Diving in Belize: A trip report from the BlueJacket
ighthouse Reef has always been a very special place to Sue and I. It’s an absolute jewel in the Caribbean with fantastic diving. Other than Bonaire we haven’t found any place that compares to it. Three live-aboard dive boats and many day-trip dive shops make their living by bringing guests out here to view the fantastic fish and coral. Between my log entries and talking to people on the radio we’ve done a good job of promoting Lighthouse Reef. Little did I know that would cause problems.
Within the cruising community there’s a group of cruisers who are avid fishermen. Note that I’m talking about spear fishing, not rod and reel. Some of these people have little to no refrigeration and rely upon the sea to feed them. Others simply like hunting fish. The first group typically takes only what they can eat and nothing more. I don’t have many issues with this group. The latter group hunts everything that they can get their hands on, has their refrigeration systems overflowing with fish (you know it’s a real problem when a cruiser complains that they have so much fish that there’s no room for beer in their frig) and either gives away their excess fish or has large group fish-fries which feed the entire anchorage. This is where I have lots of problems.
In past years Lighthouse Reef was lightly visited by the cruising community. This year there have been lots and lots of boats coming through here. At times we’ve had a dozen boats anchored here. Most of these people haven’t spent any time out here, probably aren’t avid divers and don’t understand what a special place it is or how fragile the ecosystem is. Instead what they see is a bunch of boats having a great time together with nightly rotating fish fries and the associated comradery. Hey, the hunters will even take you out and teach you how to spear fish so you can even be a part of the hunting party. And there’s lots of fish. WOW, this is a great place!
There’s lots of things that they fail to realize. For example, most of the fish around here don’t view scuba/skin divers as a threat as typically there’s very little hunting that goes on. As a result you can closely approach them and as the old saying goes, it’s like shooting fish in a fish bowl. Talk about sport! Another problem is that some people believe that the bigger the fish, the better. There’s at least a couple of problems with that. First off, the larger fish tend to be the breeding fish, so when you kill one of them, you kill many generations down the line. Then there’s the problem of Ciguatera, which is a toxin which accumulates in the flesh of large fish. Humans who consume fish with Ciguatera can be afflicted with a variety of neurological problems including difficulty breathing, numbness, paralysis and even death. The worst part is that just like lead or mercury poisoning, it can’t be removed from your system once you get it.
Lets not forget that the diving industry is a large party of the economy in Belize. If you thin out the fish stocks and if the ones that are left are skittish around divers, this could have a major impact on the diving industry. The dive boats are very friendly to the cruising community. Most cruisers don’t have compressors and the dive boats will fill their tanks. For boats, such as us, who spend long periods of time out here, they’ll even purchase fresh produce for us. All that it would take to end this relationship would be to have them find out what some of the cruisers are doing.
This has caused a lot of problems for Sue & I. Some of people who are in the over-hunting, raping the reef, group have been friends of ours for years. What changed this year was that several hunters showed up at the same time and a group hunting mentality took over. Instead of hunting once a week and getting one or two fish, it turned into multiple hunting trips per day generating more fish than could possibly consumed or even frozen. Sue & I attended one of the first fish fries, but then decided that in good conscience we couldn’t attend any more of these. Unfortunately this also extended to the nightly sun-downer parties as the talk typically revolved around the day’s hunting. It was easier to simply not attend than to try to contain my comments and really alienate ourselves. What really pushed things over the top was when some of these people openly talked about their fishing expeditions over the VHF on the frequencies monitored by the boats in the anchorage. We felt that it was being done as a taunt, but the really stupid thing was that it was on a VHF channel that any of the dive boats or park rangers could have listened to! STUPID! STUPID! STUPID!
The anchorage divided more or less into two camps: The Hunters and The Non-hunters. Believe me, the non-hunters had a lot of lively conversations regarding the situation. Points such as how do you handle someone giving you excess fish were debated. Even among the non-hunters some argued that we should just ignore the hunting. I refused to accept this as you are basically condoning the behavior and by accepting the fish you’re more or less an accomplice by providing an outlet for the excess fish. The situation more or less resolved itself when the boats involved with the hunting departed. Perhaps it would have been easier to ignore the situation and retain friendships, but it just ran so contrary to my emotions that I couldn’t ignore it. I love to shoot fish…on film…and these people want to shoot and kill these same fish.
The bottom line is that there are lots of places for people to hunt in Belize. Lighthouse Reef should not be one of them. Taking a few fish every once in a while will not hurt anything, but there’s absolutely no excuse for hunting parties which gather way more fish than can be reasonably consumed. Lighthouse Reef is unique in Belize (and most of the Caribbean) for its fish resources. DO NOT destroy this!