FISHING was once a lucrative business for our local fishermen. But no more. Foreigners — mainly from the Dominican Republic with a handful of Americans thrown in — are raiding the fishermen’s traps, both in and out of season. Bahamian fishermen are pleading for help. However, there is no help in sight.
So intent are they on capturing Haitian boat people that the Defence Force has no time to deal with illegal poachers. And so the fishermen suffer. Not only do they suffer, but as a result they are tempted to take the law into their own hands.
In October last year, a delegation, headed by Foreign Affairs Minister Fred Mitchell, met in the Dominican Republic with Dominican officials specifically on the issue of their citizens fishing illegally in our waters.
On his return to Nassau, Mr Mitchell said that the Bahamas government believed that it had “an obligation to ensure that we used diplomacy as the first line of defence.” He said that Dominican Republic President Denilo Medina had pledged that the Bahamas’ poaching problems would be addressed.
President Medina, said Mr Mitchell, “gave specific instructions to the naval forces in the Dominican Republic to begin a series of measures which the navy has predicted will result in a drastic decline in poaching in Bahamian waters.” Mr Mitchell was “cautiously optimistic therefore that we will see some improvement in this area.”
Not so, said Bahamian fishermen this week. Two months short of a year after the Dominican talks our fishermen claim that the situation is getting worse.
“Every meeting is the same thing – talk, talk, talk,” said one fisherman this week. “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?”
When he returned last October from the “diplomatic” talks with the Dominicans, Mr Mitchell said that a $200 million investment would have to be made to better equip the Defence Force to patrol our borders. Also Minister V Alfred Gray, who was a part of last year’s delegation, said they would “look for” the Attorney General to amend the Fisheries Act to increase the penalties for poaching from $5,000 to $250,000 and 25 years in prison.
Not only did the Dominican government pledge to assist in upholding our laws, but they promised to also punish their fishermen for their transgressions.
When The Tribune reporter asked Mr Mitchell this week to comment on the fishermen’s complaints, he 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.”
Obviously, despite what Mr Mitchell told fishermen on his delegation’s return from the Dominican Republic last year, the Defence Force has not been equipped with the necessary tools to do the job. According to our fishermen, the Defence Force when called for poachers are reluctant to respond and when they do they “conduct poor investigations”.
“Poachers are not their priority,” said one fisherman, “Haitians are.”
One fisherman pointed out that when the Defence Force officers go to the bank they can collect their cheques, “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.
“Everything boils down to enforcement,” said a fisherman. “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.”
Abaco fishermen also have many complaints, but theirs is mainly against Americans. Apparently tourism is booming in Abaco, but it is also a yachtsman’s paradise. Many visitors arrive in their own boats, get their cruising permits, but fish over the permitted limit. A small number of them, said one Abaconian– “but enough to make a difference” – come specifically for the fish. No laws are enforced, he said. There is one well known American who makes regular trips to fill his tanks with a variety of fish, including crawfish, to keep his South Florida restaurant supplied with fresh sea food from the Bahamas.
“The whole situation is getting out of hand, and the fishing industry is suffering,” he said over the weekend. Apparently, stealing from the locals’ fishing condos has also become a sport for some Americans.
Last week, a couple of Abaconians went to check their condos only to find four or five rental boats in the area and several Americans lifting crawfish from their condos into their boats. Asked what they thought they were doing, they played dumb. Then one bright spark remarked: “Oh, it’s a sport, the locals put them there for us to fish them out!”
They soon changed their tune and fled when the Abaconians gave them a raw bit of their tongue.
But, thanks to these outsiders from the US, Abaco’s main industry is being destroyed. The fishermen have written the Defence Force off as ineffective and reluctant to give assistance.
Some are now suggesting that as the Defence Force is unable to give protection, Abaconians themselves should be given permission to organise a patrol to protect their own fishing grounds.
Obviously, the “diplomatic” trips to the Dominican Republic failed. The Defence Force obviously still does not have the equipment to do the job and the poaching laws have not been stiffened.
As the fishermen say, so far it has been empty promises and talk, talk, talk. They now want action from their government.