By NATARIO McKENZIE
Tribune Business Reporter
Bahamian bone-fishing lodge owners and guides in the southern Bahamas yesterday said they were "catching hell", with some alleging that business is being steered to foreign-owned rivals.
Nevin Knowles, owner of the Long Island Bone-fishing Lodge, argued that since the introduction of legislation to govern the industry, Bahamian-owned lodges have seen a major decrease in bookings.
"The only ones catching hell are the Bahamian-owned lodges," he told Tribune Business. "Every lodge in the south-east is basically Bahamian-owned, but American-owned lodges and booking agents don't seem to want Bahamians to own anything.
"They won't say the numbers, but every foreign-owned lodge is full to capacity; they aren't feeling anything. Most Americans when they come don't like to book direct; they go through a booking agent. A lot don't trust to send the money direct to the lodges. The booking agents only deal with certain lodges, and they steer the business in that direction. We don't get much of the Europeans because they tend to go to Belize and Mexico as they get direct flights there."
Mr Knowles argued that Bahamian-owned lodges were effectively being forced out of business completely or, in some instances, being bought out.
"All I did was kill my own business," he said. They wanted this for them. No booking agents will ever send clients our way unless you get American in front of you. I am down to nothing. I am contemplating selling and doing something different."
Mr Knowles acknowledged that he had originally opposed the Bahamas Fly Fishing Industry Association's (BFFIA) president, Prescott Smith, in his campaign to introduce the industry's regulations, but had now "seen the light".
"We have to look at how much money is actually going into the Bahamian economy," he said. "Everything is booked in the US; all the money stays there. Check out how much they pay the guides. They are getting away from hiring independent guides and going in-house."
Cat Island fly fishing guide, Charles Fox, told Tribune Business: "There is no business. It's not looking good. I don't see anything on the horizon."
Arnette Chisolm, co-owner and operator of Chester Highway Inn Bone-Fish Lodge on Acklins, added: "Business has been so slow it's unbelievable. We're not looking for all the business, but give us some bookings. Right now there is no business."
Mr Smith, the BFFIA president, said he had predicted much of what the southern Bahamian industry is now experiencing.
He told Tribune Business: "This is what I have been saying all along. It was a part of the plan. Once Bahamians are out of business, foreigners move in to build or takeover and reap the profits. This industry is much bigger than what the Government was looking at."
Kerry Fountain, the Bahamas Out Island Promotion Board's executive director, said anglers are still not able to apply and pay for their licenses online, which was causing inconvenience.
He told Tribune Business: "A lot of our hotel members are fly fishing lodges, and we were very active - as was the Bahamas Hotel and Tourism Association - in trying to help the Government at the time to pass the right legislation.
"My opinion is that I see nothing wrong with having legislation which states if you have more than two fly fishermen that you have a guide. I have to listen to both sides, the hotel members and the guides. I see nothing wrong with the guide requirement. One of the things that we were supposed to fix with the legislation is to allow the fly fishermen, whether they decide in Europe, Canada or the US, to be able to apply for their fishing license online and pay for it. That has not been fixed and is causing some inconvenience."
The fly fishing regulations require anglers over the age of 12, and who wish to fish in the flats, to apply for a personal angler's license and pay a set fee. Non-Bahamians will have to pay $15 for a daily license; $20 for a weekly license; $30 for a monthly license; and $60 for an annual license. Mr Knowles argued yesterday that this should not be a flat rate but a percentage of the room rate.
The regulations also require a foreign vessel wishing to fish in the Bahamian flats to obtain the usual sports fishing permit, with each person on the vessel also holding a personal license. The regulations also ban commercial fishing in the flats. Anglers are only allowed to catch and release when catching bonefish, permit, snook, cobia and tarpon. And a Conservation Fund for the management and protection of the flats and fisheries resources in the Bahamas is to be established.
As reported by Tribune Business, when the proposed regulations were first unveiled, they created considerable controversy and effectively a divide between the 400 local guides and the lodge owners. The latter were more opposed to the proposals. There was concern that the regulations, as initially drafted, gave the impression that the Bahamas was being too protectionist and restrictive, and anti-foreign, while tying up access by foreign anglers in bureaucracy and red tape, not to mention increased costs.