Flats fishing is a multi-million dollar industry in the Bahamas but proposed legislation has stirred the waters and raised concerns over protectionism and conservation. Beau Beasley reports . . .
The Bahamas boasts the largest saltwater flats in the Caribbean, reputedly ten times larger than those of Mexico.
Countless celebrated saltwater species - including bonefish, tarpon, permit, snook, crabs, shrimp, and lobster - call these flats home. Protecting the future of these flats in perpetuity is, unsurprisingly, of paramount importance to interested stakeholders, who include Bahamian fishing guides and lodge owners, government officials and all other citizens who benefit from the nation’s sporting tourism.
From the beginning, Bahamian legislators have faced strong opposition to the proposed Fisheries Resources (Jurisdiction and Conservation) Act, outlined in June and which seeks to more closely regulate fly fishing guides and lodges and establish a saltwater conservation fund paid for by the sale of fishing licences. Among its most vocal critics are foreign lodge owners who fear they are about to be regulated out of business, and local fly fishing guides, many of whom have invested their life savings - and a lifetime’s worth of sweat equity - in their Bahamian businesses. A 2010 study (The Economic Impact of Flats Fishing in The Bahamas by Tony Fedler) found that $141 million was generated by flats fishing in the Bahamas.
Critics’ complaints about the proposed measures include its protectionism that has resulted in more than a little bad press for the country; that it is woefully short on conservation specifics; that no mechanism is in place in the legislation to account for the funds collected from the sales of fishing licences; and that it severely curtails do-it-yourself (DIY) fishing.
As written, the draft legislation requires anyone fishing recreationally from a boat to hire a certified Bahamian guide. In fact, the current language is so restrictive it would even require locals who own a second home in the Bahamas and have their own boats to hire a guide when fishing. This sort of stipulation, critics claim, demonstrates that the measure is little more than a jobs bill cloaked in the veneer of conservation legislation.
Abaco Lodge co-owner Oliver White contends: “I don’t know what this legislation is about, but it sure isn’t about conservation.”
Protectionism certainly isn’t new - but neither is it obviously effective. Indeed, protectionist legislation often proves the economic “law of unintended consequences” rather spectacularly. What should perhaps give proponents pause is the fact that even many locals have raised boisterous objections to the proposed measure.
What disgruntled locals understand is that this issue has generated plenty of bad press for the Bahamas. What they wonder now is, will the acrimony result in a downturn in the tourism on which the economy depends?
“I do feel the negative press is having an impact on all the lodges in the Bahamas,” says Miriam Cartwright, owner of Greenwich Creek Lodge, near Deadman’s Cay, Long Island. “Guests are being put off from travelling here. If anglers are required to use a guide to fish with every day of their trip, this would make the trip much more expensive.” She wants visiting anglers to understand that “small lodges like Greenwich Creek Lodge operate independent of the guides. The goal of the lodge is to give the guest a memorable, warm, hospitable, fun-filled experience while staying here. This includes fishing experiences where a guide is not always necessary.” (Perhaps legislators should consider her words as well.)
Noting that there is much more to do in the Bahamas than fish, she says: “We have the deepest blue hole in the world, we have pigs that swim, miles and miles of beaches, and with 365 days of summer, our outdoor activities are practically unlimited.”
Recognising that local support is crucial to any conservation success, the Abaco Flyfishing Guides Association (AFFGA), which actually opposes the legislation, has developed a guide to the bill for Bahamians titled “How Will This Affect Me?” Locals might believe the bill will affect angling tourists alone, but AFFGA argues that any legislation that DIY anglers perceive as hostile to foreigners or foreign-owned interests will inevitably provoke a backlash. The anglers who don’t come to the Bahamas also won’t patronise restaurants, car rental agencies and second home rentals.
Critics suggest that the proposed legislation is vaguely worded and short on specifics. It mentions only that a percentage of fishing licence sales will be used to establish a Conservation Fund; it does not address conservation goals, objectives, priorities or enforcement. But where critics see a bug, supporters see a feature: they argue that the bill’s ambiguity enables all stakeholders to weigh in on and shape this potentially groundbreaking conservation legislation.
Adding fuel to the fire is the fact that few local stakeholders had any voice in the crafting of the legislation, and then only nine days to respond to the bill after it was made public. I asked government officials why such an important bill featured such a brief window for public comment; unfortunately, none responded to my inquiry.
Critics also charge that Bahamas Fly Fishing Industry Association (BFFIA) president Prescott Smith has an ulterior motive in his admittedly tireless support of the legislation - namely, establishing BFFIA as the voice of Bahamas fly fishing and the recipient of a portion of the government-mandated conservation dollars. Mr Smith’s supporters counter that BFFIA is the first to propose national conservation legislation, and that Mr Smith himself has spent years travelling at his own expense to surrounding islands to educate locals about the importance of protecting bonefish and the justification for catch-and-release and other good stewardship practices.
Mr Smith does not apologise for supporting what he believes will advance the interests of Bahamians ahead of others: “There are many people who are happy with Bahamians as long as they pole the flats boat,” he says. “They aren’t however too happy at the thought of these same Bahamians having a significant say in how their natural resources are managed, or how the fly fishing industry runs on a national scale.”
The proposed legislation mandates that funds collected from fishing licences be divided equally between the Consolidated Fund - the Bahamas’ general fund - and a newly established Conservation Fund. Critics immediately see a problem: AFFGA vice president Cindy Pinder believes that the efficacy of the legislation depends upon the distribution of the collected funds.
“If the licencing fees go to the Consolidated Fund, an opportunity to create a much-needed, self-sustaining, independently funded mechanism to begin effective enforcement of our flats fishing laws could be lost forever,” Mrs Pinder said. AFFGA would like to see 100 per cent of funds generated from licence sales directed toward conservation and enforcement.
Critics also wonder how enforcement of new conservation legislation would be paid for. Acknowledging that the unique geography of the Bahamas could make enforcement of conservation laws particularly costly, supporters of the bill look to the Consolidated Fund and suggest that the government should perhaps set aside a portion of licence dollars from the beginning for enforcement.
For its part, BFFIA recently proposed a different split of funds: Consolidated Fund - 40 per cent, Conservation Fund - 40 per cent, Bahamian banks - 15 per cent, BFFIA - 5 per cent.
Why should funds collected from fishing licences go to banks? The BFFIA argues that currently, foreign-owned lodges have access to better banking terms than do locals, who find themselves at a disadvantage in their own country. Providing island banks with government-collected dollars, the BFFIA contends, would help level the playing field for Bahamian lodge owners and guides.
Opponents argue that it is wholly inappropriate to use money raised from general angling tourism to establish banks whose mission it is to promote one set of lodges and guides over another. (And it is particularly frustrating for foreign lodge owners and guides to finance their own competition by selling a fishing licence.) Instead, they suggest, put market forces to work: locals with better business plans and practices will be able to secure capital.
But why does the BFFIA itself require a piece of the licence fee pie? The association insists that the five per cent of the kitty that it would like to claim for itself would be used to cover the costs of educating all participating guides to a national standard. (Certification classes, for example, would need to be held in various locations around the islands.) Critics - who assert that they have no interest in any “help” that BFFIA wants to offer them in the first place - point out that for BFFIA to lobby the government to give it a portion of funds collected from mandated licence fees is a clear conflict of interest.
There are also fears that the language of the bill makes DIY fishing from a boat illegal unless done with a certified guide aboard. What’s more, wading anglers may fish on their own, but the price of getting to their fishing spot in the first place could go up: the proposed legislation reads that even the person who ferries you to your favourite spot on the flats requires a permit as well.
Anglers who fish without a guide or wade in an area designated off limits - either intentionally or in ignorance - could be fined up to $3,000 or sentenced to three months in jail, or both. Critics argue that such steep penalties create a climate of anxiety that encourages anglers to stay home or to fish elsewhere.
My reading of the current legislation indicates that, despite numerous, much-publicised assertions to the contrary, the bill does not establish a minimum guide fee. Nevertheless, legislation that requires anglers to hire a guide does set up an environment in which anglers are forced to pay whatever a group of guides decides to charge for service.
The bill does, however, provide a legal definition for a “flats” area, which could enable officials to put fishing restrictions in place in certain highly pressured areas at different times of the year. Indeed, such restrictions seem almost inevitable and, in fact, highly desirable to those who argue that Bahamian flats protection and management are long overdue.
Those unfamiliar with Bahamian fishing resource management might conclude that the draft legislation represents a first step toward effective conservation policy in the Bahamas, but that conclusion would be inaccurate. In fact, a number of non-governmental organisations have been involved in conservation work in the island nation for years.
The Frank Kenyon Centre for Research, Education and Conservation, which opened in April on Abaco, is one result of the co-operation between non-profit environmental groups, local businesses and private benefactors. This solar-powered, eight-bedroom facility near Marsh Harbour was constructed to provide low-cost housing and storage for visiting scientists and researchers and to serve as a basic laboratory. The facility also hosts visiting high school students involved in field work and long-term research projects.
The Bonefish & Tarpon Trust (BTT), the Trout Unlimited of saltwater conservation, is a 501(c)(3) organisation headed by Dr Aaron Adams, who travels the United States extensively and writes frequently about the need to protect saltwater resources. Dr Adams and BTT staff members have participated in conservation efforts in and around the Bahamas for years. “We have worked with Bahamas National Trust for many years to provide information necessary for conservation of bonefish and their habitats,” says Dr Adams. “For example, we conducted tag-recapture research of bonefish on Abaco and Grand Bahama that the Bahamas National Trust used to formulate proposals for national parks on those islands.”
The goal of the BTT is to protect “the habitats that support bonefish foraging areas, juvenile habitats, spawning sites and spawning migration corridors,” Dr Adams said. “In addition, we provided funding to Bahamas National Trust to conduct the public meetings that are part of the National Park proposal process.” BTT says it also “shared our information with the Department of Marine Resources and the Minister of the Environment”.
And yet BTT had no input in crafting the conservation portion of the current draft legislation. Nevertheless, Dr Adams and the BTT have specific conservation proposals for the Bahamian government; in particular, the BTT is concerned that the means for preventing habitat degradation are not clearly spelled out in the draft legislation.
Other non-profit, non-governmental organisations and universities involved in conservation work in the Bahamas include AFFGA, Friends of the Environment, The Nature Conservancy, Cape Eleuthera Institute, North Carolina State University, University of Florida and Florida Atlantic University. The list goes on.
BFFIA president Prescott Smith, who argues that BTT resists local input and is out of touch with ordinary Bahamians, says that BFFIA has no relationship with BTT now and no plans to work with the group on common cause conservation concerns in the future. Instead BFFIA works closely with Bahamas Sportfishing Conservation Association (BSCA), which Mr Smith himself began in 1995 to address conservation issues he believed were of particular importance to Bahamians.
According to Mr Smith, BSCA has approximately 250 members; a request for the number of members with fisheries science backgrounds and/or advanced degrees in marine resources or natural resources management went unanswered. In any case, Mr Smith asserts that locals know more about local fish behaviour and patterns than do experts who visit the islands for a few months for programmes like bonefish tagging.
Mr Smith lists as BSCA’s conservation accomplishments as (1) educating locals that there is much more to the Bahamas than sun, sea, and sand, and (2) the entire Bahamian government about the nation’s precious natural resources. He also sent a letter in March on behalf of BFFIA and BSCA encouraging officials in the North Andros District Council to deny mining operations in Joulters Cay.
The organisation’s future conservation goals include providing protection for the flats and surrounding areas, training the next generation of guides, establishing a national marine warden programme and emphasising marine sciences and an outdoor educational programme in the local schools.
The draft legislation has been turned over to the Attorney General, Allyson Maynard Gibson, for review. In theory, at least, the Attorney General will draft a “clean bill” that provide answers to all of the questions the current bill raises, including how and by whom funds will be collected and how and to whom funds will be disbursed.
From the Attorney General’s office the bill moves to Cabinet, which is not required to make it public. Cabinet could let it die or move it forward to Parliament for a vote. Ultimately, critics are concerned that by the time they see what the final language of the bill actually is, it could already be well on its way to becoming law - at which point it will be too late for them to lobby their representatives or mount any further opposition to the measure.
Both supporters and detractors of the measure can agree on one thing: flats safeguards are long overdue. Even if they disagree on the specifics of the legislation, they commend Bahamian officials - notably the Prime Minister - for attempting to enact natural resources protections. It is regrettable however that the only protection provided in the proposed legislation is aimed at deterring anglers from causing damage. There is no language in the bill that addresses mining or dredging operations whatsoever. Compared to the potential impact of large-scale mining or dredging operations, the impact of catch-and-release anglers seems miniscule.
In the meantime, however, the bonefish and tarpon habitats in the saltwater flats aren’t the only thing hanging in the balance. The future of the Bahamian economy has a big question mark hanging over it as well. If the atmosphere of angst and confusion that currently pervades the Bahamas causes anglers and other recreational tourists to question their welcome in the archipelago, they could take their tourist dollars to the Florida Keys, Belize or even Cuba instead.
And no one interested in the future of the Bahamas wants to see that happen.
Beau Beasley is an award-winning journalist and investigative conservation writer. He is the author of Fly Fishing Virginia and Fly Fishing the Mid-Atlantic and serves as the Director for the Virginia Fly Fishing Festival. This article was published originally by MidCurrent Fly Fishing at MidCurrent.com