New system, new hope for thousands of fishermen in Belize

Sarah Poon

Editor’s note June 29, 2016: This month, in response to the success of the pilot program described in this post, the government of Belize implemented a nationwide system of secure fishing rights for small-scale fisheries.

A fisherman and father of four, Yonardo Cus was becoming increasingly worried that the catch from the Belize Barrier Reef on which his family depends was running out.

Spiny lobster catches had plunged from 200 to 20 per day during his 20 years in business, and some fish populations by one-third. All the while, Yonardo’s income dropped, and he wasn’t alone.

Some 15,000 Belizean fishermen and their families who depend on the reef for their livelihood saw a wealth of conch, lobster and reef fish decline in recent years due to unrestricted fishing. Would the corals, seagrass, mangroves and cayes once teeming with life eventually run empty, they asked one another.

Enter a not-so-new concept: Territorial Rights Use for Fishing, or TURF – a system that gives a fisherman or group of fishermen a dedicated area in which to practice their trade.

Fishermen benefit as fish population soars

In return for the secure fishing area, these fishermen also have a responsibility to conserve fish and marine ecosystems. Their reward is a stable and healthy fish population which, in turn, means their conservation efforts pay off economically.

What’s more, TURF areas are now being paired in Belize and other parts of the world with so-called no-take reserves, areas in which no fishing is permitted. These rapidly growing hybrid fishery management programs – “TURF-reserves” – also support local fishermen when fish spill over into their fishing areas.

Today, there are at least 27 such TURF-reserves in 10 countries that span the globe. Environmental Defense Fund is working with partner organizations to scale up such programs in the Philippines, Belize, Indonesia, Mozambique, Brazil, Mexico and Spain.

Illegal fishing in Belize dropped 60%

This simple and pragmatic solution to overfishing is a win-win for everybody. A growing body of research shows that fish populations inside a no-take reserve can more than quadruple while fish numbers outside the reserve can double. Belize, for example, is already seeing results like that at two pilot sites where TURF-reserves have been piloted since 2012.

Illegal fishing in some areas has dropped by 60 percent, and 80 percent of the participating fishermen are reporting their catches as required. Meanwhile, 70 percent of Belizean fishers in these areas say they’re catching more fish.

By 2014, news of the success had spread up the country’s Atlantic coast, with many fishermen advocating for a nationwide system of reserves. Belize’s government responded by announcing it would meet this goal in 2016.

The goal: sustainable fisheries worldwide

In the future, Yonardo and other small-scale fishermen globally will also benefit from new tools that help them manage and care for the ocean. One such tool – a TURF-reserve designer developed by EDF and our partners – has been piloted in the Philippines to help fishing communities compare and contrast different management options to see how they affect their goals.

In coming months, it will be adapted and customized to support fishermen in several more countries, with the goal of eventually supporting small-scale fishermen across the globe.

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