The Status to Turneffe's Commercial Fishery

The Status of Turneffe Atoll’s Fishery

Craig Hayes
Turneffe Atoll Trust


Although the exact status of Turneffe’s commercial fishery is somewhat difficult to quantify, there is consensus among Turneffe stakeholders, as well as fisheries experts, that Turneffe's commercial fishery has declined significantly. 

Each year, the Belize Fisheries Department assimilates catch data for Turneffe and other fishing locations in Belize through information from Belize’s Fishing Cooperatives, however, this data has often been challenged as being incomplete or inaccurate and it has thusly not been widely accepted. Skepticism about the Fisheries Department data for Turneffe has largely revolved around two issues:  the potential for mixing fishing products from Turneffe with product from other atolls and the sale of fishing products outside of the Cooperatives to local fish markets and restaurants.  This paper looks at data from the Belize Fisheries Department which demonstrates a sharp decline in Turneffe’s fishery and then attempts to validate or refute the data using empirical evidence provided by Turneffe’s commercial fishermen through a detail survey.



Commercial fishing has been a center piece of Turneffe’s society and economy for generations.  Lobster, conch and finfish have been the primary capture-fishery products from Turneffe and the Atoll has long been one of the Belize’s major producers. 

According to data from the Fisheries Department, the production of lobster from Turneffe declined from 109,533 pounds in 2004 to approximately 33,381 pounds in 2009 – a 70% decline. During this same period, Belize’s total lobster production remained relatively stable.  As a result the percentage of Belize’s lobster production originating from Turneffe declining from 20.4% in 2004 to 6.2% in 2009.

Turneffe Lobster Production 2004 – 2009


Percentage of Belize’s lobster production from Turneffe

Over this same 2004 – 2009 period, Turneffe’s conch production decreased by 60% from 36,459 pounds to 14,562 pounds.   This resulted in a similar decline in the percentage of Belize’s conch production originating from Turneffe - from 5.4% in 2004 to 2.0% in 2009.


Turneffe Conch Production 2004 – 2009


These statistics are clearly alarming but, as noted above, there has been a tendency by some to disregard them as incomplete or inaccurate.  To obtain a clearer understanding of the Turneffe fishery and either validate or refute this data, Turneffe Atoll Trust undertook an extensive survey of Turneffe’s fishermen.  This involved the sampling of a statistically significant number of both camp fishers and sailboat fishers who fish at Turneffe. The purpose of the survey was to obtain information about how Turneffe’s Fishermen view the health of their fishery.  When combined with the Fisheries data, this survey provided us with a much better understanding of the status of the Turneffe Atoll fishery.   


Survey of Turneffe Fishermen:

Standardized questionnaires were developed for interviews with Turneffe fishermen.  The questionnaires included questions about the status of the fishery as well as fishing techniques utilized and opinions about the needs of the fishery. Because camp fishers and sailboat fishers use different fishing techniques, slightly different questionnaires were developed for each.  Both groups were asked identical questions when relevant.

A list of potential fishers was developed from information received from the Fisheries Department and from discussions with fishers. Names were then randomly selected from the list and all selected fishermen were actively fishing at Turneffe.   The survey included 11 of 23 Camp Fishers (48%) and 8 of 12 Sailboat Captains (75%) who regularly fish Turneffe

Survey Results:

1)      Survey results indicate that Turneffe’s Camp Fishers have been fishing longer than Turneffe’s Sailboat Fishers, and the Camp Fishermen have also been fishing significantly longer at Turneffe.


        Tenure of Turneffe Fishermen (Camp vs. Sailboat Fishers)

2)      Turneffe’s Sailboat Fishers and Camp Fishers are in close agreement about the level of decline in the fishery over the last 5 year. Most Sailboat Fishers surveyed had not fished long enough at Turneffe to comment on the 10 or 15 year decline, but Camp Fishers have observed a 10 year decline of greater than 30% and a 15 year decline nearing 50%.


Observed decline in Turneffe’s Fishery

(Note: Most Sailboat Fishers have not fished at Turneffe for 10 years)


3)      As would be expected, Turneffe’s Camp Fishermen spend 100% of their fishing effort at Turneffe. Interestingly, Sailboat Fishermen from Turneffe indicated that they spend approximately 90% of their time at Turneffe and only a small portion of their fishing time at Lighthouse or Glovers.  When combined, Turneffe Fishermen spend 96% of their time fishing at Turneffe.

Below are the questions asked in our Survey.

For Sailboat Fishers:   What percentage of your fishing time is spent at Turneffe? ______ %

Five of eight sailboats spend 100% of their time at Turneffe. The three remaining boats spend 90% of their time in the atoll. In all, the sailboat fishers interviewed spend more than 96% of their fishing time at Turneffe.


          For Camp Fishers:  What areas do you fish?  

            Three respondents fished the entire atoll; three fished only in the Central Lagoon; two fished the

            Northern Reef, patch reefs and reef; two fished the western reef only; and one fished the

            northern lagoon, northern and western reefs. None fished anywhere outside of Turneffe.


4)      Essentially all legallobster and the conch harvested by both Camp Fishermen and Sailboat Fishermen  at Turneffe is  sold to fishing cooperatives with Camp Fishermen primarily utilizing National Cooperative and Sailboat Fishermen using both Northern Cooperative and National.  Finfish from Turneffe are largely sold through markets in Belize City, San Pedro and elsewhere.

Below are the pertinent questions asked in our Survey.

For Sailboat Fishers: Where do you sell your products?

Sailboat fishers sell all of their lobster and conch at the fishing cooperatives while the finfish is sold wherever the market exists.


For Camp Fishers:  Where do you sell your products – lobster, conch, finfish?

              All respondents sell 100% of their lobster and conch to the cooperatives and their finfish at

              Various  local markets, primarily Vernon St.


5)      Although the reasons for Turneffe’s declining fishery are not addressed in this analysis, this finding from our survey further emphasizes the fact that fishers feel the fishery is declining.  Illegal fishing was overwhelming noted by both Camp and Sailboat Fishermen as the major issue facing Turneffe’s fishery.  Several fishermen, in fact, indicated that as much as 50% of Turneffe’s lobster and conch is harvested illegally.


What things are most likely to damage Turneffe’s fishery?





6)      Both sectors of Turneffe Fishers rate the fishery as between “Fair” and  “Good” although Sailboat Fishers consistently rating it better than Camp Fishers.


Weighted Rating of Turneffe Fishery

(1 = Poor, 2 = Fair, 3 = Good, 4 = Excellent)


According to the Belize Fisheries Department’s Fisheries Statistical Report of 2009, commercial fishing at Turneffe Atoll experienced an alarming decline between 2004 and 2009 with a 70% decline in lobster tail sales to Cooperatives and a 60% decline in conch sales.  In our survey, Fishermen with the longest tenure fishing at Turneffe independently noted a remarkably similar level of decline estimating that the lobster and conch fishery and declined by 50-70% over the past 15 years.

Our survey appears to refute the two most commonly noted reasons for skepticism about the Fisheries Department data related to Turneffe.  We find that 96% of Turneffe Fishermen sell all of their legal lobster and conch through the Cooperatives and none through local markets or to restaurants. Fishermen do acknowledge that a significant amount of illegal product is sold outside of the Cooperatives but this remains a separate issue.  Our survey also found that Turneffe Fishermen spend very little time fishing elsewhere spending an average of 96% of their fishing time at Turneffe. 

Although no catch data is absolutely accurate, it appears that the Fisheries Department data for Turneffe is quite valid and that it should be considered as such.  The two primary reasons for viewing this data as inaccurate or incomplete appear to be erroneous...

This data should also be analyzed through the perspective of fishing effort. The Belize Fisheries Department Statistical Report of 2009 indicates that licensed fishermen in Belize increased from 1,872 in 2000 to 2,759 in 2009, an increase of 32%. And, there has been a significant further increase over the past three years.  The exact number fishers utilizing Turneffe is not available but it is clear that the fishing effort at Turneffe has increased, as it has throughout Belize.  It appears, therefore, that we are looking at a circumstance of declining catches in the face of increasing fishing effort.  This combination emphasizes the need for improved management of the fishery in the near term.


1.       Before an action plan can be formulated to address Turneffe’s declining fishery, the extent of the decline must be realistically determined and accepted by relevant parties.    Belize Fisheries Department data, combined with the opinions of Turneffe’s fishermen, confirm that there is a substantial decline.  Although ongoing evaluation is warranted, this data should be considered pertinent and useful for understanding the condition of the fishery 

2.       Further evaluation of the fishery is warranted to establish base solid baselines before more       vigorous intervention is undertaken.

3.    As there appears to be an alarming decline in Turneffe’s commercial fishery, modern and effective fisheries management methods should be instituted as quickly as possible.  This effort will require the full cooperation of Turneffe Fishermen and it should begin with a more vigorous enforcement program.

4.       These findings reinforce the need to establish the Turneffe Atoll Marine Reserve as quickly as possible as this appears to be the most feasible way to improve enforcement and effectively manage Turneffe’s fishery.