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Kingston, Jamaica-based Rainforest Seafoods has been fined BZD 760,889 (USD 377,413, EUR 344,889) by the government of Belize for possessing tens of thousands of undersized conch.z
The fine, levied 28 July, came after Rainforest Seafoods requested an inspection of a conch shipment at its processing facility in Big Creek, Independence Village, Belize, on 29 June, 2023. The inspection was required for the company to obtain permission to export the product, and found the company in possession of more than 22,827 undersized queen conch – under three ounces in weight.
In a statement, the Belize Ministry of Blue Economy said the fine represented a settlement below the potential fine of BZD 50 (USD 24.80, EUR 22.65) per undersized conch, or BZD 1.14 million (USD 565,416, EUR 516,628). Allowances were made for shrinkage occurring from repeated freezing and thawing of the product and for a 2 percent buffer on undersized conch awarded to commercial exporters. A previous inspection had not uncovered any illegal conch.
“During the process of inspection of products, some products that had been previously inspected and approved for export were inspected again. Consequently, products under the prescribed legal size may have been the result of a number of factors, including repeated freezing and thawing of product,” the ministry said. “The company indicated that the Fisheries Resources Act presently does not consider the processing impact on weight loss after the point of purchase of product from the fishers, in addition to the adverse effect on that  weight loss by the freezing and thawing of product. As a result of this concern, the department is prepared to conduct further analysis and assessment with the processing sector on the act and its regulations to consider this concern for future seasons.”
Rainforest Seafoods has been pushing to expand its exports for years, and recently opened a new processing plant in Saint Vincent in the Grenadines. It is a specialist in Caribbean seafood, including spiny lobster and conch. It opened its USD 2 million (EUR 1.7 million), state-of-the-art seafood processing facility in Belize in 2016 to process finfish, shellfish and mollusks.
There has been a public outcry among artisanal fishers in Belize, who have complained about unfair treatment they have received. The Belize Federation of Fishers pointed to several incidences of local fishers who have received six-figure fines and jail time for possessing much less undersized and out-of-season conch and lobsters than Rainforest Seafoods.
“The situation of the purported illegal haul of conch by Rainforest is a symptom of a deeper problem that the government must work along with the Fishing Industry to remedy. It is the proverbial tip of the iceberg – it is the symptom of a much deeper problem. Illegal fishing and the illegal trade in fishery product is a major problem,” the group said in a statement. “However, the root cause for government in it is leadership capacity is to seek to make the Fishing Industry sustainable in its ecological, economic and social dimensions so that our fishers can continue to make a living: At its core – the issue is one of livelihood for fishers so that the dimensions of employment and income earning and food security and export revenues can continue to pay positive dividends on the balance sheet of the nation!”
Belies Fisheries Department Director Rigoberto Quintana defended the settlement, which he said represented twice the annual budget of the country’s entire fisheries department.
“Althоugh thіѕ іѕ nоt а сrіmіnаl саѕе, іn сrіmіnаl lаw, whеn уоu hаvе ѕеttlеmеntѕ, І thіnk thеу gеt аrоund оnе-thіrd rеduсtіоn аlѕо. Іt іѕ соnѕіѕtеnt, І wоuld ѕау, wіth оthеr lаwѕ thаt аrе аррlіеd іn thе соuntrу,” he said. “
Rainforest Seafoods will be allowed to continue to operate in Belize, according to Quintana, though his department may recommend the company’s export license be suspended.
“Thеу ѕtіll соntіnuе tо bеnеfіt frоm thе lісеnѕе thаt thеу hаvе tо ехроrt lоbѕtеr,” he said. “Wе wіll mаkе rесоmmеndаtіоnѕ tо Саbіnеt rеgаrdіng thеіr futurе lісеnѕе fоr соnсh аnd thеn Саbіnеt wоuld tаkе оr nоt tаkе thаt rесоmmеndаtіоn frоm thе Fіѕhеrіеѕ Dераrtmеnt.”
Тhе undersized соnсh has been donated to food charity programs, according to Breaking Belize News.
Photo courtesy of Belize Ministry of Blue Economy
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