At first glance, César Muñoz may not strike as the activist people claim him to be, but the 39-year-old man, his voice as smooth and warm as the Belizean afternoon, has launched a mission to change the way fishers across the country relate to the reef.
As a fisherman himself, Muñoz is no stranger to the coral barrier that runs from north to south and hosts hundreds of fish and invertebrate species, including groupers, snappers, lobsters and conchs. “The reef is where I survive, where I make my living,” he says. “And I’ve been fishing there for more than 25 years.”
During that time, the reef’s health has been compromised, especially in the past few years. Muñoz has seen it decline with each hurricane that hits, the warmer sea temperatures, and the increasing frequency of coral diseases and bleaching. Pollution and coastal development are also taking a toll on the reef’s future, but all these “are things that we cannot avoid,” Muñoz says. So he has decided to take control of the one thing that he knows best: fishermen.
Without proper fisheries regulations or policies, people can deplete the very same fish stocks they so heavily depend on. And when this is combined with a lack of enforcement, illegal fishing rises. This scenario plays out across Belize’s waters, with very similar results: a damaged and emptied reef.
That’s why fishers are working with the government to create a managed access program that will grant them territorial rights to fishing grounds they have used for generations. The measure is the latest effort to curb overfishing and stabilize the valuable fish stock so it can continue to provide, year after year.
But many fishermen are not happy with these kinds of programs and the designation of marine protected areas. “The way they understand it is that the government is taking away from them,” Muñoz says. “And it’s totally wrong; it’s the other way.”
Chairman of the fishermen association in his hometown, Sarteneja, a fishing village in northern Belize, Muñoz is trying to raise awareness about the importance of preserving the reef. It’s not an easy job, he says. “It’s very tough to change the mind of fishermen and make them do something different.” But little by little, they’re starting to get there. And Muñoz is not only finding funds to educate kids and the younger fishers of Sarteneja, he’s also speaking with fishermen along the coast and convincing them to find alternative livelihoods, like tour guiding, in order to alleviate pressure on the reef.
In the end, it all comes down to retaking control of their future. The Belize Barrier Reef has sustained families for generations, but if people fail to protect it, they might lose something more than a good catch. “As a fisherman, I care about the reef because I would like my three boys to have the same thing I had,” Muñoz says. It’s as simple as that.