One day in December, the residents of the seaside village of Punta Gorda in Belize looked out to the horizon and saw something unexpected: Jamaican fishing boats. They had arrived, unannounced and without permits, to fish in Belize’s diverse waters.

Many of Punta Gorda’s local fishermen still work the shallow waters inside the Belize Barrier Reef from individual canoes using age-old methods to provide lobster, shellfish and reef fish for Belizeans, as well as a small but thriving export business. The Jamaican boats, with more sophisticated commercial gear, offered no such promise for the local economy or the continued sustainability of Belize’s fisheries.

A few unpermitted Jamaican fishing boats may seem like a local hurly-burly, and after an uproar the boats were turned away by Belizean authorities. But the fight to protect Belize’s waters from exploitation has just begun.

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Other countries with larger fleets, namely Taiwan and Spain — Europe’s largest and most aggressive fishing nation — have already approached the government of Belize about moving into the deep waters beyond the Belize Barrier Reef.

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One of the ecological jewels of the Western Hemisphere is now clearly at risk. Belize has no policy in place to protect itself from foreign nations coming in and fishing out its waters, which are currently so untouched that we don’t really even know what kinds of seafood — or exotic wildlife or rare habitats — might be there. The same situation unfolded in the last half of the 20th century off the coast of West Africa when Asian and European fleets won agreements from local governments that allowed them to decimate both wildlife and local fishing economies. What was once a hotspot of marine diversity and a source of food for Africans was irreversibly damaged.

You might not hear about the situation in Belize in the news because, for the most part, it hasn’t been made public. I know about it because my organization, Oceana, opened its Central American office in Belize City last year. I’ve been assured by Dean Barrow, the prime minister, that no Jamaican deal will move forward, and my Belizean colleagues are pushing for a comprehensive policy to protect the country’s waters from exploitation by foreign fleets.

Belize’s reef system is part of the great Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the largest after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, and we must ensure a healthy future for the people and wildlife that depend on it.

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