Belize just redefined marine conservation, entrusting its fishermen with a nationwide system of multi-species fishing rights for all its coastal fishing waters.
This landmark decision is a victory for communities on Belize’s Caribbean shore, allowing fishermen to create more food and jobs on land by replenishing more life and diversity in their seas.
But Belize’s move also has implications for the rest of the world. The government blazed a pioneering trail, with a powerful example that may prove a tipping point for sustainable harvests of coastal fisheries anywhere.
Scaling up a proven system of fishing rights
For years, seafood harvesters off Alaska, Canada, Chile, Iceland, Namibia, Norway and New Zealand enjoyed advantages their tropical colleagues lacked: secure fishing rights.
Empowering fisherfolk with rights brought dramatic gains for biodiversity, food provision and coastal communities in temperate waters. It transformed fishermen into responsible, long-term stewards of the sea. And recovering fish populations reward adherence to limits with longer seasons, lower risks, higher revenues, better product and more full-time jobs.
But it begged the question: Can it scale?
If fishing rights worked wonders for hundreds of commercial fleets in more developed, industrialized fisheries, could it also transform thousands of smaller fisheries in warmer nearshore waters, where most fishermen live and work?
In May 2015, Belize answered with a resounding yes.
Fishermen want change
Belize raises the bar when it comes to marine conservation. The extraordinary Belize Barrier Reef, second in size only to Australia’s, hosts a rich diversity of mangroves, corals, seagrass and cayes teeming with life.
Offshore life also brought onshore health. As 3,000 fishermen harvest spiny lobster, conch and reef fish, they nourish Belizeans with an important source of healthy, locally-produced animal protein.
Yet fishery managers struggled to overcome illegal fishing that created a “tragedy-of-the-commons” dynamic of perverse incentives, which can bring a vicious spiral of depletion, poverty and food insecurity.
Transition to fishing rights means change, and change can feel scary. But when Belize officials held workshops reaching out to the country’s fishermen, they heard an eagerness to expand the program nationally, as soon as possible.
The government heard from the communities and responded. The country’s ministers voted for a policy that will yield more food on the plate, more fish in the water and more prosperous local communities.
Which nation will be the next to reform its fisheries?
Amanda Leland is vice president, oceans, for the Environmental Defense Fund. She leads a diverse team of scientists, lawyers and advocates for healthy and abundant oceans. Prior to joining EDF, she was a scientist conducting cooperative research with commercial fishermen in Maine, a marine mammal zookeeper and a Congressional aid focused on ocean issues. She holds an master of science degree in marine biology from the University of Maine.