Oceana's first Central American office snags an early victory.
By Suzannah Evans
The small Central American country of Belize is home to a large part of the world’s second largest coral reef, and now it has an Oceana office to help protect this incredible marine ecosystem.
The official opening is well-timed for the country’s famed reef. In 2009, the United Nations placed the Belize Barrier Reef on its list of World Heritage sites that are endangered, and recommended that immediate action be taken to save this ecosystem from overfishing, pollution and other threats that risk its vitality.
In November, Oceana board members and staff visited Belize to celebrate Oceana’s official opening of its first Central American office.
The group included Oceana CEO Andrew Sharpless, Vice President for North America Dr. Mike Hirshfield and marine scientist Margot Stiles, as well as board members César Gaviria, the former Secretary General of the Organization of American States and former president of Colombia, and Dr. Daniel Pauly, a renowned fisheries scientist.
With Audrey Matura-Shepherd, Oceana’s vice president for Belize, as host, the group visited with Prime Minister Dean Barrow as well as CEO for Fisheries Gabino Canto and the leader of the opposition, Johnny Briceño.
Dr. Pauly, one of the world’s leaders in the study of overfishing and a professor at the Fisheries Centre of the University of British Columbia, gave a presentation on marine conservation to an overflow audience of Belizean students, fishermen and members of the tourism industry.
“The response to Oceana’s presence was heartening,” Matura-Shepherd said. “Belizean people from all walks of life showed that they are extremely interested in protecting their ocean, which is not only critical to our economy for seafood and tourism, but also part of our heritage.”
Belize’s marine ecosystem has remained relatively healthy, but only about three percent of Belizean waters are fully protected. A few weeks after Oceana’s opening, the country got a very public reminder that ocean preservation is a prime issue.
In December, the residents of the seaside village of Punta Gorda looked out to the horizon and spotted Jamaican fishing boats. They had arrived, unannounced and without permits, to fish in Belize’s diverse waters.
Many of Punta Gorda’s local fishermen still work the shallow waters inside the Belize Barrier Reef from individual canoes using age-old methods to provide lobster, shellfish and reef fish for Belizeans, as well as a small but thriving export business. The Jamaican boats, with more sophisticated commercial gear, offered no such promise for the local economy or the continued sustainability of Belize’s fisheries.
The coastal community in Belize erupted upon discovering the Jamaican fishermen. A meeting in Punta Gorda was packed to overflowing with citizens speaking out against the sudden and potentially illegal arrival of the foreign vessels.
Matura-Shepherd and her newly-formed Oceana staff sprung into action and quickly pressured Prime Minister Dean Barrow to turn these foreign vessels away – which he did.
“The Jamaican fishing boats are just the beginning,” Matura-Shepherd said. “We already know that other countries are interested in exploiting Belize’s marine resources. But this victory was a great way to introduce Oceana in Belize, and I hope it will be the first of many.”
Oceana’s goals in Belize
Under the leadership of Audrey Matura-Shepherd, Oceana’s first Central American office has an ambitious agenda to help protect one of the world’s most extensive marine ecosystems from exploitation.
- Ban bottom trawling, the most destructive type of fishing.
- Protect juvenile fish. Too often, fishermen, desperate to catch something, catch small juvenile fish that have not yet reproduced, severely inhibiting the ecosystem’s ability to maintain healthy fish populations. Oceana will help Belize stop catching undersized fish by popularizing the use of rulers to measure fish.
- Ban fishing by foreign fleets. Oceana will help Belize create its first national policy to protect the country’s marine resources and economy from foreign fishing.
- End gillnet fishing. Gillnets are made of microfilament plastic and catch many species other than fish, including sea turtles and marine mammals.
For more information about Oceana in Belize, visit www.oceana.org/central-america.