By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A furious tourism industry is uniting to oppose the new Fly Fishing law and regulations, fearing it will cost the Bahamas millions of dollars and “further erode the competitive position” of the sector.
Tribune Business can reveal that the Bahamas Hotel and Tourism Association (BHTA) is uniting with the Grand Bahama and Out Island Promotion Boards, plus the Marina Operators of the Bahamas (MOB), to oppose proposed amendments they fear will hit the tourism industry “like a tsunami”.
The sector, and its associations, are especially concerned that the planned changes to the Fisheries Resources (Jurisdiction and Conservation) Act will create more ‘red tape’ and price the Bahamas out of the market.
The concerns centre on the proposed requirement that all visiting fly fishermen, even experts coming to the Bahamas for decades, will be law have to hire a local guide at a cost of $600 per day.
While sensitive to the need to protect Bahamian fishing guides from foreigners who come in and establish themselves in business illegally, the tourism sector is concerned that the ‘local guide stipulation’ and other proposed fees will make this nation further uncompetitive on price.
Amid disquiet at the perceived lack of consultation by the Government, the BHTA and other tourism associations are also unhappy with the requirement that all boats have to obtain Bahamas sports fishing charter licences.
And they feel there is too little flexibility over the proposed ‘$20 per day’ permit that all visiting fly fishermen must obtain. The tourism industry wants these permits to be available via the Internet, and for there to be different durations and prices. Enforcement, too, is an issue.
An e-mail forwarded to Tribune Business, which was sent to MOB members by its executive director, Bob Bower, warned of the proposed amendments: “We believe it’s a disaster that’s going to hit us like a tsunami.
“Regardless of whether this legislation passes, the firestorm of anti-Bahamian PR is going to hit, so get ready.”
That backlash is already on. Senior executives from the American Fly Fishing Trade Association (AFFTA) warned in a June 23 letter that the Bahamas was endangering the $141 million per annum that it earns from visiting fishermen.
The letter, to Michael Braynen, director of the Marine Resources Department, warned: “The ill-conceived and downright puzzling attempts by a small number of self-serving individuals in the Bahamian fly fishing industry to fast-track the proposed Fisheries Resources Regulations has already put the destination fishing industry of the Bahamas at great risk.
“The industry outcry, social media reaction and backlash in the last two days alone have already tarnished the image of the Bahamas as a paradise for travelling anglers.
“If key elements of this proposed legislation become reality, there is a chance that the lucrative and valuable destination angling industry servicing the Bahamas will suffer catastrophic damage that will negatively affect the Bahamian economy.”
The letter, signed by AFFTA’s president, Ben Bulis; chairman, Tucker Ladd; and chairman emeritus, Jim Klug, warned that the proposed regulatory and legal changes were akin to “locking off the water and flats” to all professional and casual anglers.
Warning of the consequences, they added: “While a handful of local guides and lodge owners might see this as a short-term win and a way to artificially strengthen their own small businesses, the Bahamas as a whole will lose in a big way.
“Heavy-handed and unnecessary regulations will send a message to destination anglers throughout the world that they are not welcome in the Bahamas unless they are willing to pay to fish with a small number of ‘select’ guides or lodges.
“This at a time when Belize, the Yucatan, Cuba and numerous other international destinations are welcoming and marketing to foreign anglers and investors like never before. The proposed regulations will successfully, and immediately, drive destination anglers, and the dollars and jobs that they bring, to destinations other than the Bahamas,” the AFFTA executives said.
“The Bahamian government should be doing whatever it takes to increase sustainable anglers’ access to the flats instead of limiting access.
“As one lodge owner from Abaco recently stated, the timing and the tone of the proposed regulations are awful and will further erode the competitive position of the Bahamas as a fishing destination at a time when visitors are already reeling from the recent imposition of Value-Added Tax.”
The AFFTA letter quoted one member, Colby Trow, who said his shop had injected $75,000 annually to the Bahamian economy over the past 12 years by hosting fishing trips in the Bahamas.
Mr Trow added: “The proposed changes would unconstructively impact our customers who presently travel to the Bahamas, and will certainly create a situation where we would look to other flats destinations throughout the Caribbean.”
He is not alone. Ian Davis, co-owner of Yellow Dog Flyfishing Adventures, in his own letter to the Government warned that the proposed legislative amendments could “cause a great deal of turmoil throughout the Bahamas”.
He added that his company represented and booked more than 30 Bahamian fishing lodges spread across 10 islands, and said clients would simply go elsewhere if the amendments were passed.
“Collectively, the business that we do throughout the Bahamas, and the clients that we send, support hundreds of Bahamian jobs and pump well over a $1 million a year into the economies of the Bahamian Out Islands,” Mr Davis said.
“Flats fishing provides a substantial source of revenue for the Bahamian economy and has served as a mainstay for generating new visitors to the islands for many decades. The fishery for bonefish in the Bahamas is a spectacular one, and it does not require over-regulation and one-sided permitting to protect and enhance this valuable resource.
“The issue of protecting Bahamian fisheries is not one of ownership, but rather one of sound, common-sense stewardship,” Mr Davis added.
“It is in the best interest of all fishing lodges and outfitting operations throughout the Bahamas - whether they are locally owned or foreign owned - to protect the resources on which their businesses depend.
“The proposed fisheries regulations are quite literally a bad solution in search of a problem that does not exist. If this legislation were to move forward, the end result will eliminate much-needed jobs and an important source of income for the country.”
Tribune Business, though, understands that a number of Bahamas fly fishing guides, including Prescott Smith, the Association’s president, are very supportive - and fully behind - the Government’s proposed amendments.
The Bahamas Fly Fishing Industry Association, which includes more than 100 registered guides and 20-plus lodges among its members, will vote on whether to support the passage of the new regulations/legislation and its Annual General Meeting (AGM) today.
Tribune Business understands that not all Association members back the proposed amendments, and today’s AGM may seem some fireworks as the different factions square off.
The Government, for its part, appears to want to bring the consultation to an end as rapidly as possible. A June 29 meeting will bring the process to a close, just two weeks after it began.
The Department of Marine Resources’ Mr Braynen, in a June 17 e-mail, said: “The aim of this initiative is to prepare legislation that will regulate this part of the fishing industry, providing rules to govern those who participate in it, whether as fisherman, guide or lodge operator, and to ensure that the marine environments upon which the fishery is based are protected.
“It is further expected that changes will result in the further development of the sector and of its contribution to the economy of the Bahamas.”
He then added: “This process of consultation will conclude with a National Consultation to be held in Nassau on Monday June 29.
“This National Consultation will bring together stakeholder representatives from throughout the Bahamas to review the draft, and to receive their comments and recommendations on the subject.”