By RASHAD ROLLE
FEARS have been raised over the future of the fishing industry by local fishermen who are calling on the government to ramp up its fight against poachers.
The Tribune was told yesterday that poachers from the Dominican Republic are increasingly fishing during closed season – leaving fewer fish for law-abiding locals who fish during open season.
“We’ve been talking about this for the last 10 to 12 years and it’s just getting worse,” said Emile Knowles, a Long Island fisherman who said that of the 20 days in every five weeks that he fishes, he encounters poachers on at least 14 days.
A Bahamian delegation travelled to the Dominican Republic for talks about a bilateral agreement to address the issue amid the government’s approval of a $200 million investment in new patrol boats and port facilities for the Defence Force earlier this year.
Nonetheless, when asked for a comment yesterday, Foreign Affairs Minister Fred Mitchell said: “I would think in terms of enforcement, the issue is really resources. What happened is the agreement between the Dominican Republic and ourselves is largely finished; one or two things the lawyers have to do. In any event, fishermen should contact the Defence Force, they are responsible for guarding the waters and if they see poachers call the Defence Force and they’ll go out and guard the waters.”
However, local fishermen said Defence Force officers are reluctant to respond to their alerts about poachers and conduct poor investigations when they do.
“Poachers are not their priority,” said Keith Carroll, 52, of Faith Avenue.
“Haitians, they are their priority. When you call the Defence Force and say you see some Dominican boats, they go and if they don’t see them, they go right back. They don’t wait or be strategic.”
As one who frequently raises attention to the plight of local fishermen, Mr Carroll said he finds that meetings with government and Defence Force officials feature “lots of talk, no action.”
“Every meeting is the same thing – talk, talk, talk,” he said, adding: “This is the only industry Bahamians own, but the government is not protecting it. I saw poachers in April, in May, in June and I heard them on the radio. You know how bad it feels when the season closes for you and they out there fishing?”
Every month officers go to the bank they could collect their cheque. But when these poachers out there catching fish all through the year, I can’t make no money. We need to see Dominican boats tied up at Potters Cay dock or tied up by the Defence Force.”
Mr Knowles agreed, saying: “Everything boils down to enforcement. There’s no police and no Defence Force out there to enforce the laws. I tried to contact the Defence Force on Thursday and no one answered the phone and when you call them it’s like they screening you for drugs. They ask you a million questions. I saw four boats out there recently and I don’t know where to report it to.”
“If they could keep these Dominicans off the bank a lot of revenue could be coming because this is a serious situation. They have no respect. They fish groupers, crawfish, anything all year round. It’s only the Bahamians suffering.”
The fishermen said they also fear fishing alone because of the threats poachers pose.
“I approached them one day and they told me ‘get your mother (expletive) from around us; Y’all can’t do anything about it Bahamas,’’ said Mr Knowles, with Mr Carroll adding: “About a few years back I was out there and they run me. They break up your traps. It ain safe out there. They normally travel with like four boats together. If you out there by yourself it ain’ safe.”
“Right now we got trouble to pay our expenses. If a persons used to make $40,000-$50000 in an eight month period, now they struggling to make $15,000. If the poaching problem stops, we’ll be back to our glory days. But when you can’t pay bills, and can’t pay mortgage, what you gon’ do? The money you making is not enough to live off. Today’s the 19th. I just been to Coral Harbour. July already gone and we ain’ carry our traps yet. The area where we trap in, the poachers been fishing there during the months when the season close. Normally before July we have our traps out the water.”