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The remains of the Mary France

On my early morning Kayak trip today, I encountered this derelict hull of a boat named the Mary France.

I’ve seen this corpse over the years sitting on a shoal in an area called Tarpon Bay to the north of the Haulover Bridge, slowly decomposing as nature’s elements invade its fiberglass hull, and the salt disintegrates its metal works.

Mary France, now deceased, died as a result of a chronic case of redundancy.  It is survived by a number of small pangas with fishermen that catch shrimp in the early dawn, in calm coastal bays just like this, following most northers, using hand thrown nets; the old fashioned way.

Yes, Mary France was a Shrimp Trawler.

In December of 2010, the Belize Government took the unprecedented decision to ban all forms of Shrimp Trawling in Belizean waters.  This ban came along with assistance from the NGO, Oceana who purchased the two trawlers owned by Northern Fisheries Cooperative and decommissioned them, setting the stage for a more sustainable harvest of wild caught shrimp in our waters.  Mary France, arrested and charged for murder, was sentenced to an eternity in this calm shallow bay, left to die and to be consumed by the very nature that she once defiled.

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Tarpon Bay

As I paddled by the remains of Mary France in the quiet, deathly calm Sunday morning, I could not help but reflect on the destruction that this rotting hulk has caused on our marine environment.  The direct cost of shrimp trawling in medium-depth water, as was practiced in Belize, is astounding.  The by-catch of these monsters as they scraped the ocean floor with their tentacles of death included coral reefs, juvenile fish, turtles, and a myriad of sea life that occupy our reefs, while destroying countless habitats for traditional fisheries.  If Mary France had a soul, there is little doubt that it’s met its maker, and that it’s afterlife is surely spent in the depths of hell.  This mass murder of innocent species and its contribution to the scarcity of catch by traditional fishermen surely cannot go unpunished.

As I paddled further into the bay, next to an abandoned dredge pipe, serving its own sentence caked with barnacles, on a neat arc from the dense mangroves lining the coast, I see the other marine mass murderer. This perpetrator, lurking in this graveyard, itself reaping the by-catch souls of the some of the same species that Mary specialized in taking.

This murderer, a lot more stealthy and subtle, the Gill Net, is wreaking havoc on our waterways and river mouths.  Just in this bay alone, I saw no less than three strings of nets, hiding beneath bobbing floats of styrofoam and plastic, preying on unsuspecting tarpon, snook and the unlucky boater’s outboard lower unit.  This same story gets worse as one travels the coastal deltas of the Sibun and its tributaries, the Manatee river, Mullins River, and all our great waterways once teeming with schools of snook, tarpon, bay snook, mullet and the like.   In the pristine atolls of Turneffe, Lighthouse and Glovers, the flats that yield countless income from catch and release fishermen in search of the next Grand Slam, livelihoods are severely threatened by unscrupulous gill net fishermen and their indiscriminate killing devices.

The cry has been out for a total ban on gill nets in the Belizean waters for several years, and yet these menaces continue to roam free.  While the Fisheries Department tries in vain to allow only licensed gill nets to be deployed, the reality is that there are not enough resources to police their use.  Like the scourge of unlicensed firearms that are used to commit murders in our communities on practically a daily basis, these killing instruments continue their reign of terror against innocent sea life.

I was told recently that the reason for not banning them is that the fishermen that depend on them for their livelihood will be displaced, and that it is the responsibility of the government to ensure that this does not happen.  Perhaps I am a bit dense, but I cannot imagine why lazy ass fisherfolk who prefer to lay death traps instead of actually going out to catch fish should be protected.  Just as our hardworking conch, lobster, and grouper fisherfolk respect the enforced seasonality of catch, likewise the owners of these nets should be forced to adopt a more sustainable harvest of marine resources.

I must applaud the Belize Sport-fishing Association for its lobbying in trying to get a ban of gill nets implemented.  We need to encourage NGOs to take similar action as was taken in the case of the Shrimp Trawlers to push for this ban, but more importantly we must work as citizens to refuse purchase of fish caught in gill nets.  As responsible citizens, we need to investigate the supply chain of how the food we eat gets to the markets that we shop, and we must demand responsible and sustainable harvest of our natural resources.

Nature has a way of getting back at its abusers, ask Mary France