By NICO SCAVELLA
Tribune Staff Reporter
ROYAL Bahamas Defence Force (RBDF) marines were involved in a shootout and subsequent high-speed chase with suspected Dominican poachers in the Cay Lobos area on Monday night, National Security Minister Dr Bernard Nottage said yesterday.
Dr Nottage said Her Majesty’s Bahamian Ship (HMBS) Cascarilla, while on patrol in the Cay Lobos area in the southern
Bahamas around 8pm on Monday, was “fired upon” by the crew of a vessel registered in the Dominican Republic after marines launched a sea boat in an attempt to board the vessel. The crew of the vessel was engaged in illegal fishing at the time of the incident, he said.
The crew on board HMBS Cascarilla returned fire after being shot at with what RBDF officials told The Tribune were shotguns. No marines were hurt, nor were any of the vessels damaged during the testy encounter, according to Dr Nottage.
Following the shootout, HMBS Cascarilla subsequently engaged the suspected Dominican vessel in hot pursuit south of Cay Lobos near the southern limits of the Great Bahama Bank. The chase continued towards Cuban territorial waters, Dr Nottage said.
The vessel eventually entered Cuban waters and HMBS Cascarilla called off the chase. The Cuban Border Guard was later informed that the suspected Dominican vessel had entered their waters.
Dr Nottage said Foreign Affairs and Immigration Minister Fred Mitchell, who is in the Dominican Republic on “government business”, has taken the matter up with the government there. Dr Nottage also said he has directed an “immediate and thorough investigation” into the matter by law enforcement agencies.
The state of the crew aboard the suspected Dominican vessel following the shootout is unknown, Dr Nottage said.
Nonetheless, reports received from a Bahamian fishing vessel in the area indicate that the suspected vessel may have been in the company of three other Dominican vessels. Additionally, prior to engaging in the hot pursuit, the crew of HMBS Cascarilla took two Dominican nationals into custody who were on board two fishing skiffs in the Cay Lobos area.
RBDF Acting Commodore Captain Tellis Bethel said the force has encountered “minimal violence” over the years from Dominican fishing vessels; however, he said there have been a lot of reports by Bahamian fishermen of allegedly being fired upon by Dominicans at sea.
However, Capt Bethel said with the acquisition of vessels under the government’s Sandy Bottom project, the RBDF has been able to bring on stream additional patrol craft to enable the force to maintain a constant 24/7 presence on the Great Bahama Bank.
“Based on the reports we’ve received from the local fishermen, the Defence Force seems to have had some degree of success in that reported sightings have been significantly reduced,” he said. “And in this latest incident, which has been a rare one over the past several months, certainly reminds us that we must continue to be vigilant with our patrols in the Great Bahama Bank area.”
Dr Nottage, meanwhile, said the government is committed to mitigating against such encounters.
“The obligations of the Royal Bahamas Defense Force are very demanding and are becoming more challenging as the Bahamas is increasingly threatened with illicit activities including the poaching of our marine resources,” he said. “The government’s commitment is to ensure that the Royal Bahamas Defence Force is equipped to effectively protect our territorial waters and meet the Bahamas’ obligations in the area of maritime safety and security.”
The government has previously engaged the Dominican government in discussions in an attempt to curb the long-standing problem of poachers from that country robbing Bahamian waters of hundreds of thousands of pounds of seafood.
In February 2014, Agriculture Minister V Alfred Gray said he met with Dominican Republic President Danilo Medina, who gave his assurances that the Christie administration had the country’s full support in tackling the issue.
He said a memorandum of understanding was prepared, with one of the conditions being that Dominican vessels were to be outfitted with GPS systems to ensure that the fishermen do not venture out of their own borders.
However, with the continued violation of the fisheries laws, Mr Gray said he was not sure whether officials in the Dominican Republic took the government’s warnings seriously.
In May, 11 Dominicans were fined a collective $170,500 in Magistrate’s Court after pleading guilty to five poaching related charges. The Dominicans, including a 16-year-old, pleaded guilty to charges of engaging in foreign fishing in the exclusive fishing zone of the Bahamas, possession of Nassau Grouper weighing less than three pounds each, possession of fresh crawfish during a closed season, possession of crawfish measuring less than three and a quarter inches and possession of a shark.
They were each fined $10,000 with respect to illegal fishing, $1,000 for the undersized groupers, $2,500 for the closed-season crawfish, $1,500 for the undersized crawfish and $500 for the Lemon shark. They were told failure to pay the fine would result in eight months at the Department of Correctional Services.