A community effort of West End dive shops, Roatan Marine Park, Tourist police and Port Captain strengthens effort to protect the island reef from poachers and visiting boats and divers. One of the more damaging recent poaching incidents took place on Sunday, December 5, with a Belize based catamaran “Quo Vadis”.
“I saw a diver with a spear, sticking it into the reef,” says Marco Alvarado, a dive instructor from Coconut Tree dive shop, who first spotted the spear fishing divers underwater. “Then I saw that he [a diver] had a bag with fish already in it. So I swam up to him and said ‘No! No spear fishing!’ but he just swam away.” Alvarado surfaced and quickly contacted the authorities on shore. “We contacted Reef Gliders [dive shop], the boat captain came in and boarded the [suspected] boat. The tourist police helped out. It was a community effort to stop these poachers,” says Alvarado. Some of the fun divers on board Coconut Tree dive boat videoed the poachers and provided evidence that allowed the Port Captain to board the boat.
“They hid the bag with three large snappers near a mooring,” explained Nick Bach, of the Roatan Marine Park. The incident took place at “El Aquarium,” one of the most dived dive sites on Roatan. “It wasn’t exactly in front of the offices of the Marine Park, but not far off,” says Bach.
Eight divers involved in the poaching and captain Rafal Biernacki were on-board of “Quo Vadis,” a 41 foot Belize based catamaran that does regular charters between Belize and Bay Islands. “They damaged the spear gun on purpose, hid it and told us they found it in the water. They all wore gloves, which is already illegal,” said Bach.
One spear gun was confiscated and a full set of dive gear was also taken away. “Originally they were to pay a fine $5,000 to the Port Captain, but the process would involve Tegucigalpa and likely to take months to settle if it ever happened at all. Instead they were made to pay a smaller amount in financial compensation towards Marine Park improvements,” said Bach. In the end, the boat was made to pay a “financial compensation” towards Marine Park improvements in the amount of $1,000.
“It’s infuriating. They told us all these lies,” said Bach about the nine Polish nationals that according to Marine park officials repeatedly lied and hid evidence of their spear fishing in Roatan Marine Park. “It felt I was dealing with a Polish mafia,” said Bach about how a “6′-2” crew delivered his gear to the port captain. Bach hopes that in 2011 new management plan and new bylaws should be instituted that would address the arbitrary nature of fines placed on poachers.
Each person caught poaching in the Roatan Marine Park can be fined at least Lps. 500 of a municipal fine and sentenced to an overnight in jail or community service. According to Bach, each poaching case is different, and some foreigners are allowed to do community service, while most locals sent to spend 24 hours in jail. According to Roatan Marine Park, in 2010, there have been 46 incidents resulting in 25 people going to jail and 11 doing community service. “If they are too old, too young, or just desperately trying to feed their families and not their crack habit, we recommend community service. It is more of a benefit to Roatan to have someone spend a day removing trash,” said Bach.
Bay Islands Voice was contacted a day after the incident by Captain Biernacki, and told by him that while there was a spear gun on board, no fish or lobster were speared.
This incident is a third one in a November week involving foreign registered vessels that come to Bay Islands temporarily. “Two incidents with French people and one involving Polish nationals,” said Bach.
While Marine park allows, even encourages using a spear to fish for lionfish, it enforces laws protecting all other marine life on Roatan. Since September 2009 Marne Park has sold around 100 Hawaiian swings that can be used only to hunt Lionfish, an invasive fish that is a growing threat to the Roatan reef. The yellow swing costs Lps. 500 and includes a one-year license to hunt Lionfish in the park water.
When a person is caught illegally hunting in the waters of Roatan Marine Park they are not only fined, but their gear is confiscated. The Roatan Marine Park 2010 records show a long list of Police confiscated gear: 32 masks, 15 sets of fins, 9 spears, 6 spear guns, 6 lobster gaffs, 6 knives, 2 fish/lobster traps, a net and one set of dive gear. According to Marine Park 110 live conch were confiscated and relocated. Around 80 dead lobster, 60 dead conch, 45 dead fish and 10 dead seahorses. [/private]