensure that we boost up presence in this area.  It has been well documented that that is one of the areas that we have seen a decline in our conch fishery in the area in particular.”


With almost three thousand fishermen operating across all eight areas identified on this map, it’s easy to see how most of them would attempt to swarm the locations where conch are abundant.


Nicholas Poot, Conch Fisherman

Nicholas Poot

“Glover’s Reef dah noh wahn big area.  We dah wahn small area fu di amount a fisherman, di amount a boats because we have new boats coming in, new faces.  Fishermen weh I noh know dehn get license.  How?  I noh know.  Some man who di help dehn out get dehn license.  But all ah dis, you know, we need fu talk about this.”


It is a conversation that needs to be held urgently, in light of what has taken place in the Bahamas and Jamaica where conch seasons have come to an abrupt end due to overfishing.  In Jamaica, a ban on conch is set to go beyond March 2020.  An analysis of data on the conch population off its coast suggests that the prohibition on the fishing, sale and export of queen conch will be stretched beyond the one-year timetable announced by government.  It could take years before the conch stock is replenished to commercially viable levels.  In Belize, the writings are on the wall for Area Three.


Hampton Gamboa

“We have more presence of fishermen in that area in particular as the challenge with it is that Area Three is one of those areas that is well off in terms of distance and coverage.  It creates some kind of problem in terms of presence. In addition to that, the limited resources that we do have, that we have to work with, we have to ensure that we pool with other entities and do joint operations.”


And that is what brings this team of fisheries and coast guard officers together.  With only eighty-five gallons of fuel at their disposal, these men are tasked with patrolling a vast expanse of sea space within a two-week period, using a relatively small, single-engine fiberglass launch.


Isani Cayetano

“In 1996, this location was designated by UNESCO as one of seven protected areas that together form the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System, a World Heritage listed site.”


It’s next to impossible to provide complete coverage of the waters surrounding Glover’s Reef.


Isani Cayetano

“Can I ask you perhaps what are some of the observations you’ve made working in this area over the past four years?”


Bernard Harris

Bernard Harris, Fisheries Ranger

“That one I can’t speak on.”


Isani Cayetano

“They won’t allow you to.”


Bernard Harris

“Nah.  They won’t allow me to speak on that.”


While Harris is not able to speak on his professional observations, what is apparent is that the department is severely under-resourced.  It only becomes evident when his patrol encountered seasoned fisherman Leobihildo Tamai who has been fishing here for the past thirty-three years.  He received an earful for failing to patrol certain areas of the reserve where it is believed that illegal harvesting was taking place earlier in the day.


Leobihildo Tamai, Conch Fisherman

Leobihildo Tamai

“The kind of patrol we have is not the [best] patrol.  We need to change these officers, we need to change these persons who get involved in this.  This is a productive area but the kind of security weh we get, weh we have, is not the proper security.  We see that many kind of things happen.  Like today, we see a boat gaan up so, fishing the whole morning, come pick up the people there and then come in, like nothing.  Like dehn blind, like dehn no sih.  I feel really, really disappointed about this because I represent the fishermen from Sarteneja that work in Glover’s [Reef] and all the fishermen come to me and say, “Bwai, weh di go on?  You di discourage we and then dehn di allow di other persons to dive eena di reserve.  Dat noh fair.  Dat is not the correct way.”


Isani Cayetano reporting for News Five.

Viewers please note: This Internet newscast is a verbatim transcript of our evening television newscast. Where speakers use Kriol, we attempt to faithfully reproduce the quotes using a standard spelling system.

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