Belize fisherman foresaw the collapse of the reef ecosystem 40 years ago

Belizean fisherman Villamar Godfrey. Photo by Clare Fieseler.

Clare Fieseler is currently in Belize interviewing fishers as part of a lab study we have been working on for several years, investigating the effectiveness of fisheries management along the Mesoamerican Reef.  A chance encounter with fisherman Villamar Godfrey eventually led to the revelation that he had appeared in National Geographic magazine in 1969, which was coincidental because Nat Geo has been funding some of our work in Belize, including Clare’s current work there.

I will excerpt some of Clare’s article below, but I urge you to read the full article here at Nat Geo; it is one of the best stories Iv’e read in a while!  (Note Clare is a fellow blogger at ClimateShifts, made the awesome video about ocean plastics we recently featured, and will be starting her PhD at UNC working with Joel Fodrie and me this summer!)

I encountered Mr. Godfrey, as he is known, while talking with artisanal fishermen in Belize. Funded in part by a National Geographic grant, colleague Roberto Pott of theHealthy Reefs Initiative and I have been interviewing active fishers over the past two weeks to assess a recent conservation law. At first glance, Mr. Godfrey seemed too old for our project. I passed him by multiple times while surveying fishers in the coastal town of Placencia.

“He was the first to put on a mask and fins in this town,” a younger fisher gestured. The old man nodded unassumingly from under a shady tree. The other milestones Mr. Godfrey had marked were equally as impressive. He co-founded the town’s thriving fishing cooperative. He discovered many of the region’s “drops” — or fish spawning aggregation sites — which are still productive and, now, closely managed. As the great-grandson of an English pirate, Mr. Godfrey discovered and mentally mapped the locations of the many still-secret pirate wrecks in Belize. He raised ten children and passed on his knowledge of fishing to many of them, as his father had done for him. At 77, he can still skin dive.

Mr. Godfrey’s knowledge of science and the environment is what most impressed me. Of the thirty-odd fishermen I spoke with last week, he was the only one to mention climate change as a threat to Belize’s fisheries. “The North and the South Pole are melting. The temperature is warming up there and it will get warmer here too, which kills the corals that fish need.”

He spoke of threats, both global and national. “The farms ruined everything. The fertilizer and chemicals from citrus (production) is killing our reef. I tell everyone. I even told that to the journalist from National Geographic who took my picture.” Still unaware of this part of his story, I interrupted his train of thought: “Wait, when was that?”

“That was in 1969,” he replied.

One Response to “Belize fisherman foresaw the collapse of the reef ecosystem 40 years ago”

  1. Clare says:

    Thanks for the support, John! There are new unpublished photos that NGS dug out of their archive yesterday after receiving so much interest in the story by their readers. The blog entry has been updated to included these new never-before-seen underwater photographs from 1969. So check it out!

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