By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Fishermen yesterday described this week’s capture of a Dominican fishing vessel and its crew as “just the tip of the iceberg”, estimating that a “conservative” $20 million worth of fish was stolen annually from Bahamian waters.
Adrian LaRoda, the Bahamas Commercial Fishers Alliance (BCFA) president, called for the 17 Dominicans seized by the Royal Bahamas Defence Force (RBDF) to be “given jail time” in order to send a message that this nation was serious about cracking down on poaching of its fish stock.
And he said the episode again indicated that any assurances from the Dominican Republic government about helping in the poaching crackdown were meaningless, given that it had no reason to assist the Bahamas.
“To be honest with you, we are looking to see if all those fishermen are given jail time and taken away from their families,” Mr LaRoda told Tribune Business.
Suggesting this might make them, and their fellow poachers, think twice about returning to Bahamian waters, the BCFA chief added: “Too often they’re arrested, given some fine and sent back to the Dominican Republic. A couple of weeks later, they return on another vessel.
“Make an example of them to make them understand we take poaching very seriously, and the penalties are very stiff. These guys come here equipped with the funds to bail themselves out and pay the fines. They expect to pay the fine if arrested, and be released.
“The capture of this vessel is the tip of the iceberg. It’s the same boats over and over again, and we complain about them. There are five other boats here poaching frequently, and we’d like to see them captured also.”
Still, Mr LaRoda said the weekend apprehension of the Dominican ‘mother ship’ near Cay Lobos had helped the Bahamian public to “understand these guys take a lot of product out of the Bahamas”.
While the vessel seized at the weekend was around 70 feet long, and had freezer capacity for between 40,000-50,000 pounds of captured fish, the BCFA president added that some Dominican vessels spotted in Bahamian waters were up to 120 feet long, with 60,000 pounds of storage capacity.
“This tells you they are funded by some very wealthy organisations. Very wealthy people are involved in the poaching business,” he added.
Asked how much fish was being illegally harvested in Bahamian waters annually, Mr LaRoda told Tribune Business: “We would think we lose between $12-$20 million. That’s a very conservative estimate.”
With the BCFA chief putting the Bahamas’ annual fisheries exports at around $70 million, this indicates that poachers are seizing an amount close to one-third the worth of the industry’s foreign exchange earnings.
Not only is money being taken away from Bahamian fishermen and the industry as a whole, but the sustainability of this nation’s fishing resources is also being threatened.
Mr LaRoda earlier this year said the 2013-2014 crawfish season was shaping up to be “a rough one”, with initial reports suggesting that traditional fishing areas had been depleted by poachers.
As a result, Mr laRoda said more Bahamian fishermen were being forced into smaller fishing areas, causing some tension.
While yesterday praising the Royal Bahamas Defence Force (RBDF) for capturing the Dominican vessel, the BCFA said there were no signs that the Dominican Republic was set to match its promises and crack down on the poachers.
“Regrettably, I have no confidence in their ability to fulfill their side of the bargain,” Mr LaRoda told Tribune Business of the Dominican Republic government.
“There are 30,000 hotel rooms in the Dominican Republic they have to fill, and they have to provide them with food. The Bahamas has a lucrative seafood market.
“Any statement from the government of the Dominican Republic to stop poaching, I don’t see it happening,” Mr LaRoda added. “There’s no reason for them to stop it.
“There are people employed in illegal activities, they provide much-needed seafood for local businesses, and I don’t see them stopping it. I have no confidence in the Dominican government doing anything about it.”