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Oceana Magazine Spring 2014: Introducing... Janelle Chanona

Introducing… Janelle Chanona

Oceana’s new VP for Belize will take on offshore drilling and overfishing to protect the vibrant Mesoamerican reef the second-largest reef in the world.

Janelle Chanona is no stranger to speaking out for her country’s oceans. A long-time anchor for Channel 5 news, one of Belize’s top national broadcasters, Janelle recently ran her own media and production company and advised several environmental groups in Belize, including Oceana. Oceana magazine sat down with Janelle to learn about how she plans to tackle the threats facing Belizean oceans.

When did you first become interested in ocean conservation?

My parents taught my twin sister and me how to swim when we were two years old, so we were introduced to the marine environment at a very early age. My grandfather was truly passionate about the sea—his affinity for sand, salt air, and anything with scales was my first lesson in ocean conservation: When you love something you want to protect it.

For a long time I was hooked on the idea of becoming a marine biologist. I ended up in the communications field but I stayed close to the sea, diving as often as possible, taking marine-related electives at school and later, producing several documentaries for local environmental groups. A highlight of my journalism career was being selected for the James A. Waight conservation award by the Belize Audubon Society. When the opportunity to work with Oceana arose in late 2013, I knew my course in life had come full circle.

How important is the ocean to Belizean life and culture?

Belizeans are truly “people of the reef”… we are unified by our marine resources. Belize’s eastern border is the blue and bountiful Caribbean Sea, which is home to more than 450 cayes, or small islands, and the second longest barrier reef in the world. When Belizeans we talk about the reef, we do so with tremendous pride. The reef also plays a vital role in protecting our shores from devastating storm surge during tropical storms and hurricanes. The reef is Belize’s economic backbone. Roughly 4,000 fishermen and women depend on the sea for their livelihood and food, and one in every four Belizeans depends directly on tourism. I cannot overstate the importance of the sea to Belizean life and culture.

What are the biggest threats facing ocean health in Belize?

Overfishing is threatening ocean health and economic stability. Fishermen concede they have to go further and fish for longer periods of time to catch smaller fish. The situation has also prompted fishermen to turn to other species, like parrotfish or sea cucumber. Licenses for these newly-fished species are often issued without feasibility studies and without proper monitoring. This ad hoc management approach to fisheries is a serious concern.

Poverty is another serious threat. On average, fishermen are aware of the decline in fish stocks but, because fishing is their livelihood, it’s a race to fish to provide for their families. This general picture holds true on a national level, too. Crippling external debt obligations are being met, in large part, by revenues from on-shore oil. The potential financial benefits of an offshore oil field are obscuring the reality that any oil-related disaster at sea could ruin the Belizean Barrier Reef and the jobs and food it provides.

Have you seen the oceans change since you were growing up?

My childhood memories of the Caribbean Sea are of an idyllic underwater scene— vibrantly colored corals, numerous curious fish, intimidating-but-beautiful silver barracudas, purple sea fans waving to and fro, and hundreds of thousands of shy silversides. I also recall a clear sound—like static, but more pleasing—from the clicks and pulses of underwater life. These pockets of underwater heaven still exist, but today they are just that—pockets. Sadly, several of the locations I frequented as a child have been ravaged by hurricanes, coral bleaching, overfishing, pollution, and destructive fishing practices.

Tell me about Oceana’s goals for Belize.

Oceana in Belize currently has three campaign goals to protect and restore ocean abundance: ban offshore drilling; ban the use of gillnets in Belizean waters, and protect juvenile fish. I intend to work hard to achieve victories in the three campaigns already underway and to add new campaign goals to protect Belize’s marine resources. I believe campaigns against shark finning and seafood fraud can, and should, be launched in Belize, too.

Do you have any personal goals?

My personal goal is to present our campaigns in such a way that Belizeans readily make the connection that protection of our marine environment directly correlates to an improved quality of life, food security, economic gains, in addition to the established cultural identity. Like other people, I think we tend to be very short sighted because of economic pressures and the lure of instant gratification. I believe we can change the behavior and attitude of the average Belizean towards a focus on long-term gain and benefit for future generations.

You’re a diver. Is there any one diving spot in Belize that you are especially connected to?

I will confess to a love affair with the Gladden Spit. I did my first whale shark dive there a couple years ago and it was such a surreal experience! I wrote a magazine article about it for Belize’s official visitor guide magazine: Destination Belize. It was truly awe-inspiring to be so close to such a magnificent creature. I wanted time to stop. Before that dive I didn’t think my love for the sea could be any deeper. How wrong I was!