Photo: Fishing fleet in Belize City Harbour © Julie Robinson / TNC

Julie Robinson, Belize Oceans Manager
The Nature Conservancy, ResCA

In a little country like Belize, the opportunity for change is huge! We have fostered strong partnerships across Government, the private sector, NGOs and most importantly, communities – all striving towards a common goal of improving the sustainability and profitability of our fisheries.

The fishing industry is based on a small-scale, artisanal fishery that is made up primarily of sailboats, dugout canoes and small open skiffs that fish the shallow waters of Belize. Our products are mostly caught by hand, free-diving or lobster traps.

With over 500 members, the National Fishers Cooperative (NFC) is the 2nd largest Cooperative in the country and has built a reputation for itself with over five decades of fishing throughout Belize’s tropical waters.

NFC is led by a group of seven commercial fishermen who depend on fishing for their livelihoods. Over the years, they have seen a decline in the fishery, making it harder for them and their members to earn a living. They decided that something must change, and that they would take the lead in creating a better managed and more sustainable industry.

Dugout canoes used for Belize artisanal fishing © Julie Robinson / TNC

Their commitment to sustainability and willingness to make difficult management decisions is what led us to partner with them, to support them in their efforts and to create a model for others in the industry to follow. Their willingness and our knowledge of fisheries management is what led us to identify electronic traceability as one factor that could assist with improving fisheries management in Belize while providing access to premium markets for NFC members.

Transition is a difficult thing for anyone, much less a fishing cooperative in Belize City that is struggling to maintain high standards and strict sustainability criteria in an industry that is becoming overly competitive while fishery stocks are in decline.

Transitioning from hand-written notes to tablets ©Julie Robinson / TNC

My introduction to NFC’s catch data a couple years ago involved deciphering a hand-written legal ledger that only the Plant Manager, Eden Leon, could interpret. Eden knows hundreds of fishers by name and face and which boat they come from. He, along with the Quality Control Manager, Jason Arnold, keep a tight ship and while the yellow ledger still sits on the table, there is now a new tool alongside that.

Today, Eden, Jason, and their staff are using tablets to electronically track all the conch and lobster that is brought to the plant. They are collecting real-time data as it arrives at the Cooperative that links catch to individual fishers and Managed Access regions across Belize. This level of detail has never been captured before in Belize and can be a real game changer in improving both the fishery and livelihoods of these fishers.

For the first time ever, we can see what individual fishers have caught, where they caught it, how much was caught and how it was caught. It also keeps track of all of NFC’s product inventory and it’s an invaluable tool: “The staff is still getting accustomed to the new system but I see that it will be a time saver, resulting in less human errors and allowing us to focus our work on other areas that need attention,” said Eden Leon.

Starting in 2017, we went through a vigorous process, designed and facilitated by Future of Fish, to determine what traceability technology would be the best match for Belize’s fishery and NFC needs. We identified ThisFish, which is a seafood traceability provider that is committed to helping consumers make more informed choices about the authenticity, quality, and sustainability of the seafood they eat. ThisFish has been gathering the eyes of many, as shortly after partnering with us in Belize they were selected by Techstars and The Nature Conservancy to participate in the first evet Techstars Sustainability Accelerator program.

Sitting in the Managers’ office at NFC, we are able to track production by landings to individual fishers and fishing regions with the swipe of a finger and I’m giddy with the thought of how this can change fisheries management for the country and the region. “The installation of the Tally traceability system at the NFC represents a first step in revolutionizing sustainability and management of fisheries in Belize, by enabling access to higher value markets for members, generating data to inform decisions over how to manage fisheries sustainably, and encouraging responsible fishing behavior through financial incentives to fishers,” said James Foley, TNC’s Belize Fisheries Specialist.

By putting electronic traceability in place, the National Fisher’s Cooperative is leading the way in Belize and the region in environmentally and socially responsible seafood production and will be able to share the story of where their lobster and conch is coming from and the fishers who are working hard to catch it. Traceability should lead to better market access for the co-op and ideally result in tangible benefits to their members and Belize’s fishing communities.

said Charles Steinback, Future of Fish Director of Global Operations.
Transitioning from hand-written notes to tablets ©Julie Robinson / TNC
Eden showcasing the new traceability system to the TNC’s Development Leadership Team in the processing plant, one week after installation ©Julie Robinson / TNC

With only one week under their belt and still learning the system, the NFC staff and Eden showcased the processing plant floor for The Nature Conservancy’s (TNC) Development Leadership Team. ‘It was so inspiring to see the marriage of TNC’s core strengths – partnering with community stakeholders like the National Fishers’ Cooperative – and new technologies like the seafood sourcing tracker that add business value and advance sustainability outcomes. This is exactly the kind of innovation needed to strengthen the local economy, protecting valuable natural resources, and ensuring a sustainable food supply. Even better, once tested, these supply chain tracking tools can be scaled around the globe.’ – Justin Greene, TNC Director of Revenue Strategy and Analysis.

As a proud Belizean, my heart is filled with emotion with this ground-breaking move by NFC and being able to share this moment with Elmer Rodriguez, a fisherman for almost 40 years and who has led NFC to where it is today, shows me that mutual respect and values can lead to great things.

Learn more about ResCA’s project in Belize.

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