Belize has taken a major step to address ocean conservation with its Fisheries Resources Bill, which passed its first reading in the country's House of Representatives in December 2019. The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), an international nonprofit organisation, has partnered with Belize on the bill, which seeks to institute effective management solutions for overfishing.
Climate change, overfishing and pollution are major issues when it comes to preserving ocean habitats and marine life in Belize, but this new legislation hopes to protect marine life and ensure that overfishing does not lead to other problems like diminished resources for people who rely on them.
To find out more about the bill and the next steps for Belizean environmental conservation, Global Voices conducted an email interview with Eric Schwaab, senior vice president for the EDF's oceans programme.
Global Voices (GV): Can you tell us a bit about Belize’s history with ocean conservation and how that has led to the Fisheries Resources Bill?
Eric Schwaab (ES): Belize has long been a leader in using marine-protected areas [MPAs] to conserve its coral reefs. And those MPAs had important effects by enhancing fish, lobster and conch abundance inside the no-fishing zones by 300 to 600 percent. Three factors led Belize to seek more comprehensive management approaches: the need to address illegal fishing from both inside and outside the country; the need for complementary fishery management regulations that rebuild and sustain fish populations both inside and outside of protected areas; and the need to strengthen community ownership of, and support for, sustainable fishing practices. Building on the earlier successes with protected areas, by 2011, the Belizean government approved the use of rights-based fisheries management trials at Glover’s Reef and Port Honduras Marine Reserve. Those were huge successes with all parties and a major reduction in illegal fishing was achieved almost immediately.
GV: What happened next?
ES: In 2016, given the demand from fishers from other parts of the country, Belize incorporated fisher-co-management through a new ‘managed access’ approach with new scientific processes under an adaptive management framework. Under managed access, fishers and fishing communities control their future through co-management, giving them access to fish in specific geographic areas of the fishery, and responsibilities to help manage the areas and observe regulations.
In 2018, Belize used the new-found fisher confidence in the effectiveness of management and growing consensus among scientists, fisheries managers, fishers, and national security interests as a springboard to expand MPA coverage to over 12 percent of its waters. Large, new MPAs were created on the national border to the south, where illegal fishing was of greatest concern. These initiatives showed how these tools could work, and also what needed to be done with the foundational fisheries management legislation in the country, both to properly undergird managed access and to reinforce the obligation to expand sustainable management to all types of fisheries. Belize has seen a dramatic drop in illegal fishing and is beginning to see an improvement in the health of its reefs since this approach was implemented.
GV: What makes the Fisheries Resources Bill so important and timely?
ES: The new Fisheries Resource Bill will close important gaps in fisheries governance in Belize and create a strong and comprehensive foundation for sustainability of the coupled MPA and Managed Access programmes. The new law clarifies the duties of all management partners, and clarifies the roles of various government bodies for management of both fisheries and MPAs. It also establishes new management requirements for a wider range of species important for local people — including vulnerable coastal communities — and also for the coral reef ecosystem itself.
GV: Has this approach been scientifically proven to be effective?
ES: New science that we have published shows that keeping the total amount of all types of fish above known thresholds will help fight the negative effects of climate change and warming waters on coral and reef health. This approach was first identified by Wildlife Conservation Society scientists in the Indian Ocean, validated by EDF scientists in the Caribbean, and now is being applied in Belize. Applying sustainable fisheries management, coupled with a strong MPA network, will enhance overall finfish abundances and help promote coral reef ecosystem health around the world as a major tool to help fight the impacts of climate change.
GV: Can you explain how you went about implementing it?
ES: We introduced this approach in Belize through workshops with fishers, managers and scientists and are now set to implement trials with the first design workshop scheduled for late January  at Turneffe Atoll.
While the finfish trials could go forward without the bill, the new legislation creates a duty for effective management for a wider range of species. The combination of the trials and the new law can rapidly spread this approach nationwide, using the existing adaptive management framework and managed access approaches. The new law will close loopholes that might otherwise impair the overall success of the programmes.
These steps together bring Belize into the forefront of nations managing their marine resources both in the coral world, and throughout the developing tropics.
GV: Can you touch on some specific areas the Fisheries Resources Bill addresses?
ES: The new legislation systematically establishes all of the legal requirements for every key pillar of effective, comprehensive marine resource and fisheries management. It creates a new fisheries council to coordinate, arbitrate stakeholder issues and advise the government in fisheries management practices. It defines the requirements for effective management, including fishery management planning, and also establishes fishing priority areas where new ideas can be trialed and long-term fisheries production can be prioritised.
It clarifies agency responsibilities and citizen duties related to marine and internal waters reserves, and establishes comprehensive licensing, compliance, monitoring and surveillance systems. It creates a basis for broader regional cooperation in fisheries and marine resource governance for improved cooperation with Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras. It also addresses key issues related to wider marine governance, including flagging of vessels and performance related to international agreements (such as the port states measures). In short, the new law is a comprehensive framework for enduring marine governance in Belize.