Bonefish and Tarpon Trust presents insights on conservation needs for Belize’s fishing flats industry

Friday, October 4th, 2019

The Bonefish and Tarpon Trust (BTT) organization held an informative presentation for fly fishing guides and interested islanders at the Lions Den in San Pedro Town on Monday, September 30th. The organization presented recent findings on the evaluation of fishing flats in Belize and Mexico, conservation needs in Ambergris Caye and the importance of a sustainable approach to the management of these valuable coastal assets.
The consensus of BTT is that all populations of bonefish, tarpon, and permit in the Caribbean are connected, primarily by larval dispersal. Some of the larvae spawned in one location are transported via sea currents to other locations hundreds, even thousands of miles away, for instance, from Belize to Florida, USA and from the Bahamas to Cuba. BTT has completed its multi-year Bonefish Genetics Study, the results of which provide scientific evidence that the bonefish population across the Caribbean is closely connected. The study, launched in 2014, involved the collection of genetic samples from bonefish (Albula vulpes) in multiple locations spanning the region. With the assistance of anglers, guides, and partners, BTT surpassed its initial target of collecting 5,000 samples, ultimately receiving 13,359 from a diversity of locations, including south Florida and the Keys, the Bahamas, Mexico, Belize, Cuba, Honduras, Nicaragua, the Cayman Islands, Puerto Rico, and elsewhere. Most samples were from Florida, Bahamas, Cuba, Mexico, and Belize. The study’s primary inquiry concerned connections to Florida, with the most intensive analyses addressed in Belize, Mexico, Florida, Cuba, and the Bahamas. The samples underwent thorough analysis by BTT’s collaborating scientists at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC). Of the 13,359 total samples, they used 11,222 for analysis. They identified 1,588 fish as other species, and 549 samples were too degraded for analysis.
Findings showed that the bonefish throughout the Caribbean share genetic composition to a great extent, indicating that bonefish in all the locations sampled are part of a single genetic population. However, it appears that the distance between locations influences the degree of relatedness. Although bonefish in the eastern Caribbean share genetic composition with bonefish in the western Caribbean and Florida, fish in these locations are unlikely to be directly related. In other words, there are probably many generations between eastern and western Caribbean bonefish. The larvae of a bonefish that spawns in Vieques may end up in Honduras. When those larvae become adult bonefish and spawn, some of their larvae end up in Mexico. And when those fish spawn, some of their larvae may end up in the Florida Keys. At smaller geographic scales, the connections are more direct. There appears to be reasonably high connectivity between Cuba and the Bahamas, Belize/Mexico and Cuba, and Belize/Mexico and Florida. Then there appears to be limited direct connectivity between Cuba and Florida.
However, when Belize, Mexico, Cuba, and Florida samples are combined, they are deemed as highly connected. There is also a high level of connectivity among islands in the Bahamas. The results of the Bonefish Genetics Study underscore the need for conservation and improved fishery management at local and regional scales that transcend international boundaries. BTT’s next steps will be to examine more closely the pathways of connection, which will bring into focus the areas that BTT and its partners need to prioritize for conservation.
At the public presentation, Dr. Aaron Adams highlighted the many challenges the coastal conservation in the Caribbean region faces. He spoke on the interaction of fisheries, habitat, degradation, and water quality. He used examples of Florida, USA, Bahamas, Cuba, including the environmental and health issues associated with Florida’s Sugar Industry and poor development planning to show how lessons from these areas can help conservation effort in Belize. “Our hope is for Belize to do something in ensuring proper management and conservation of their fishing flats habitats before it’s too late. In Florida we now have a Governor that seems to care about the environment, so we have started to improve in saving the contaminated/ polluted waters; however, it will take about 15- 25 years to recuperate it to its healthy state,” said Dr. Adams. He further commented on the status of the New River in the northern Orange Walk District which has been heavily affected by large quantities of pollutants. The contamination has caused it to change color, develop a putrid smell and cause the death of hundreds of water species. “You are already starting the contamination of large bodies of waters in Belize like The New River. We should start to take measures in addressing and protecting our fishing flats and other important ecosystems in the country,” he said.
Dr. Adams also shared with The San Pedro Sun that during a recent presentation to a fishing club in Florida, he talked about some of the threats to the flats fisheries in Belize and Mexico. He shared that in Belize, the newest trend among resort developers is building over-the-water walkways and cabins so that their guests can enjoy an immersive experience with the ocean environment. The problem with such development lies with these structures being built on the flats, effectively reducing the habitat available for bonefish, tarpon, and permit. In Mexico, the latest word is of plans to apply this Cancun-style development plan to the southernmost region of the Yucatán Peninsula, with obvious impacts on flats habitats and the fishery. After his presentation, one audience member asked why he should care about what happens in Belize and Mexico. He fishes the flats in the Florida Keys, not Belize or Mexico. “My response was simple: ‘because there’s a very high chance that some of the bonefish he encounters in the Florida Keys got their start somewhere else. In the case of bonefish, data from two recent studies suggest that a significant portion of the bonefish population in the Florida Keys originate elsewhere. It’s likely that bonefish larvae spawned in Belize and Mexico—as well as other locations—eventually end up in the Keys. Therefore, habitat loss impacting bonefish in Belize and Mexico has direct implications for bonefish in the Florida Keys,” he said.
According to Adams, the ongoing acoustic tagging study of tarpon has already revealed an extensive regional movement of the Silver King like from the Florida Keys to Virginia. These movements have included large tarpon as well as individuals averaging 50 lb. Current regulations on tarpon fishing outside of Florida generally fail to provide adequate protection. Making sure there are good conservation measures in place for your favorite local fishing areas is important. But only focusing on home isn’t enough. What happens in one location has a domino effect on the fisheries in countless other locations throughout the region. These are just a couple of examples of why our fisheries are shared resources, which should encourage everyone to be engaged in flats conservation wherever it’s necessary.
BTT’s Belize to Mexico Program Coordinator Dr. Addiel Perez then shared important findings from an assessment conducted on fishery flats and the strategic plans created. A holistic approach includes rivers to the reef, spatial management, quality habitat, and water quality in the collection of data.

In 2014, BTT and Yellow Dog Fly-fishing Adventures co-sponsored the first Belize Flats Fishing Summit in Belize City. The Summit brought together more than 40 guides and lodge owners from throughout coastal Belize, from Punta Gorda in the south to San Pedro in the north, and points in between. They came together to discuss the challenges they were facing in their home waters, and to find a common theme moving forward to better national management of the flat’s resources. One of the top threats they saw to the flats fishery was habitat loss and degradation, a never-ending issue that threatens the fishery. Threats, like overfishing, can be corrected by new management measures and enforcement. But habitat loss is permanent. With less habitat comes less fish, less fish means fewer anglers. Fewer anglers mean less economic input and fewer jobs. The catch and release flats fishery are sustainable. Habitat destruction is not. BTT will continue to help collaborators in Belize fight these ill-conceived developments and work on revising the management approach to one that is sustainable.
BTT’s recent evaluation of the flats fishery of Belize and Mexico indicates that the top priority for conservation is education for fishing guides, fishers, citizens, as well as resource managers because this information helps improve decision making.
The best approach to address the looming threats to Belize’s flats fishery is much-needed science to form a strategic approach to conservation and education. Enforcement alone is not enough. There must be a ‘buy-in’ from all stakeholders, from the fishing guides to anglers, lodge owners and tour guides as well as from Belizeans from all walks of life. Only when Belize realizes the importance of the flats fishery and flats habitats to the future will enforcement be possible. It will take input from an informed Belizean public to enact effective conservation measures. Fortunately, this approach has worked elsewhere—education and socially-based enforcement are common among the islands in the Pacific. To address education needs, BTT is developing educational materials for schools, as well as materials for broader distribution, in both English and Spanish. They will also be interacting with colleagues via numerous workshops, part of many things planned for the coming years.

Well-known San Pedrano and professional sports fishing guide Omar Arceo also spoke to the attendees. “These species serve as an umbrella for the other fishes caught by commercial fishermen and spearfishing guides. They keep the fishing ecosystem balanced and healthier for our livelihoods,” he said.

Just like Ambergris Caye and Belize, fly fishing is one of the major tourist attractions in various countries in the Caribbean and North America. It is an angling method that uses a light-weight lure, called an artificial fly, to catch a fish for sport. The technique is designed to appear to the fish as if a bug or invertebrate has landed on the top of the water or slightly below the water’s surface. The fish caught during sports fishing are protected species (Tarpon, Bonefish, and Permit) and returned to the water.
BTT, a science-based non-profit organization, based in Florida, has been researching the Caribbean for nearly 20 years. This science-based approach started in Florida, but as science generated insights on the biology and ecology of flats fishing, the effort spread to the Bahamas, Mexico, Belize, Cuba, and Puerto Rico. Hence, there is a local and regional focus. BTT’s mission is to protect and enhance critical flats habitats, reverse the decline of flats species, and use research findings to influence policy, educate the fishing community and improve resource management for long-term stewardship. BTT has many ongoing and completed research projects and initiatives that have achieved significant results in its efforts to learn about, protect and restore bonefish, tarpon and permit fisheries and habitats. Very little was known about the three species before BTT and scientific results from those efforts are critical to informing fisheries management and educating the public. BTT has funded and conducted projects that have provided information essential for conservation and led to many tangible conservation outcomes.

The BTT will be conducting public presentations like these in different parts of Belize as well as with governmental organizations to see how they can work together to ensure the protection of these species and their habitat. For more information on the great work BTT is doing, you can visit their website www.btt.org

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