Photo: Rigoberto Quintana, Fisheries Administrator, signed a settlement agreement with the representative of Rainforest Seafoods
The Belize Federation of Fishers (BFF) has said that according to the Fisheries Act, Rainforest Seafood should not engage in any fisheries activity until the imposed penalty is paid in full.
by Marco Lopez
BELIZE CITY, Wed. Aug. 2, 2023
A patchy, yet startling press release that was issued last Friday by the Fisheries Department, informed the public that Rainforest Seafoods Ltd. has agreed to pay the Department a settlement of BZ$760,899 for the vast quantity of undersized conch found at their processing plant in Big Creek, Independence. At the end of almost a month of inspections, 22,827 pieces of undersized conch were identified – the largest discovery of such illicit catch in recent memory. With the usual fine for undersized conch being $50 per piece, the company could have been hit with a $1.14 million fine – or face jail time, as is the reality for local fisherfolk found with illegal catch.
But the principals of Rainforest never made it in front of a judge to be read charges and give a plea of their guilt or innocence. They admitted to having committed the violation, as outlined in subsection 85(3) (a) of the Fisheries Resources Act, which governs the administrative proceeding that led to the settlement with the company. 
They have been in negotiation with the Ministry of the Blue Economy and the Fisheries Department directly, largely to justify why the illegal seafood was found in their processing plant. Nigel Martinez, Director of the Belize Federation of Fishers (BFF), said that this is the first time he has seen the Fisheries Department engage in administrative proceedings in recent memory. 
Rainforest Seafood Ltd., through their attorney, Godfrey Smith, pressed the Fisheries Department and eventually convinced them that a large quantity of the underweight conch had lost their mass (and their size thus fell below the minimum legal measurements) as a result of freezing and thawing. Longtime fisherman and chairman of the BFF, Dale Fairweather is not convinced by this argument. 
 “From a fisherman’s perspective, right, the problem weh I si wid this thing is that when di fisherman harvests the conchs and have it eena ih box fi wahn four, five days, ih already drain and lose ih water weight, so how they wahn could use that after the fact. You understand mi? When you catch the product out at sea, and you have it eena yo box fi wahn four, five days, water loss already happen; so, the fact is that if they have these undersize, they were receiving it undersized,” Fairweather said. 
 Martinez outlined that this is the position of the Federation. The Technical Advisor to the BFF, George Myvett, questioned whether any witnesses or prior studies were utilized by the Fisheries Department to confirm the legitimacy of the company’s claim. For him, the entire process leaves more questions than answers. 
The Department, in its press release, stated that “extensive deliberations” took place on the matter, which provided an opportunity for a number of concerns to be raised on the part of the processor. Besides the claim that freezing and thawing reduced the weight of the produce, it was noted that some products were already previously inspected and approved for export.
We reached out to the company and the Fisheries Department to find out what evidence is available to confirm that such shrinkage was the reason for the illegal size/weight of the conch, but received no reply from the parties.
On Friday, the Fisheries Administrator, Rigoberto Quintana, and a representative of the company, who was unnamed in the Department’s release, signed on to what Quintana called a “compounding agreement” under the Summary Administrative Proceedings. He said that the process was guided by the offices of the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP) and the Attorney General, both of whom advised on the settlement figure.  
The Summary Administrative Proceeding is governed by the Fisheries Act subsection 85 and 86. Section 85(4)(a) mandates that a person who has agreed to the process should “not engage in any activity within the scope of the Act until the penalty has been paid in full.” 
 BFF’s Director, Martinez, believes the law is clear that ”any activity within the scope of the act” includes the export licenses for lobster – which Fisheries Administrator, Quintana, has said the company “still continues to benefit from.” 
 The company has reportedly agreed to pay the settlement within 12 months, a period in which the BFF believes the company should cease all its fisheries activities in Belize.
It is being claimed that a scientific process guided the calculation of the settlement – which reduces Rainforest Seafood’s liability by almost BZ$300,000. In outlining the methodology used to arrive at the settlement, Quintana told a local television station, “There was the question of possible shrinkage during the thawing process. The evidence that we have there were thaw that 2 times during the process and giving the benefit of the doubt in the negotiation agreement, we looked at the 2.9 weights that we had in the sampling forms and we came up with 8.2% of that. When you add those 2 figures you come up roughly about 33% plus. So, it’s like one third reduction.” Despite those claims, a “renk” taste has been left in the mouths of local fisherfolk and the public, many of whom believe that the wealthy company used its resources and influence within the government to circumvent what should have been a message-sending penalty.
The activities of processing plants and small-scale fisherfolk are governed by the same fisheries legislations. Small-scale fishers oftentimes are hit with large fines and face significant jail time when found with illegal catch. The large processing companies, according to Quintana, freeze their seafood, unlike fishermen, whose catch is usually inspected fresh. If this is accurate, large-scale fishing companies, who mainly export our marine resources, have been afforded the leeway to claim shrinkage due to freezing and thawing.
The Fisheries Resources Act has never considered this, and the Fisheries Department is only now “prepared to conduct further analysis and assessment with the processing sector on the Act and its regulators to consider this for future seasons.”   
The undersized conch that was seized from the company will be donated to feeding programs across the country, according to Quintana. The Belize Federation of Fishers calls for full transparency and accountability in the management and distribution of the produce. 
We reached out to the company, Rainforest Caribbean, which describes itself as the “Caribbean’s seafood authority” for comment via email and phone, but they failed to reply to our numerous inquiries.
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