What’s at Risk
Belize’s economic future is threatened by gillnet fishing, a practice having devastating effects on the country’s marine resources. Without a healthy marine environment, Belize’s tourism and commercial fishing industries are directly threatened, as are thousands of jobs.
Belize’s economy depends on a healthy tourism industry with tourism accounting for 45% of its GDP. With 70% of all tourists visiting marine destinations, a healthy and sustainable marine environment is essential to Belize’s economic survival.
Currently more than 20,000 Belizeans are employed in tourism with estimates of 90,000 tourism-related jobs by 2028.
Gillnets directly threaten these jobs.
Sportfishing is a major economic driver for Belize, generating over $55 million USD annually for the Belizean economy and providing roughly 3,000 good paying jobs. While licensed Belizean gillnetters inadvertently catch sportfish as bycatch, illegal gillnetters from Guatemala regularly harvest Belizean bonefish, permit and tarpon to be sold for food.
belizean permit in guatemala
Permit are perhaps the most prized sport fish sought by catch-and-release anglers in Belize.
Guatemalan gillnetters are regularly entering Belizean waters and illegally harvesting permit and other game fish. Protected under Belize’s “catch-and-release law,” these fish are being sold in Guatemalan markets for a few dollars per pound.
This photo of Belizean permit from Livingston, Guatemala was obtained during a recent investigation into Guatemala’s illegal fishing.
Commercial fishing is an essential industry in Belize with approximately 2,500 licensed commercial fishers county wide. Caribbean spiny lobster and queen conch are the two primary commercial species targeted, with finfish a distant third.
Gillnetting in Belize primarily targets finfish and sharks. The majority of sharks harvested in Belize are exported illegally to Guatemala and Honduras, with lucrative shark fins being a major factor in this black market trade. A large portion of the finfish harvested in Belize are also being harvested by and illegally exported to Guatemala.
Belizean Fish in Livingston, guatemala
The image at left shows a field of finfish that were illegally gillnetted in Belizean waters and exported to Guatemala. This field, which is one of many, is roughly 80 x 40 feet and contains thousands of fish.
Enforcement agencies throughout Belize cite the ban of gillnets as a top priority for fighting the exploitation of Belize’s fisheries and preservation of the commercial and sportfishing industries.
SCUBA Diving & Snorkeling
Belize’s extensive coral reefs attract large numbers of Scuba divers and snorkelers. These activities depend on a healthy marine environment with vibrant reefs and abundant marine life.
Declining fish stocks threaten these important tourism activities in Belize and loose, free-floating gillnets are causing direct damage to coral reefs.
Big game fishing
Although big game fishing is not as well-known in Belize as in neighboring countries, it’s the source of great enjoyment by many Belizeans and angling tourists, including members of the Belize Gamefish Association who practice only catch-and-release fishing for billfish.
Belize has one of the largest remaining populations of West Indian manatees in the Caribbean. Although manatees are not necessarily targeted by gillnetters, manatees are often entrapped and drowned in gillnets as bycatch.
This is especially the case when nets are left to drift freely as so-called “ghost nets.” Ghost nets pose a unique threat in that they ensnare and kill marine mammals, fish, birds and other wildlife indefinitely.
Indiscriminate bycatch by gillnets significantly affects marine mammals including bottlenose and spinner dolphins. Gillnets have caused near-extinction of the endemic cetacean vaquita porpoise in Mexico. A gillnet ban was recommended there as a last ditch effort to save this species.
Gillnets are a major cause in the decline of sea turtles worldwide. As noted in a recent paper by Dr. Julio Benavides, bycatch from small-scale gillnet fishing is one of the major threats to turtle populations in Mexico, with an estimated 680 loggerhead turtles dying in gillnets.
Overall, gillnets represent a major threat to the turtle population in Belize.
Sharks are frequently targeted by gillnet fishermen in Belizean waters and nearly all shark meat and shark fins are exported (illegally) to Guatemala. In 2007, shark expert Dr. Rachel Graham documented that 1.7 million pounds of shark meat and 26,000 pounds of shark fins were exported by gillnetters from Belize to Guatemala. Since then, the export of shark from Belize to Guatemala has only increased.
A 2019 investigation found that shark fins currently fetch $100 USD per pound in Guatemala. A large shark may produce up to 12 pounds of fins.
Prior to the early 1990s, two species of sawfish, Pristis Pristis and P. Pectinata, were commonly encountered in Belize. Often thought of as river monsters, they were in fact river guardians, helping to keep estuaries healthy.
Following the widespread use of gillnets, sawfish are now extinct throughout Belizean waters. We have proof. Other species will succumb to this indiscriminate fishing method.
Like all ocean wildlife, several species of rays are vulnerable to gillnets. Belize’s Marine Reserves—such as the famous Hol Chan Marine Reserve— are home to Southern Stingrays and Spotted Eagle Rays.
Legally licensed and illegal gillnetters ensnare rays as bycatch and illegal Guatemalan gillnetters target rays for export.
Sea birds frequently become entangled in gillnets and perish as they dive for fish trapped in the nets.