© 2012 Margaret Sands

Overcoming Overfishing and Obstinacy on Tobacco Caye: A Policy Analysis

Executive Summary:

The Fisheries Department of Belize established the South Water Caye Marine Reserve (SWCMR) to protect a crucial section of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, home to globally significant biological resources.  The reserve is the largest in Belize, yet only five fisheries officers are responsible for all enforcement and education.  Recently they enacted a No Take Conservation Zone in the Northern part of the reserve to protect a particularly diverse and vulnerable spread of ecosystems from extractive industries.  The zone surrounds a small island, Tobacco Caye, with a population of around 40, the majority of whom rely on conch and lobster diving for at least part of their income.  Policy failures and lack of education lead local fishermen to engage in illegal activity and compromise the integrity of the ecosystems on which they depend. In this analysis those failures will be explored and a recommendation made that an area adjacent to the Conservation Zone should be parceled into exclusive rights territories for fishermen of Tobacco Caye.  This would allow local fishermen to benefit from the overspill of species leaving the zone, encourage collaboration between stakeholders, and discourage illegal activity, without increasing enforcement.

I. Introduction


                The Mesoamerican Reef is the second largest barrier reef in the world.  It is also one of 233 ecoregions with biodiversity and representational values considered outstanding on a global scale (Walker, 2009).  Though Caribbean reefs are known for the impacts they have suffered from coastal development, overfishing, pollution, and tourism, Belize has a low population and low rate of coastal development.  Belize also has the majority of the Mesoamerican Reef within its territory, they are considered some of the least impacted reef areas in the region, with the highest diversity of fish species (Walker, 2009).  However, Belize is far from impervious to ecosystem threats, and a growing export seafood industry in particular has put strain on its valuable resources.

The Fisheries Department of Belize established the South Water Caye Marine Reserve (SWCMR) to address overfishing and other threats by recognizing the area’s rich biodiversity and myriad of ecosystems, and implementing policies to protect them.  The reserve is now a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site and is managed with the goal of “Providing for the protection, wise use, understanding, and enjoyment of the natural resources of South Water Caye Marine Reserve in perpetuity.”  (Walker, Pg. 4) There are six conservation targets outlined in the SWCMR Management Plan marked for special protection.  The area around Tobacco Caye includes all six of these, as well as a community that relies on two activities that threaten several of these targets (See Figure 1).  This area is highly vulnerable, so the advisory committee established a Conservation Zone around the island and prohibited all extractive activities.  Since the economy of Tobacco Caye is based almost entirely on conch and lobster diving, the policy has caused conflict with the community and led to illegal activity.  These conflicts obstruct the main goal of the decision: conservation of the area’s valuable resources for the benefit of local, global, and future populations.

The following pages explore the threats to the ecosystems of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef system of Belize as well as the policies that attempt to manage them.   Part II examines the obstacles to conservation on Tobacco Caye and Part III is a description of the establishment and enforcement of the Conservation Zone around the caye and the flaws that followed.  Part IV outlines the alternative courses of action that the advisory committee could pursue.  Finally, Part V presents a plan for educating islanders and granting them exclusive access to inspire cooperation and collaboration between stakeholders.

II.   Context:  A Marine Community


Tobacco Caye is home to approximately 35-40 semi-permanent residents, the only true residential community within the borders of the Conservation Zone.  The majority of the island’s residents (people who spend at least three weeks a month on the island), describe themselves as living in or belonging to other places, usually on the mainland where they have family or property. (Community Interviews, 2012)  The five landowners only come out to the island for a few weeks a year, on-site managers usually run their properties.  Lack of community causes problems for organizing and collaborative governance.  The people who will be most affected by the action do not feel ownership of the island and therefore do not believe they have the right to express opinions (Community Interviews, 2012).  Yet those with legal claim to the island will not feel the daily effects of new regulation.  Lack of participation frustrates representatives on the advisory committee who are now reluctant to work with the Tobacco Caye fishermen based on past failures.

The economic crisis, which pushed Belize to a 13.9% unemployment rate in 2009 (CIA World Factbook) has led to an increase in national and local fishing effort.  Many of the fishermen on Tobacco Caye only recently moved to the island and are between the ages of 15 and 35 (Wilson, pg. 23).  Oftentimes, they left primary school to pursue fishing or other unskilled labor opportunities, therefore education and literacy levels on the island are low, this has been a barrier to environmental education efforts.

As in the rest of the country, conch and lobster are the main products, usually captured by skin diving with snorkel gear.  Divers use a stick with a hook at the end to pull lobsters out from under rocks, corals, and other hiding places.  Traps are another method, but lobster shades are a more common and reserve-friendly method.  Shades are artificial habitats made out of anything from old tires to sheets of wood or metal and stones.  They provide a cover that lobsters can hide under, divers check the shades periodically and take the lobsters they want.  With shades it is easier to comply with regulations that dictate size and prohibit the taking of egg-bearing females, with the hook the lobsters are usually dead or dying when such determinations are made.  Shades also create artificial reefs, one study showed that 13 times more fish and 3.5 times more species were found in areas around shades than areas without them (Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, 2011)

III. Conservation Zone and Enforcement


Although the Fisheries Department established the SWCMR in 1996, the council only enacted the conservation zone within the last three years.  Even then, there was a grace period for Tobacco Caye fishermen that lasted over a year, this lead many to assume that enforcement would never happen.  In the last year, the Fisheries Department proved them wrong in a crackdown that included fines, arrests, seizure of boats, and animosity between all parties.  Despite the strict enforcement of the national and reserve regulations, continued regular illegal activity proves that enforcement is not enough.  The five officers assigned to Twin Cayes are responsible for patrolling the 118,000 acres of the reserve (the largest in the country) and implementing all regulations (Fisheries Department Interviews, 2012).  In a situation such as this one, where it is impossible for the fisheries officers to keep an effective hold on illegal activity, local cooperation is key, and in this case lacking.  One of the best methods to achieve cooperation is through education and collaboration so that the fishermen understand the benefits of the regulations and are incentivized to uphold them and encourage others to do the same.

The national Marine Protected Areas (MPA) manager for the Fisheries Department claims education to foster cooperation took place on Tobacco Caye in the form of pamphlets and one-on-one conversations with the Fisheries officers (Fisheries Department Interview, 2012).  Since most of the population is essentially illiterate, pamphlets would be a highly ineffective education strategy.  One-on-one education is probably the best method for this population, but the Fisheries officers are not the best people to carry it out.  Nearly everyone on the island has had some sort of negative experience with the Fisheries officers, even their interns are armed when they come to the island, there is a deep-rooted distrust that would make any of their efforts to enlighten fishermen fruitless.

Interviews with islanders revealed some common beliefs including that: regulations would only benefit the tourists, lobster and conch stocks will never diminish, and that anchors work best when they hook into reef.  These archaic views, and others like them, persist without challenge or evidence to the contrary, and continue to hinder conservation.  This compromises not only the effectiveness of the conservation zone but also the benefits in surrounding fishing grounds for those who obey the laws.   Another concept that has eluded the fishermen is the overspill effect from no-take zones.  Instead, the fishermen know stocks are healthier within the no-take zones, so they prefer to dive there illegally.  Another issue is confusion surrounding the regulations themselves, since nearly all information spreads through word of mouth, and exceptions to the rules confuse the situation even further.  Though any one of these problems would make conservation difficult, the combination, in a community with such a tainted history, has made successful conservation nearly impossible.

Given the lack of consistent enforcement on the island, or understanding among the population as to why the laws exist, illegal activity is a daily occurrence on Tobacco Caye.  The World Resources Institute considered illegal fishing an “Intense Threat” to reefs in the area (see Figure 6).  Community members regularly offer conch to tourists, use it as bait, and openly grill it on the beach, all during the closed season when no one in the country is supposed to take conch while the stocks recover.  Divers regularly organize trips inside the Zone for times when the Fisheries officers are known to be elsewhere.  They brush off the illegality and impact of such actions with the justification “one or two won’t hurt,” yet nearly the entire community participating and benefitting from illegal activities proves the problem is more widespread than that (Personal Observations and Fishermen Interviews 2012).

Figure 6: Threats to the Reefs




Source: World Resources Institute


IV. Alternatives: Border Changes and Territorial Rights

The alternative currently favored by the Advisory Committee is a border change that would bring the border of the conservation zone .5 miles closer to the island, making it easier for fishermen to access legal fishing grounds.  This border change includes removing the nearby Tobacco Range of mangroves from the conservation zone.  This would be unfortunate since the mangroves are not only another target conservation area but they provide a myriad of ecosystem services in particular as nurseries and are not really favored fishing ground for most of the fishermen on Tobacco Caye (Fishermen Interviews, 2012).  In fact the idea for the border change and exclusion of the mangroves was really on the basis of one fisherman who has his lobster shades in the mangroves and had the means to attend the meetings (something most of the other fishermen lack) (WCS Interview, 2012).

Since the personal incentive and infrastructure is lacking for a quota system, instead a policy of collaborative governance and territorial rights would be more appropriate.  The reef directly adjacent to the island is still under significant pressure from tourism; sightings of large fish species and lobster are still not at the levels of a healthy reef.  The sea grass beds and the surrounding areas are noted nurseries for conch with approximately 1,400 juveniles per hectare documented in 2007 (Walker, 2012).  Therefore, the Fisheries Department should continue to close these areas to extractive activities, including catch and release fishing, with the only exception being hand-line fishing from the docks on the island for subsistence.

In order for local fishermen to reap benefits from the protection of these areas, the Fisheries Department should divide the area adjacent to the zone into exclusive use territories licensed to Tobacco Caye residents only.  The territorial zone should be located away from reefs under stress but close enough to the caye to be accessible (See Figure 7).  There should be no net loss of conservation zone area so any rezoning should include extensions to compensate for losses.  The license holder for the specific parcel will have exclusive rights to the area, and the Fisheries officers will protect those rights as will the holder themselves.  Licenses will most likely be associated with a certain boat rather than a person so that the current system of contracting out for diving and fishing can continue.  There are approximately five fishermen per boat on Tobacco Caye.  Those with boats often hire those without to dive for them or arrange trades to allow the use of their boats (Fishermen interviews 2012).


Since there are only 7-10 fishing boats on the island, the committee should designate more territories than current number of boats and maintain that number for future use but barring overuse.  This could help to accommodate the transient nature of so many Tobacco Caye fishermen.  The Fisheries Department could assign territories on a rotating basis or hold them in trust for future demand.  Anyone holding a license that participates in illegal activity, or whose boat is involved in such activity, will lose his or her territory for an extended period, depending on the offense.  This system will identify community leaders who have a stake in ensuring that they, and those in their employ, obey the laws in place for conservation purposes.


                 An integral ingredient to the success of this policy is a regular collaboration between stakeholders, namely fishermen, the Fisheries Department, and NGOs.  This collaboration should take place in the form of a monthly meeting where all parties are able to discuss their issues and share their knowledge.  In the past, some meetings have erupted into conflict, so it might be advisable to begin the meetings with just the fishermen and perhaps a mediator who is either from the community, or a local representative of an NGO.  These meetings should offer educational opportunities but organizers should not frame them as such, since pride has been an obstacle to learning in the past.  Rather, discussions of the fishermen’s knowledge and experience should be interlaced with new knowledge about concepts such as the overspill effect, anchoring without damaging reef, and species spawning practices and why they should not be disturbed.  Once these become regular and somewhat organized, Fisheries officers could attend and assist in addressing larger issues and negotiating compromises.


NGOs and research institutions should draw upon fishermen as resources for monitoring projects, which happen frequently in the area.  Fishermen who participated in these projects in the past were far more knowledgeable about conservation goals and overfishing threats than their peers who had not had those experiences (Fishermen Interviews, 2012).  If the fishermen are educated about why the conservation laws are important and are incentivized to follow them, the stocks have a much better chance of surviving and preserving the delicate balance of these important ecosystems.



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“Fisheries Department.” Personal interview. 15 June 2012.


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San Pedro Sun News. “Conch Season Closes Two Months Earlier than Scheduled.” The San Pedro Sun News. 19 Apr. 2012. Web. 20 Sept. 2012. <http://www.sanpedrosun.com/environment/2012/04/19/conch-season-closes-two-months-earlier-than-scheduled/>.


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