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Radio drama encourages Belizean fishers to follow the rules

A Punta Fuego voice actor reads off the script. Photo by J. Sanchez for WCS.

A Punta Fuego voice actor reads off the script. Photo by J. Sanchez for WCS.

  • The Belizean radio show “Punta Fuego” teaches local fishing communities about fishing regulations.
  • Listeners can phone in to the show’s “Talking Fuego” segment and interact with hosts and conservation experts.
  • The show aims to earn fishers’ support for the expansion of “replenishment zones.” In April, the government approved these new strictly protected areas to give marine species a break from fishing pressure.
  • Critics say the show doesn’t address a wider problem: fishers won’t follow regulations that the government does not enforce, even if they understand the purpose.

“Punta Fuego, good evening.”

The smooth voice of DJ Armin Arana emanates from the radio on “Talking Fuego,” the call-in segment of “Punta Fuego,” as he greets a caller from the coastal village of Hopkins, Belize. This episode of the radio drama features the main character, Richie, arguing with his girlfriend, Shawna, who pressures him to bring in money to support her exorbitant spending habits. To get cash fast, Richie decides to fish illegally for out-of-season lobster — even tho­ugh his father always told him to make an honest living. Callers dial in to the show to weigh in on what Richie should do.

“If she can’t really love him, he could have just walked away instead of risking his freedom for her,” says the caller. “There’s many fishes in the sea, if he’s really a fisherman!” At the other end of the phone line, the caller’s friends erupt into laughter, causing Arana and his co-hosts to chuckle, too.

Punta Fuego was developed by the NGO Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Belize, in conjunction with the New York-based communications nonprofit PCI Media, to encourage fishers to respect fishing regulations. Belize is a small Central American country known for its rich coastal waters and reefs designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The show, named for a fictional fishing village, has been running since 2015 and is currently in its third season. It follows a strategy similar to another radio show by WCS and PCI that encourages people in Nigeria to protect critically endangered Cross River gorillas.

Purple sea anemones on the Belize Barrier Reef, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Image by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay.

Ralna Lewis, assistant director of WCS Belize, said Punta Fuego was started to build support for an expansion in replenishment zones, strictly protected areas designed to give marine species a break from fishing pressure. The expansion was passed into law in April of this year, nearly tripling the country’s protected waters from 4.5 percent to 11.6 percent of its marine territory. WCS Belize collaborated with the Belize Fisheries Department and other NGOs to select the sites for these new protected areas through a series of scientific surveys and consultations with local fishers. (Lewis declined to provide Mongabay with a map of the replenishment zones, saying it is currently only available to policymakers and fishers.)

“We especially wanted to target our fishers while at sea, hence radio was the best option,” she told Mongabay. A team of local writers went into fishing communities around the country to make sure Punta Fuego would connect to the target audience. They focused on details, from local slang to the communities’ unique problems, such as losing family members at sea.

“I listened to their stories and their wives’ stories but paid more attention to how they felt about everyday-life situations of living in a village,” said show writer Jose Sanchez. He added that the connection between the depletion of fish stocks and the loss of income isn’t always obvious to fishers. “That is where the radio drama enters their living rooms and fishing camps with the ‘edu-tainment’ method,” he said.

A radio hangs on a Belizean fishing vessel. Photo by J. Sanchez for WCS.

Sanchez said the show is making an impression on Belize’s fishing communities. “A fisher at the Conch Shell Bay fish market wasn’t too sure how he felt [about the show], but he made me know that his daughter wanted him to be more like Richie … one of our characters that transitioned to being a good fisher,” he said.

“Luke! Don’t act stupid! What are you doing in a replenishment zone?” shouts reformed Richie in season two of the show, telling his friend that he doesn’t want to get caught again. The lobster scheme had landed the pair in trouble with the Belize Fisheries Department. Richie explains that the zone is like a “savings bank” for fishers: “deposit” fish now, get bigger fish (and money) later. But his message comes too late: an enforcement vessel appears on the horizon. The duo lets out bleeped profanity, and the sound of water sloshing against their boat grows louder as they paddle desperately out of the no-take area.

Punta Fuego has been a main vehicle for WCS to communicate with the fishing public. Stories like this one are meant to convey that fishing in replenishment zones is not just a punishable offense, but one that robs the community of future earnings.

Punta Fuego voice actors record a scene for the radio drama. Photo by J. Sanchez for WCS.

However, not all fishers are convinced of the show’s ability to encourage sustainable fishing. Nigel Martinez and Dale Fairweather, the director and treasurer of the community conservation organization Belize Federation of Fishers (BFF), gave their opinions on Punta Fuego in a call with Mongabay.

The pair said that the real issues in Belize cannot be addressed solely through education. “The fishers know the regulations,” said Fairweather, himself a fisher with 40 years’ experience in the industry. “I think [the messages] get lost … they are not paying attention to the bigger picture.”

“Some of the guys listen to [Punta Fuego] just for entertainment…to get a laugh off of it,” Martinez said.

Sharmane Garcia, director of Punta Fuego’s third season, said participation in Talking Fuego proves listeners do pay attention to the educational aspects of the show. “The idea was not to bombard the audience with messages of dos and don’ts but rather deliver them subliminally,” she told Mongabay, adding that she felt the program had accomplished its goal.

WCS Belize conducted surveys to determine how Punta Fuego affected the audience. In numbers provided by Lewis, up to 53 percent of Belize’s fishers listened to Punta Fuego and 66 percent to Talking Fuego. By the end of its second season in 2016, listeners were more likely than non-listeners to know that protected areas were marked by buoys and that joining a fishing association could help them negotiate higher prices per catch.

Fishing off the coast of Ambergris Caye, Belize. Image by Ken Douglas via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).

For Martinez and Fairweather, the main problem with Punta Fuego is not what the show is trying to accomplish, but rather that it paints a false picture of regulation in the wider fishery. They said that the show portrays a system that doesn’t actually exist, in which fisheries officials regularly enforce rules and hand out punishments.

“A lot of the [illegal] things that are happening [in Punta Fuego] are real, and nothing is being done about it,” said Martinez.

Their critique boils down to whether creating a clear understanding of laws is enough to motivate people to follow those laws. For Fairweather, the money spent on the show could be better spent enforcing regulations: he said the fishers will not change their behavior unless there is a threat of actual consequences.

“What I can say is, out at sea, there is next to no enforcement,” said Fairweather. ”So you can have all the drama and all the talks you want, but if there is nobody out there to enforce the rules and the regulations, the fishers will continue to do what they want.”

WCS Belize has also previously cited limited enforcement capability as a major barrier to the country’s conservation efforts, including protection of the critically endangered Nassau grouper (Epinephelus striatus). The BFF officers argue that regulators shouldn’t rely on “good” conservation-minded fishers struggling to make a living in what they describe as an increasingly crowded industry.

“I think it’s a money issue,” Fairweather said. “It is hugely expensive right now to go and fish. And the fisherman will do anything necessary to make back that money, and to take some money home.”

Fishers are faced with a prisoner’s dilemma. If some follow the rules and others don’t, the fishery is still depleted (albeit potentially to a lesser degree than if nobody complied), but the rule-followers bear the financial burden of a reduced catch without receiving the benefit of healthier fish populations. Whether a radio show can change fishers’ habits enough to make a difference remains to be seen.

A brown pelican floats on a coral reef in Belize. Image by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay.

Banner image: A Punta Fuego voice actor reads off the script. Photo by J. Sanchez for WCS.

Ashley Stumvoll is a Washington, D.C.-based environmental writer with a passion for reporting stories that connect readers to the human dimensions of conservation.

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