At a well attended meeting, held January 27, 1998 of the San Pedro Tourist Guide Association (SPTGA), members were updated on the activities of their Managing Committee.
President Daniel Guerrero, in his opening remarks commented that it may appear that the Managing Committee has been dormant, but since their election on November 14 much had been accomplished. Guerrero said that he had been invited by the Caye Caulker Tour Guides to speak at the inauguration of their newly constructed information center. After attending the ceremony Guerrero said something was in his mind asking him, "Why, if San Pedro is the number one destination in the country, don't we have an information center. Everyone else does. The Tourist Guides have an office that is open every day, but not a visitor's information center. Then I started assessing the properties that we could rent and realized that we could not afford the downtown rental costs as we don't have the income. So I started looking at vacant property on Barrier Reef Drive and thought of the Credit Union property. We researched the property and wrote a letter on December 1 to Mr. Robert Bradley with regard to acquiring it by lease purchase. Letting Mr. Bradley know that the property had been vacant for over 20 years and was becoming an eyesore, and that the SPTGA, with 200 members were applying for a lease purchase to build a center that would benefit the entire community. We also informed Mr. Bradley that almost everyone on the island depends on the tourism industry for their livelihood."
On December 30 we received a response from Mr. Bradley telling us that the property presently can't be sold. The sale of the property will only be possible after the Credit Union Society has been dissolved. He did grant permission to use the property as an information center provided that no permanent structure was built. He granted us the use for one year.
We invited Mr. Bradley to San Pedro and met with him to exchange ideas and to let him know that we felt that since the property was available to us, we felt we needed to build a permanent structure. The idea came up to revive the Credit Union. It would be good for San Pedro, good for the entire community. So that is our plan. To revive the Credit Union. This week, with the assistance of a government surveyor we will establish the markers. The property is 42' deep x 60' wide on Barrier Reef Drive.
A letter to the island business community will be circulated seeking contributions to build the center. Tourist Guides were asked to contribute $20 each to buy 20 concrete blocks.
The first issue on the agenda was Habitat Enhancement - a program to construct an ecological reef bar dome that will support marine life on the island's lagoon side. This project will provide a leeward location for snorkelers and water activities when the water at sea is choppy. It will also serve as an educational area for school children and visitors and increase the marine population. The Habitat Enhancement project will be created by a grant from GEF. The concept proposal has been written and Mr. Phillip Balderamos will be in San Pedro this week to meet with SPTGA and finalize the plan. Members were urged to volunteer to construct the project. Molds will be provided and John Eiley has offered his barges to put the sections into place. The labour must be completed by the Tourist Guides.
The No Wake Zone was next on the agenda - the 1994 By law was read by Vice President Francis Leslie. It states that no person shall operate or allow any operation of a sea vessel at more than 3 knots per hour. Anyone contravening the law shall be liable to a fine of $100. The no wake zone comprises the entire seacoast of the island and the river to the lagoonside.
Leslie asked for donations to replace buoys that mark the zone. He said that more than 20 of the 50 buoys that had been placed are missing. He asked for the assistance of the guides in returning buoys so they can be reinstalled and warned that the buoys would be reinstalled with chains - no ropes or cables - chains, "so if you lose a propeller on the chain, you're going too fast in the zone." To date Dr. Lala, The Belize Bank and Cannibal Cafe have contributed to the buoy replacement project. Leslie said Barry Bowen had offered to place a special buoy that glows in the dark and remarked that if the guides could afford it, they would change to that design.
It was reported that letters had been sent to the Belize City and Caye Caulker guides regarding respecting the no wake zone - to inform them that they are breaking the law and can be pulled over and fined. Signs are going to be placed at the gas stations so all the guides will be reminded, and the Town Board has asked the dock owners to replace the signs on the docks informing people not to snorkel or swim beyond the buoys. There was a suggestion that the signs be changed, that the signs were too negative. It was also suggested that no swimming be permitted. Leslie responded that the law had been written with the swimmers and snorkelers and children in mind - we have to be the ones who are careful. It was also pointed out that the guides should learn from past errors - go slow. A question was raised if the SPTGA would offer classes in seamanship as some of the younger guides were requesting more training. Questions were also raised about night time regulations. The no wake zone is 24 hours a day. At this point John Forman, secretary of SPTGA cautioned the members about the no wake zone, "You know who you are. We know who you are. You speed like hell. All we can do is to warn you. These warnings will stop."
Questions were raised about the reef - "What about the reef - who's in charge of the reef buoys, why aren't they lighted at the cut?" The questioner was informed that there was no buoy at the cut it was a channel marker - and if the marker was taken out there's a lot of tour guides that would not find their way through the reef.
Deputy Mayor Elito Arceo in formed the members that in 2 weeks the town board would have 10 solar lights. "We want to help you - we want to place the lights on coral heads all the way to Journey's End so you can see where you're going at night." Lots of animated discussion followed - "Some American guys come in here and want to drive like hell at night and tell us they know better than we. We never had power lights and we never crash the reef."
Sardines and reef groomers were next on the agenda. Francis Leslie explained to the guides how the reef stays alive. They are two types of fish - reef groomers and predators. The groomers pick and eat algae and keep the reef healthy. They are slow fish and easy to catch - parrot fish, triggers, angel fish etc. The predators or larger fish grouper and snapper are fast and harder to catch. "In the past two months I have seen fishermen filleting blues, parrot fish and Queen angels and selling them to restaurants. We are working with Fisheries to find a way to stop that. We need picture proof, video proof. If we don't stop this our kids won't be having a reef or fish to enjoy." On the issue of sardines - or the lack of sardines - it was reported that the Association and Fishing Committee were trying to find ways to help the sports fishermen. Sardines are so scarce that fishermen have to travel north to Basil Jones to catch them, and many have lost their clients because no live sardines are available for bait.
The problem was loudly pointed out as being Shark Ray Alley. Too many guides are buying sardines to feed the rays and sharks and their catching sardines had depleted the supply for fishermen. "We must find another way of feeding the sharks and rays. We need to collect commercial waste - heads, fins, backbones could be bagged and used to feed the sharks."
Another guide commented that too many guides were catching and holding the sharks and rays to impress their guests. It was suggested that this is not professional or healthy for the animals and that guides who do this should not get a licence.
Complaints were also raised about guides from Belize City and Caye Caulker who just turn their guests loose and do not supervise or caution them about touching and taking coral. The question came up about 2 big airlines who are taking out boxes of live corals and small fish every other day. Much discussion followed and it was rumored that the Minister had granted the licence and that a pet shop in Belize City was obtaining and shipping the goods. The matter will be looked into. One member sadly commented that the guides who don't inform people about touching and taking coral are killing our island. Every time they take a rock, it hurts the reef, the island gets smaller and smaller.
Gerald Leslie questioned about the sardine problem. "What happened to the protest and the letters that were to be sent to the shops asking them not to sell sardines?" He was told that they were going to call them and ask them not to continue. And about the 2 or 3 guides that are catching sardines and selling them for $3 to $5 a bag they planned to call them in and ask them to stop - if they don't agree they won't get a licence. Do you agree? Much discussion followed and it was decided that any member who continues to do this (catch and sell sardines) is affecting the livelihood of other members and they will not be recommended by the Association for a licence. More voices were raised with members saying it's a bigger crisis than it looks. Fences are being built that trap the sardines, mangroves on the back side are being cut, that's where they're born. There won't be any sardines by the time you get around to doing something.
Gerald Leslie informed the Managing Committee, "Your job up front is to protect us. Get out of the office, get the point down - we don't want to hear ‘we wrote letters'. People are coming in here and taking our jobs - do something." Guerrero responded, "We can do that, we can go there and raise hell." He informed the group that many of the meetings they attend are not problem solving meetings, they are planning meetings where a forum for complaints is not entertained.
Gerald Leslie commented "It's been two years, we have the same problems, they're just building up. You're the man - you put it to them. We want to hear "we got this done' otherwise we'll handle it." Francis Leslie responded, saying they were working within the law. "If we hadn't been here and working for you there would have people here not just from the U.S. but from Mexico, Guatemala etc."
Gerald responded, "Laws can be changed. It used to be one or two outsiders now it's 15 or 28. In the past we protested and picketed that large boat that came here. He never came back. We can do this again."
Many comments were made about non-San Pedro operators working on the caye, and why they were allowed to do be in business. Complaints were made about Mexican guides working in Belize's waters and not hiring local guides for tours, boats owned by Americans taking out tourists with no licences and other American boat owners who were conveying tourists and saying that they were just giving rides to friends. Great concern was expressed about Belizean companies who have come to do business in San Pedro and use the members as tour guides and take 25 to 40% from them in commissions. "They don't support the buoy program or belong to the Association. If we don't like the high commissions they use their own boats and people. They just come and take the money and go." It was suggested by the board that a study was needed - the response was "no way - 2 more years, we won't be here."
Norman Castillo of the Tourism Police Unit was present for the meeting. He reported on his experiences with tour guides. "I found out during my patrols that there are too many people per tour guide in the boats. We have stopped some of the older guides and asked to see their licences and they had none so they were summonsed. They just come in and pay their fees to you, get a receipt and are back out on the water." He indicated that many guides have provisional licences because they have not completed their training and that provisional licences are going to be short lived.
"We have so many complaints against tour guides - so we fax the Associations and ask for details. Tourists want to know if they can sue - they say they pay their fees and don't get properly guided or a good tour. We tell them we don't know if they can sue."
You must have your licence on you when you are working. You must give a receipt for your tour - it's the law. We are not here to govern tourists, we uphold every law.
We are answering complaints from tourists who tell us that their guides were drunk or used drugs and encouraged their guests to go diving with them.
Castillo was questioned by the board as to who those guides were, and if they are in the SPTGA they will do something about it. Castillo was also asked why the Tourism Police come to San Pedro waving guns and scaring people. Castillo said all police carry weapons. It was suggested that they conceal their weapons - tourists are fearful of police waving guns. He was also asked if the Association submitted a list of people who they feel are operating without licences,what the Tourism Police would do about it. He said they would monitor the list and seek out the persons. In respect to persons using their private boats to give tours - we will investigate and if they are lying, take them to court.
The members were informed that Hol Chan rangers have the authority to ask to see guide licences.
In other news it was announced that the Belize Tourist Board (BTB) had donated a new marine radio and antenna and mooring rope for buoys. Green Reef presented 25 mooring buoys and 6 rolls of deep rope. Installation of some buoys will take place at Mexico Rocks in February, as well as Tres Cocos, Hol Chan, Shark Ray Alley and the others outside the reef for SCUBA divers. Some buoys are to be installed inside the reef for yachts. BTB has announced an Instructor's Course to be held in April. 4 - 6 persons from San Pedro, 2 from Caye Caulker and 2 from Placencia will be involved. The course will take 8 to 10 days plus two days for testing.
Questions were asked about a boat on the reef this past week and why a report was not made about it, and about the previous accident and why there was no follow up - no charges filed. The consensus was "lots of talk - no action".
In closing, Guerrero reminded the guides about appropriate behavior - not publicly urinating and dressing in a clean and appropriate manner when working. The raffle for a case of oil was won by Carlos Santos.
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