By NICO SCAVELLA
Tribune Staff Reporter
THE Bahamas’ existing legislative and “material capacity constraints” will not support the proposed $2.1 billion agri-fisheries venture with Chinese investors, with local university professors charging that the country’s marine resources could be “decimated” within a decade if the proposal is introduced without the necessary legislative framework.
Lisa Benjamin and Dr Adelle Thomas, assistant professors and co-founders of the Climate Change Initiative at the University of The Bahamas, submitted that “significant gaps” exist in this country’s commercial fishing legislative policies, so much so that it “is hard to imagine” that the “scale of commercial fishing and processing enterprises anticipated by the proposal would abide by the limits currently set out in legislation.”
The professors said without regulations on matters such as catch or vessel sizes, or the capacity to enforce any of those restrictions, The Bahamas could join the “long list of failed fisheries sectors” in the Caribbean “well within a ten-year period”.
They cautioned the government to approach the harvesting of commercial natural resources “in a gradual manner,” and that its approach be “based on principles of sustainability” and “sound scientific information.” They also called on the government to undertake the current proposal or any other proposals “in a manner beneficial to both current and future generations of Bahamians.”
The statements by both professors are outlined in an open letter to Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries V Alfred Gray, signed on November 11. It is supported and endorsed by a number of local environmental organisations, which include The Bahamas National Trust (BNT), the Bahamas Commercial Fishers Alliance and Save The Bays.
The letter is in response to a recent revelation that the government had given the “green light” to its embassy in Beijing, China to pursue the proposal for a partnership between the Bahamas and China for development of agriculture and fisheries in Andros.
The proposal reportedly projects a $2.1bn injection into the local economy over ten years through an equal partnership between Bahamians and the People’s Republic of China. The proposed partnership will entail the incorporation of 100 companies, with the agricultural products and seafood to be used for local consumption, and exported to China and the United States for sale. The proposal also reportedly included the option to lease 10,000 acres of Crown land in Andros.
However, both professors, in their letter suggested “significant gaps” in the current legislation, such as no restrictions on the types or sizes of vessels that can operate in Bahamian waters, no limits on fleet capacity or time spent at sea fishing, as well as the “low” permit fees for commercial fishing licenses as well as penalties for violations of existing regulations, leaves the particulars outlined in the proposal open for potential abuse.
Both professors also said as the recently leaked proposal contains no restrictions on the number of fishing licenses to be provided to each of the joint venture companies, neither any restrictions on the number or types of vessels that can be operated by the companies, the proposal leaves the potential for “hundreds (or more) fishing vessels to conduct commercial fishing activities within our waters.”
Additionally, both professors noted that while “large and quick profits” for the “few Bahamians” invested in the companies, and the People’s Republic of China, are the “major goal” of the proposal interns of commercial fisheries, the proposal does not take into account the “interests of Bahamians who are not able to participate in these ownership structures,” nor those “who may depend on marine resources or livelihood.”
And regarding the proposal’s potential impact on the country’s marine resources, both professors said while The Bahamas has managed to maintain “relatively healthy” stocks of some marine resources, largely due to our “small populations size and restrictions governments have placed on commercial access to the country’s resources, the country has not undertaken any “significant stock assessments” and consequently has a lack of biological data on our marine resources.
Both professors said even though fishermen having to “work harder and travel further to fish” could serve as an “anecdotal” indicator that stocks are falling, the country has “no real idea of what the level of health and sustainability of our existing marine resources are.” Without that information, the professors said officials “cannot create sustainable yield limitations.”
“While it is not our intention to prohibit increased capacity and employment opportunities for Bahamians, we would suggest that approaches to commercial natural resource harvesting be approached in a gradual manner, based on principles of sustainability, including the precautionary principle, and sound scientific information,” the professors said.
“Natural resource harvesting of sustainable and renewable resources can be established as industries for the benefit of Bahamians, but only once appropriate baseline data has been obtained with the assistance of independent expert advice, consultation with the Bahamian public, and based on sound scientific information, to ensure that we undertake these activities sustainably, and in a manner beneficial to both current and future generations of Bahamians.”
The letter added: “We have too many examples in the Caribbean region and globally where marine stocks have collapsed because countries failed to do this. We therefore implore you to not let us join this long list of failed fisheries sectors.”
Mr Gray has said the proposal is not currently being considered by the government.