Mesoamerican Reef

Protecting Belize’s Reefs through Fishing Rights Program for Small Fisheries

Yonardo Cus on a fishing trip within Port Honduras Marine Reserve. Credit: Jason Houston/Rare.

Belize is the first country in the world to adopt a national, multispecies secure fishing rights program for small-scale fisheries. After a long struggle to address illegal fishing and the threat of overfishing, a partnership of fishing communities, government, and non-governmental organizations, under the leadership of Belize’s Fisheries Department, created a new system that empowers Belize’s fishing communities to conserve and protect the ecosystem they depend on, while still using its resources to provide for their families.

Ten years ago, the Summit Foundation, Oak Foundation, and other supporters launched the multi-sector effort to preserve this global biodiversity hotspot by ending overfishing and mobilizing Belize’s 3,000 fishers to steward its ecosystem. The Belize Fisheries Department, Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), Toledo Institute for Development and Environment (TIDE), and the fishing industry formed a coalition to create a new fisheries paradigm in Belize that would value both marine biodiversity and local livelihoods. The solution entails a combination of fishing rights and empowerment, called “Managed Access” in Belize, and no-take zones.

Map of Managed Access zones off the coast of Belize.

Territorial user-rights for fishing (TURFs) and no-take zones work together to reinforce the importance and benefits of protecting critical habitat and biodiversity. Under this approach, fishers control their own future through licenses giving them access to fish in specific geographic areas — or TURFs — of the fishery. Fishers assume co-management responsibilities to help manage and protect their fisheries through community-based committees. This includes protecting and expanding Belize’s network of no-take zones to encompass 10% of territorial waters, a process now underway. Managed Access is creating the conditions whereby communities experience the benefits of protecting critical habitat and biodiversity with a more productive fishery that contributes to the livelihoods of fishers who have the rights to fish.

“Belize is showing the world the way forward,” said Larry Epstein, EDF’s Director of Belize Oceans Project. “The adoption of fishing rights nationwide will serve as proof to other countries with small-scale fisheries that reforms can create a benefit for not only the environment, but for the people who depend on fish for food and income.”

The Managed Access concept was first tested at Glover’s Reef Atoll and Port Honduras Marine Reserves, where successes in reducing illegal fishing and motivating fishers and managers to collaborate in protecting the ecosystems led to the implementation of the program nationwide. At the two pilot sites, fishing violations dropped 60%, and more than 90% of fishers are submitting their catch data, leading to more accountability and better science. Notably, illegal fishing in no-take zones by Belizean fishers declined sharply. At the pilot sites, Managed Access has encouraged fishers to stay out of no-take zones because they understand they will benefit from the spillover of fish. The success of the two pilot projects led to demands from fishers in Belize to adopt the program across the country.

“The very supportive responses from the diverse fishers at the pilot sites demonstrated that our pioneering efforts could be nationally implemented for the benefit of the fishers themselves, and the fishing resources that we all want to secure for future generations of Belizeans,” said Nicole Auil Gomez, WCS Belize’s Country Director.


Sailboat at the entrance to Copper Bank Village with vessel color coding for Fishing Areas 6 and 7. Credit: Nicanor Requena

Leading up to the launch of the national rights-based fishing program, fishers, NGOs, and government officials were working together to create management plans and monitoring strategies. Fishers and government are following through on their commitments to each other now. For example, fishers are painting their vessels in colors coded to each fishing zone, which will help rangers to quickly see whether a vessel is allowed to fish in each zone. This will enable the rangers to concentrate on catching outsiders who are illegally fishing.

Rights-based fishing encourages fishers to consider the long-term survivability of the ecosystem and natural resources they depend on for their livelihoods. Daniel Dawson, a board member of National Fishermen’s Producers Cooperative Society Ltd. and Belize Fishermen Cooperative Association, expressed this hope at the official launch event: “Managed Access is a major milestone for us fishers in Belize and we know that this will be beneficial for future generations.”

Unsustainable and illegal fishing remain major threats to the Belize Barrier Reef, the livelihood of the fishing communities that depend on these natural resources, and food security for Belizeans. But with Managed Access, the conditions are ripe to end and reverse the effects of overfishing. Under the new system, Belize is:

  • Protecting Biodiversity with Innovative Management: Belize is pioneering innovative approaches to managing overall catch to insure that reef species are not depleted and fishery stocks can rebuild. As these catch management policies are honed with the use of catch data, overfishing that threatens biodiversity will continue to decline.
  • Protecting Critical Habitats: Each TURF has at least one no-take zone. As fishers see more value in conservation, new opportunities to protect critical species and habitats are emerging. Managers and fishers are organizing to expand Belize’s network of no-take zones and conserve species that are crucial for the health of the reef. Experience shows that once TURFs are secure, fishers favor expansion of no-take zones and often advocate for them.
  • Promoting Sustainable Businesses: The fishing industry is beginning to align its business and economic development plans by transitioning its business model towards “sustainable seafood” supply chains. Belize, with the support of Oceana, WCS, EDF, and TNC, has launched a responsible seafood sourcing program called Fish Right, Eat Right that recognizes restaurants sourcing seafood from responsible fishermen (and supports Managed Access). And thanks to the improvements in management that have come with Managed Access, the Monterey Bay Aquarium has upgraded its rating of Belizean Queen Conch from red to yellow, which will open new sustainable seafood markets in the U.S.
  • Leading the Globe in Fisheries Management and Science: Belize demonstrates that small-scale fisheries in low and middle-income countries can transition to sustainable management. Delegations from Indonesia, Haiti, Cuba, Honduras, the Inter-American Development Bank, and Caribbean Regional Fisheries Mechanism have held learning exchanges with Belize about Managed Access. Peer-reviewed articles about Belize’s experience include Thresholds in Caribbean coral reefs: implications for ecosystem-based fishery management.

Belize is increasingly looked to as an example of sustainable fisheries reform across the globe.

Comments are closed.