Bright Spots: Activating Local Fishers’ Groups in Belize

Vonetta Dawson and other coastal fishers are organizing to better their livelihoods and restore the Mesoamerican Reef

August 28, 2018

Rare is connecting its Fish Forever approach to the Mesoamerican Reef, where we will support locally-led initiatives to protect the reef system, improve livelihoods for fishers and their communities, and catalyze grassroots efforts from across the region into a movement of community-based, sustainable fisheries management. Rare partnered with the Summit Foundation to identify and share “Bright Spots,” stories of the local leaders and their communities whose inspiring efforts to change community behavior offer real hope for this global biodiversity hotspot and the people that depend on it.



In Dangriga, Belize, coastal fishers are trying something new. They’re catching live lobster using, box traps that sit on the seafloor in wait for the speckled crustaceans, which fishers collect on free dives. Vonetta Dawson, a fisher from Dangriga, says the traps create darkness and a tempting shelter for lobster. “The shade system is easier, it works better for the fishers, it’s cheaper,” she says. The combination of shades and free diving is also more sustainable: when fishers free drive, they can’t go in too deep and only catch the lobster that take refuge in the traps, reducing fishing pressure on adult lobster that migrate to deeper areas. Dawson and other Dangriga fishers are on their second year of live lobster fishing with the casitas.

Change is everywhere in the coastal fisheries of the Mesoamerican Reef. In Belize, new fishing methods take hold, like the casitas. There is growth in the villages, as more new fishers come out into the water each year. Cesar Muñoz, a fisher from Sarteneja, says the rising population he’s observed is bound to affect fishing. “In a village like Sarteneja, hundreds of men are doing this job,” he says. “Villages, towns, countries, they don’t stop growing.” And with the growth, there has been decline. “It’s changed,” says Vonetta Dawson of fishing conditions. “The size of the fish — it’s a little harder to catch the size that we used to catch and bring in.”

Vonetta Dawson and Cesar Muñoz lead their respective community fisher organizations, the Wabafu Fisher’s Association and the Sarteneja Fishermen Association. The associations work to connect and educate fishers, fight for fishers’ rights and improvement of their livelihoods, and carry out marine conservation and management projects. And it is their assumed responsibility to think about how to make fishing better for the whole community. “We have to worry,” says Muñoz. “As a fisherman, I know. I know all my friends — that we are fishing today and not worrying for tomorrow…as an association, that’s the idea. To get concerned about that.”


When we empower local groups such as fishing associations, we are investing where it matters most and where we will have transformational impact.” Leonel Requena, Global Environment Facility


As Rare begins its work with coastal fishing on the Mesoamerican Reef, it will engage with and empower local fisher associations to help stop overfishing and unsustainable use. In Belize, Rare and partners will work from the country’s recently adopted, rights-based fisheries management approach, called managed access. Belize is one of the first countries in the world to adopt the strategy nationwide, dividing its formerly open-access coastal waters into zones of sustainable use, to which groups of Belizean local fishers are assigned based on their location.

Wabafu Fisher’s Association and other groups like it are uniting and representing fishers as they navigate the new management rules. Much of Wabafu’s mission is education: the group holds meetings and exchanges with other fisher associations throughout Belize, like the Sarteneja Fishermen’s Association in the north. With these meetings, fishers from different areas can get on the same page about the issues. “It’s leading to a very good change, because you get a lot of information being in a group,” says Dawson. “Lot of stuff I learned that I didn’t know.”

Leonel Requena, a national coordinator for the small grants program at the Global Environment Facility who has been working with associations in the area, says groups like Wabafu must be included in fisheries reform. “When we empower local groups such as fishing associations, we are investing where it matters most and where we will have transformational impact.” As voices for their fishing communities, fisher associations can become powerful agents of sustainability.