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When fisheries and marine conservation go hand-in-hand: A Local Conservation Leader’s Perspective on Managed Access in Belize

By Blue Parks Intern Maya Green

Featured Image: A handmade hope sign hangs from a tree in Punta Gorda, a small town in southern Belize. Punta Gorda is home to the Toledo Institute for Development and Environment, and Port Honduras Marine Reserve is located just off its coast. Photo Credit: Carolyn Henri

Just off the coast of Central America lies a reef system teeming with life. Snapper swim, lobsters clack, and conch snails crawl along the seafloor of the Mesoamerican Reef, which stretches seven hundred miles from the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico to the Honduran Bay Islands. In the western corner of the Mesoamerican Reef sits the Belize Barrier Reef, a UNESCO World Heritage Site covered by a network of 18 marine protected areas (MPAs) that comprise 32% of Belize’s Exclusive Economic Zone. However, only about 2% of Belize’s protected waters fully prohibit fishing activities and other forms of extraction [1].

Though Belize has an impressive history of marine conservation – the country established its first MPA in the 1980s and hosts a wealth of local conservation organizations – it, like all of the countries that border the Mesoamerican Reef, struggles to balance extraction with preservation.

There are over 3,100 licensed fisherfolk in Belize as of 2023, and the country’s seafood industry generates about 28 million BZD (14 million USD) each year [2]. Though this represents only about 1% of Belize’s GDP, tens of thousands of Belizeans benefit economically from the fishing industry [3]. However, overfishing, largely due to Belize’s open-access fishing regulations that allow unrestricted access to all fishing-permitted zones [4], resulted in severely diminished fish populations in the early 2000s. This depletion prompted amendments to the open-access system, with the goal of allowing fish populations to recover and increasing stakeholder investment in marine conservation.

I spoke with Belizean leader in conservation, Ms. Celia Mahung, to learn how the Belize Fisheries Department collaborated with local conservation organizations to create Managed Access, Belize’s new sustainable fisheries model.

Ms. Mahung was the Executive Director at Toledo Institute for Development and Environment (TIDE) for 14 years. Through TIDE’s management of Port Honduras Marine Reserve (PHMR), an MPA in southern Belize, she worked with Belize Wildlife Conservation Society, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the Belize Fisheries Department on the Managed Access pilot program at PHMR and Glover’s Reef Marine Reserve in 2011.

 Ms. Celia Mahung, former Executive Director at Toledo Institute for Development and Environment (TIDE)

A new plan for fisheries

Managed Access is a system of fisheries management that uses data, such as where fishers live and their historical use of fishing areas within Belize, to issue area-specific licenses. Ms. Mahung explains how the system worked at its inception.

“Traditional users of [marine areas] were identified, they would apply for a license, and there was a committee…that would vet the persons who applied for a license to determine whether indeed they were users of the area. [Then] the committee recommended them to the Belize Fisheries Department who issued the licenses…That helped to protect the area for the traditional users so that they could continue to benefit.”

What makes Managed Access unique is that it marries fishers’ rights with effective marine conservation, encouraging fisherfolk to become stewards of the waters in which they make their living.At its best, Managed Access ensures sovereignty for local users of Belize’s marine resources by giving them priority over non-local fishers and providing a mechanism for engagement in management, thereby reducing competition and incentive to fish illegally [5]. Ms. Mahung explains:

“The whole idea of managed access was [to] aid marine conservation. If there is a system that only gives licenses to [specific] individuals who use the area… then it would help to protect [marine areas] because there wouldn’t be additional persons getting a license who have not [historically] been benefiting from the area…there would be less pressure on the resource at a given time… the idea [is] that there would be less overfishing.”

Large-scale conservation efforts like this are usually more successful when the communities they affect are directly involved [6]. Strategically, Managed Access began as a collaborative effort, not just with local organizations, but also with individual stakeholders like fishers. Ms. Mahung explains that during the pilot program “[TIDE and its collaborators] had numerous meetings with fishing communities to get ideas of what was happening with fisheries, what needed to be done, what they were willing to cooperate on.”

At these community meetings, fishers expressed that their day-jobs had become challenging because of overfishing.

“You heard [fishers] saying, you know, things are not the same: ‘We have to go further and further away to catch fish.’ So, ‘we need to do something’ was [the] general message. They wanted a system that would help to protect their fisheries. So then Managed Access was introduced, and of course some fishers were not pleased. However, the majority of them felt that something had to happen.”

TIDE saw the importance of engaging local fishers in the process of implementation because, as Ms. Mahung notes, “we wouldn’t have done it if the community felt that it was not the best thing to do.”  

Bringing conservation into fisheries management

Under the model of Managed Access, benefits to fisheries and conservation intertwine by getting fisherfolk involved and invested in the success of MPAs within their respective fishing areas. Each of the eight Managed Access areas contains one or several of Belize’s MPAs, a deliberate design that makes clear to fishers that their catch is directly tied to the presence of MPAs within the fishing zone for which they hold a license [7].

The creators and supporters of Managed Access anticipated positive outcomes from the program for both fishers and the environment. Because of its restricted access regulations, fish populations and individual fish size were predicted to increase due to reduced human pressure on the marine ecosystem [8]. With one or several MPAs inside of each Managed Access area, fishers could also benefit from the spillover effect, or the movement of fish from MPAs into fishing grounds that can occur when MPAs are strictly regulated, well-managed, and well-enforced [9].

Ideally, the promise of more and larger fish would act as a motivating factor for fishers to respect regulations and participate in enforcement of MPA protections, reducing illegal fishing and expanding capacity. The conservation goals of Managed Access hinged on this decreased fishing impact, which would allow coral reefs and seagrass beds to recover and flourish, in turn providing habitat to marine organisms, which could then grow larger and more abundant [10].

Fisheries management that brings together conservation and sustainable extraction is becoming more common on a global scale. Around the world, conservation-minded countries have incorporated Territorial Use Rights for Fisheries (TURFs) like Managed Access to foster more sustainable fisheries and contribute to marine conservation efforts. In 2016, Belize became the first country in Central America to implement a TURF system, expanding Managed Access along the entirety of its coast after the success of the 2011 pilot [11]. 

The eight Managed Access areas of Belize. Marine Protected Areas are outlined in white (Fujita et al., 2017)

Barriers to success

The 2011 pilot was largely considered successful, with over 70% of fishers reporting larger catches and a 60% reduction in fishing violations after only two years [12]. But after its expansion in 2016, the Managed Access program saw more mixed results. Successful management often hinges on funding, of which, Ms. Mahung explains, there was simply not enough. In reference to the large-scale expansion of Managed Access, she says,

“We were not…fully prepared for the rollout financially…there was not enough investment [throughout] protected areas to get communities on board and for them to understand what Managed Access was about and how it could help to protect their [fisheries].”

Recent studies show that Managed Access has achieved some successes but struggles with maintaining consistent co-management efforts. For instance, a 2019 survey found that the 2016 expansion came with an increase in fisher understanding of the program’s requirements [13], but a stakeholder workshop report released this year revealed that the fishing community at large does not feel like their voice matters in fisheries management.

During workshops with the Belize Fisheries Project team, composed of a group of experts led by the Environmental Law Institute, fishers lamented the lack of transparency during fisheries consultations with both the government and non-governmental organizations. “Inclusion goes beyond just listening sessions,” the report writes, referencing comments shared by fisherfolk at the workshops. “[It] means that fishing communities are true contributors to and partners in decision-making” [14].

When asked about these barriers that stakeholders face in fisheries co-management, Ms. Mahung said, “I think it has to do with identifying the right communication channels to share their issues, because there are issues about the management of areas. There are issues of illegal and trans-boundary fishing…sometimes [fishers] feel like NGOs and the government create no-take zones without enough of their input, and they are impacted [negatively].” According to her, for fisherfolk to support conservation efforts and abide by management regulations, they first must feel that they have a voice in the matter.

Hope for the future?

So, where does Managed Access go from here? Ms. Mahung tells me that the Belize Fisheries Department is working on an evaluation of the program considering its recent shortcomings, many of which were exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic, when enforcement of marine regulations lapsed.

Now it’s up to the Belize Government, conservation NGOs, and local communities to realize the promising potential of Managed Access evidenced by its pilot in 2011. To ensure success at a large scale, both communication and true community inclusion in fisheries management will be needed to reach Belize’s ambitious conservation goals.

Furthermore, sufficient funding will also be essential. Promise lies in the Belize Fund for a Sustainable Future, created in 2022 under Belize’s Blue Bond agreement to foster the growth of national marine conservation programs and a sustainable blue economy. Through this fund, millions of dollars have already been apportioned to the Belize Fisheries Department for improved fisheries management and governance.  

Despite the immense task ahead of improving a country-wide management system, Ms. Mahung remains optimistic about her nation’s strides towards sustainable fisheries tied to conservation efforts. “Though we have numerous problems in Belize with fisheries, we are way ahead [of many Central American countries] in terms of management effectiveness… we just have to keep doing more and finding time to communicate with our fishers.”

About Maya Green: Maya is a rising junior studying Marine Biology and Scientific Communication at Stanford University. Born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, Maya grew up with a deep love for the ocean and has been fascinated with temperate marine ecosystems since her high school days. She spent a summer studying kelp forest density in the Monterey Peninsula and plans to continue her research pursuits at Hopkins Marine Station throughout her college career. Maya aspires to earn a PhD in marine ecology and continue following her passion for making science accessible and interesting to the general public. In her free time, she loves writing prose and poetry, singing with her acapella group, and, of course, taking long walks on the beach.