Sustainable Seafood Delicacies Emerging from Belize

In celebration of Garifuna Settlement Day in Belize on November 19, I enjoyed the best bowl of hudut I have had the pleasure to try — prepared and served at Sandy Beach Restaurant, owned by a women’s cooperative of the coastal village of Hopkins. It was a mild, lightly creamy, coconut infused broth, with a hot habanero pepper included for extra kick. In the broth was a lightly fried half of a snapper and a big mound of mashed ripe and green plantains. A sweet treat of tableta – a fudge-like candy bar made of freshly grated coconut mixed in melted brown sugar and condensed milk, spiced with ginger – was dessert. I ate the meal so quickly that I still regret not pausing to snap a photo in reminder of its delight.

The hudut, as is true with all seafood meals served from this cooperative, used protein fished by locals in nearby blue waters. The cooperative itself is one of the most successful small, community-based enterprises in Belize, owned and run solely by local Garifuna women. They are truly an example for other small businesses – both for the quality of the sustainably-sourced food and service and for a consistency and stability that works to their collective advantage. The prominent place that fishing plays in the lives of all Belizeans is a natural outgrowth of its proximity to the second longest barrier reef in the world, which runs through the territorial waters of the tiny, multicultural nation. No fewer than 500 Atlantic fish species are found here, not to mention a notably pesky Pacific invader, the lionfish. Add three coral atolls into this system – along with a few hundred sand and mangrove islands, or “cayes,” and heart-warming marine species such as manatees, dolphins, and turtles – and it is no wonder that the complex and diverse system attained global recognition in 1996 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The sea, and ultimately the reef, unites the people of Belize in myriad ways. One in seven jobs in Belize is linked to the tourism industry, which is by and large a nature-based and cultural offering. Belize’s small population of 370,000 citizens harnesses this wondrous natural resource, generating revenue largely from tourism and to a lesser extent, the seafood export market. As a recent Frommer’s Travel Guide put it, “Belize’s strongest suit is its seafood.” Locally, the almost 3000 nationally registered fishermen and women drive an active seafood market that reaches the world’s kitchens. Local restaurants that support local tourism are poised to transform Belize’s reef’s treasures into a sustainable source of fine cuisine. Lobster, for instance, is cooked in a variety of fashions locally: barbecued whole on an outdoor charcoal grill; with the meat stewed, curried, or balled into a batter to fry as fritters; or my favorite, grilled and bathed in garlic butter. Festivals held at the opening of the lobster season, June 15th, are celebrated in three villages with historically strong fishing (and, more recently, tourism) economies. You might even find a unique dessert lobster at one of these big culinary events.

So how do Belizeans involved in seafood – whether via harvesting, market preparation, or as a consumer — ensure that they are being responsible stewards of our natural resources? Through richer knowledge, shifts in attitudes, policy engagement, and action on the ground – most often with the close relationship of conservation organizations, including WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society). As far as we can see, the private sector supporting local tourism is ready to back changes on the horizon, including participating in fish buyer applications and certification to identify themselves as cooking with legally and properly caught seafood.

Historically, Belizean fishers purchased a license from the Fisheries Department to operate commercially with access to almost all territorial waters. Today, Belize’s small-scale fishing industry is completely rights-based. This means all legally eligible fishers are vetted by a committee of their peers to work in two of eight geographic zones within the entire Belizean reef shelf and atolls. All licensees have access to the deep-sea area beyond the reef. Fishers choose their favorite zones based on family tradition (fishing is predominantly an inherited skill from generation to generation) or proximity to their local community. Fuel costs are high and many areas are safely navigable only by experience. Our recently inaugurated Managed Access system has integrated fisher participation through their “ownership” in this public resource. Fishers are now an integral part of the decision-making process, with access to and some control of their grounds. We know from experience that by limiting access to fishing areas we can reduce overfishing and encourage the replenishment (and sustainability) of fish stocks. With entry to fishing zones being limited to a set number of fishers, we anticipate that these men and women will feel a greater stake in helping to manage their resources to assure healthy fisheries in the long run.

Belize has two prominent fishing cooperatives, or co-ops. As a complement to Managed Access, one co-op, the local National Fishermen Producers Cooperative Society Limited, is evaluating opportunities to trace products bought from fishers and sold for export. Seafood buyers will know from which zone of Belize’s reef system their seafood was hooked, hand-picked, or trapped, realizing that it was done within the recommended framework, established to reduce overfishing and encourage sustainability. The co-op is also expanding seafood markets with small fisher associations to include higher valued products such as whole Caribbean spiny lobster (versus the lobster tail only). Fishers have traditionally prized the lobster tail, which fetches about US$10 per pound. The meat from the head is brought to shore for local sale at a much lower price. The export of whole lobsters represents a new market for Asia and would enable fishers to expend less effort at sea, therefore reducing personal risk. It also means that there will be fewer juvenile or undersized lobsters harvested, as the size of the tail is not necessarily proportional to the size of the body. In other words, what would be an undersized whole lobster could be beheaded and only the tail brought in, which would meet minimum size requirement.

Fair Trade certification is on the horizon for this cooperative, following the example of Belize’s sugar industry. In a competitive global market, the Sugar Cane Farmer’s Association benefits from Fair Trade premiums for sales, and receives technical and social support aiding members and their communities. Overall, we will see better use of seafood, higher seafood value, and higher payments to fishers. We also involve the tourism and restaurant sector, as Belize has a plethora of small- and medium-sized restaurants scattered along the 386 kilometer coastline and inland that significantly cater to the tourism sector. Fish Right, Eat Right is the newly burgeoning local certification program that intends to highlight enterprises that source seafood responsibly. A media blast is targeting the public and tourists to support the hotels and restaurants that embrace this certification program’s ideals, including identifying alternative seafood options for species that are potentially over-exploited (conch) or, in some cases, threatened with extinction (Nassau grouper). You will soon be able to download the Fish Right, Eat Right app onto your smartphone for your visit to Belize to help you make informed choices.

What’s next to close the gaps? Policy reform. Belize’s Fisheries Act of 1977 has had some amendments over the last 40 years, but not a substantial overhaul. WCS supported an in-depth process with the Belize Fisheries Department to rewrite the legislation, with full participation of the fishing sector and opportunities for public input. It more fully incorporates fisheries management principles that value the whole ecosystem and the role of protected areas. This modern bill is paramount to providing the legal backbone for the initiatives intended to ensure sustainable fisheries in Belize. Strategic engagement with decision makers is the next step to see the bill realized into law.

Adding to that, even though there are 14 marine reserves, not including 13 spawning aggregation sites closed to fishing in the spawning season (December to March), only three percent of the country’s territorial sea is closed to resource extraction. Belize has set a modest goal that 10 percent of its territorial waters be reserved as no-take or “replenishment” zones, meaning all methods of fishing and extraction are prohibited. These zones should further represent the diversity of habitats – from mangrove forest to the open sea and everything in between. Several conservation organizations, fishing groups, and the Fisheries Department have combined forces to gain user support for the initiative. Their joint recommendations will be presented to the national government for endorsement by early 2017. In the meantime, the public has been treated to a soap-opera style radio drama, Punta Fuego, with undertones of best fishing values and practices and highlighting the roadblocks, need for money, and romance among residents of a typical coastal town in Belize.

Belize’s fishing industry brings in about US$10.7 million annually towards the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), with lobster being the primary export, followed by conch and then finfish. To protect this critical sector, we need everyone – from fishers and consumers to the government and exporters – to work together. The rewards and benefits are clear: greater revenue, greater local involvement, greater transparency, greater pride, a greater ecosystem, and greater meals. I for one want to experience a dinner at any local restaurant, like those found in Hopkins Village, or the islands and coastal communities of Caye Caulker, San Pedro, Dangriga Town, Placencia Peninsula or Sarteneja Village, knowing that each component of the Garifuna hudut, Mestizo panades (fish inside a corn patty deep fried), seafood chowder, conch ceviche, or grilled whole lobster, are all guilt-free and sustainable for the benefit of Belize and its people.

As for the troublesome lionfish, until a better solution to its reproductive success can be found, we’ll have to take heart in the fact that this delicate, white fish – very similar to the ever-popular snapper – makes for good eating. It’s served widely here and maybe soon at your local grocery.