After our amazing trip to Belize and Guatemala, there were a couple perspectives that can be linked back to our local Chesapeake Bay. Whether this is on the topic of sea level rise, the detrimental effect of agricultural runoff, or even the transition of fishing villages to tourist hotspots. However, the most apparent perspective I noticed was the utter similarity of the fisheries in both Belize and those of the Chesapeake Bay. While these fisheries and very different, the main underlying topic of stress and demand that results in overharvesting of these fisheries caught my attention. Like the Chesapeake Bay, the fishing villages on the barrier islands of Belize have been experiencing constant pressure on queen conch and spiny lobster populations; just like those of the blue crab and oyster in the Chesapeake Bay.
As a local resident of the Chesapeake Bay and someone who recreationally catches blue crab via trotline and pot, I realized some major similarities in the fisheries here in the Bay and those in Belize. The ultimate realization for me was the concept of ‘the tragedy of the commons’; each fisherman wanting to harvest more than the other, resulting in a vicious cycle of overharvesting and overall population decline of their sought-after fish (lobster and conch). While there are general solutions that can fix this cycle of overharvesting, it is hard to get complete community involvement. For a country that has a complete lack of infrastructure for the most part, and not as technologically advanced as the United States, it is difficult to outreach, educate, and enforce these solutions. These solutions, broadly speaking, would be tighter catch size and limits, which would allow for the queen conch and spiny lobster populations to increase over time. However, with a country, and especially fishing villages that tend to have less wealthy individuals, it is hard to restrain them from catching enough fish to make a living. Furthermore, with each fisherman competing against one another, it becomes almost a ‘game’ of who will harvest more conch or lobster; this being the same case with watermen in the Chesapeake Bay. As the tragedy of the commons states, “we want the maximum good per person; but what is good?”, referring to the ultimate outcome of a decreasing fish population due to humans drive for more profit (Hardin 3). The tragedy of the commons is what makes Belize and the Chesapeake Bay so similar in their fisheries. Moreover, after speaking with a local fisherman in Tobacco Caye and one of our IZE guides in South Water Caye, I firsthand experienced the Belizean tragedy of the commons. While these two individuals live at different barrier islands (not far apart) their fishing impacted one another, due to where the legal fishing and harvest grounds are. Tobacco Caye and South Water Caye are located in a protected marine preserve, meaning that it is illegal to harvest any sort of fish out of this restricted zone. This brings in another similarity with the Chesapeake and Belize, not only overharvesting, but harvesting in illegal areas. Not that I’m pointing any fingers, but I was personally invited on a spear-fishing hunt and spiny lobster harvest while at South Water Caye. I accepted the offer and embarked on this mini journey to capture the delectable bounties the local waters produced. To make a long story short, I was utterly shocked when we began our harvest only a quarter mile from the dock we launched from; in the heart of the marine preserve of South Water Caye. This, for the most part, startled me, but it made so much sense; fishermen know that the preserve is a home to numerous lobsters and other harvestable fish, so why not fish there? Locally in the Chesapeake Bay, I’ve always heard stories about watermen dredging or tonging for oysters in restricted oyster bars, making this connection very real and relevant to me as a Chesapeake local. Furthermore, with only two active natural resource police officers (or whatever they’re called in Belize), it makes harvesting these restricted grounds much easier.
This issue of fishing in restricted areas is highlighted in the Belize Coastal Threats Atlas, but due to an overall lack of funding it is hard for long-term enforcement and analysis of the marine preserves, “Belize has the legal and institutional policy framework to manage coral reefs, but lack the long-term funding for enforcement and monitoring of the extensive system of MPAs” (Belize Coastal Threats Atlas 8). The problem with this is that with the local fishermen of Belize knowing that it is difficult for the country to monitor and enforce regulations around the marine protected area (MPA). This is generally not the case in the Chesapeake Bay; countless Department of Natural Resources officers patrol the Bay each day to enforce the state regulations for the numerous fisheries.
While the threats that face the Belize fisheries are predominantly anthropogenic, natural occurrences can greatly affect populations. This is also true for the Chesapeake Bay, but in Belize, these fisheries are much more susceptible to the constant bombardment of hurricanes and weather storms that take place there. Extreme hurricanes can cause very high wave action that disrupts these fish’s habitat and sources of food. Furthermore, the large quantities of rain received there can cause serious sedimentation that can ‘suffocate’ benthic organisms like the queen conch in Belize. In the Chesapeake Bay, this negative impact of sedimentation is occurring as well, and in some aspects, occurring much more rapidly and worse than in Belize, causing serious detrimental effects to blue crabs and oysters living in the Bay.
In all, the Chesapeake Bay and Belizean fisheries are very different due to the way harvest takes place and the overall composition of the fish and their ecosystems. However, due to mostly human impact, populations can be decimated due to each fishermen’s drive to harvest more than the other, resulting in more harvest that can be supported. In the case of Belize, it is apparent that more funding needs to be allocated to the protection of these fisheries; especially in the marine protects areas by South Water Caye, Tobacco Caye, and the numerous barrier islands that support fishing villages. In the Chesapeake Bay, for the most part, we have learned to cope with one another (the watermen) to allow a sustainable harvest due to regulations and enforcement. It is a cruel thing to have to limit how much one person can take if another fisherman is harvesting more than allowed. However, through legal fishing and harvest, fisheries in the Chesapeake, and around the globe, can thrive and result in higher populations in the future that will allow for more to be harvested.
“Belize Coastal Threat Atlas.” Belize Coastal Threat Atlas, World Resources Institute, May 2005, http://www.wri.org/publication/belize-coastal-threat-atlas.
Hardin, Garrett. “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Science, vol. 162, no. 3859, 1968, pp. 1243–1248. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1724745.