The government of Belize has made commercial fishing open to foreigners that have residence in Belize. The move came about by Statutory Instrument #57 of 2021, signed by fisheries minister Abner Perez. Traditionally, commercial fishing in Belize has been reserved for nationals of Belize. Recent years have seen the incursion of foreign fishermen from neighbouring countries like Guatemala and Honduras. Some of these fishermen have tried to get around Belizean laws by claiming residence in Belize. But this has not worked as the law is clear that non-nationals cannot enter this industry. The S.I., which invokes the broad ministerial powers, has now made it possible for individuals not born in Belize, and who are not nationals, to enter the lucrative Belize fishing industry.
Several sections of the Belize fisheries regulations have been repealed and replaced to allow permanent residents to apply for a fishing license. The changes allow a permanent residency card to be accepted as a relevant identification document for the application process. If the applicant is a permanent resident, they will have to show proof that they’ve lived in Belize for six continuous months prior to the date of their first application. If the permanent resident is looking for a renewal of their licenses, he or she will also have to show a record of the sale of their fisheries products.The move as sparked an uproar in Belize. Here is some of the reaction from social media and news broadcasts.
Dale Fairweather, Fishing for 35 years “The biggest struggle will be the fact that we have too few fish and too many fishermen and if you bring in people from across the border then some of us will not be catching anything. When I started fishing there were a lot less fishermen, so we use to do good, but as the years went by you get more fishers and now I am catching like a quarter than what I use to catch. So I know everybody here is catching less, And if you bring in more people then we will even catch less.”
Nigel Martinez, Director, Belize Federation of Fishers: “We learned of this late last week and immediately sounded the alarm. We scrambled to get our members up to date as to what has transpired and we believe what the Ministry of the Blue Economy did was completely undermine the rights of Belizean fisher folks and because of that they have now opened up the door back for permanent residents to access our natural resource, our fishery which is already overpopulated, which is already crowded. And you have a number of fishers here today that will tell you the same sentiment that they are frustrated because it’s not getting easier, it’s very expensive to go out there, the issues are the same there’s no enforcement, the managed access program is not working, there are several components that are not working that are affecting the fisheries right now. So when we found out about this we had to inform the fishers because by large you will hear it from them today that no one knew about.”
“In 2019 we had lobbied with the then administration to ensure that we protect the benefits of our Belizean fishers. Now how can you tell me that a permanent resident can come to our jewel, state that they lived here for six months and get access to our fishery when we have our fishermen right here right now some of their kids can’t even access the fishery and unable to get a fisher folk license. It’s difficult so we can’t accept that. And we are asking the minister to ensure that he rescinds what he has done because SI 57 of 2021 is unfair, it’s unjust and the fisher folks are here today to state that.”
The loosening of up Belize’s fishing regulations has drawn condemnation from the Belize Progressive Party and various environmental organisations. Dr. Rachel Graham, prominent Belize-based marine biologist and environmentalist, posted on her social media account that “This is truly an unfortunate decision by the ministry. There was no consultation with the fishing or any sectors when the decision was quietly made to repeal a restriction that was clearly desired and supported by the majority of Belize’s fishers. The permanent residency clause is the Trojan horse to IUU fisheries in Belize. Worse yet is the refusal to look at all of the good science produced in Belize that has clearly shown declines in catch despite rising fishing effort for conch, lobster, and fish that evidence declines in abundance and even in many case sizes, even size at maturity. The long term monitoring we have collectively all conducted over so many years unequivocally shows declines. Any doubt just talk to any fisher who has fished longer than a decade, they’ll tell you about the changes. These are all alarms that scream overfishing. But these repeated screams refuse to be heard.”
As of 2021 there are 3,400 licensed fishers in Belize. The ministry of fisheries has tried to defend its action by stating in a press release that “Fishing is a very complex occupation but it provides great opportunities especially for many that may not have academic aspirations to be working in an office or even on land. Fishers are born not made. Everyone who can acquire a license legally should be able to benefit of this activity for sport or for income generation. It’s not fair to disenfranchise a people because of their immigration status.”