By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Government was yesterday urged to end "the confusion destroying our flats fishing industry" by publicly clarifying whether it has suspended the sector's governing regulations.
Cindy Pinder, vice-president of the Abaco Fly Fishing Guide Association, told Tribune Business that she and others had been "begging" the Government to issue a public confirmation for almost six months to "get everybody on the same page".
Despite verbal confirmation from the Prime Minister himself that the regulations have been suspended, Ms Pinder warned that the failure to clarify this publicly was adding to the substantial loss of business experienced since the former Christie administration implemented the controversial regulations in January 2017.
She added that the increased bureaucracy and 'red tape', combined with the growing uncertainty, meant the Bahamas was effectively "running off probably our biggest value tourist business" as foreign anglers headed for rival Caribbean and Central American destinations instead.
Ms Pinder said over-zealous enforcement of the requirement that visiting anglers obtain fishing licenses, married with the inability to pay for and obtain them online, had resulted in the industry's "fears coming to fruition" over the Fisheries Resources (Jurisdiction and Conservation) (Flats Fishing) Regulations 2017.
She also revealed that the Association's press release on the suspension, issued at the weekend, was an attempt to "shake the apple tree" and push the Government to "step up to the plate" and clarify - once and for all - its position on the regulations and whether they have been suspended.
According to Ms Pinder, the Minnis administration announced its position to the international flats fishing market last November, when Benjamin Pratt, a senior Ministry of Tourism manager, informed a Florida conference held by the Bonefish and Tarpon Trust - a major industry advocacy group - that the Cabinet had suspended the regulations pending further review.
She added that this was reaffirmed three weeks ago by no lesser a figure than the Prime Minister himself, when she met Dr Hubert Minnis during a meeting three weeks ago. "We asked him to make a formal announcement so all the fisheries officers and others would be on the same page," Ms Pinder told Tribune Business.
"It seems as if acting director [of marine resources] Deleveaux is very rigorously enforcing the regulations in certain areas of the country. He's certainly saying to anybody that will listen: If we don't have anything in writing, it's still in effect. But the Prime Minister said: 'We've already said we suspended it. What else do you want us to do?' But there's been nothing in writing I'm aware of that's formal."
Ms Pinder said Renward Wells, who as minister for agriculture and marine resources has responsibility for the regulations, spoke to the suspension while on the radio last week. While she had received an informal communication from the Minister confirming this position, she added that there was no substitute for a formal government statement.
"I know they're trying to do the right thing," Ms Pinder told Tribune Business, "but no one is making a decision. They need to say something one way or another. Half the industry seems to know about it, and the other half doesn't."
The ongoing uncertainty and confusion was further exposed yesterday by Prescott Smith, the Bahamas Fly Fishing Industry Association's (BBFIA) president, who was a major advocate for the new regulations under the former administration.
"Just letting you know I was reliably informed that the legislation was not suspended and they are 100 per cent in effect," Mr Smith wrote yesterday in an e-mail to Tribune Business.
However, Cheryl Bastian, owner of Swain's Cay Lodge in Mangrove Cay, Andros, told Tribune Business she was aware of the regulations' suspension and backed the Government's action.
The suspension also received approval from the Association of Bahamas Marinas (ABM) and its 60-plus members, who had protested against their passage and implementation by the Christie administration.
The ABM said its original concern over the regulations' likely "detrimental impact on the country's appeal as a destination for fishing enthusiasts" had "proven to be well-founded", given declines as high as 40 per cent in bonefish lodge bookings.
Tribune Business revealed the drop-off earlier this week, and the ABM said in a statement: "Now experiencing a bumper season in marina activity, the Association regards the Government's decision as well-timed and expects it will give the fishing lodges an opportunity to regain momentum and re-establish the Bahamas' reputation as a premier fly-fishing destination.
"Marina users spend large amounts purchasing goods and services in the Bahamas. Boaters, drawn to the Bahamas to fish, will purchase fuel, groceries, supplies and repairs, gifts and souvenirs, entertainment, taxi services, food and beverages."
Acknowledging the impact that the 2017 regulations have had on lodges, taxi drivers and Family Island communities, the ABM "expressed relief that onerous and impractical regulations will not now place a damper on the country's ability to capitalise on the buoyant market conditions in the US".
It added that it was "convinced that regulations can be developed that will serve the interest of both supplier and consumer, while generating even greater economic benefits for the country".
Tribune Business was unable to reach Mr Wells for comment yesterday, while Edison Deleveaux, acting director of marine resources, did not return this newspaper's call seeking comment despite a detailed message being left.
Some sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, darkly accused the Government of "playing games" over the regulations with the fly fishing industry, and the lodges and guides that depend upon it for their livelihoods.
Ms Pinder, meanwhile, disclosed that the the Abaco Fly Fishing Guide Association's earlier release on the suspension was an effort to produce clarity from the Government.
"I'm kind of shaking the apple tree right now to see what falls out," she told Tribune Business. "I'm hoping that if we get the conversation going someone will step up to the plate.
"We've been begging them on a regular basis for a formal statement in-country since November to get everybody on the same page. The Government needs to get on with it and make it official. It's ridiculous."
With foreign anglers uncertain as to the Bahamas' regulatory regime, Ms Pinder said the continued confusion was exacerbating the negative impact from the regulations' original implementation and costing this nation further high-value tourist business.
"I am hugely concerned," she told Tribune Business. "The confusion is destroying our fly fishing industry and visitors. They're not coming here; they're going to other countries.
"It's inexcusable what's going on. The market has declined because people don't want to deal with confusion. They don't want to come here and do the wrong thing and get fined or, God forbid, get thrown in jail.
"They don't want to be hassled in a foreign country. They're going to countries where they don't have these problems going on. The southern lodges have been hit tremendously hard, and if this keeps going the northern islands will be hit," Ms Pinder added.
"They're killing an industry that does no harm to our country. The fish that are caught are released again. We're running off probably our highest value tourist business and dollars. It's quite crazy."
While acknowledging that not all lodges had suffered a 20-40 per cent booking decline, Ms Pinder suggested over-zealous fisheries officers were going beyond the regulations in seeking to enforce licenses and associated payments.
"Lodges say fisheries officers are coming every week, and they have to show them copies of the licenses bought for their clients from the administrator's office," she added. "None of that is in the regulations.
"They're out harassing people over $15 fishing licences. That's what we were afraid of when this came out, and it's turning out to be true. That's the really bad thing. Our fears have come to fruition."
Other problems relate to the ease of obtaining, and paying for, the licences mandated by regulations - especially in the Family Islands, where the administrators responsible for issuing them are not always available.
Such concerns were detailed on the the Abaco Fly Fishing Guide Association's Facebook page through a posting by Jason Hawkins about his experience in Bimini, the Bahamas' so-called 'fishing capital'.
"I was in Bimini the past four days," he wrote. "We were met at the dock by a police officer one morning. The police officer, who was very polite, said we needed to get our flats licence and to swing by the administration office later that day. We said no problem.
"We went to the administration office at 1:45pm ready to purchase a licence. There is apparently only one guy who can process fishing licences (all of the other ladies working did not know how). He was out to lunch and we were asked to come back later. Knowing that the administration office closed at 5pm, we returned at 4pm and we were told he was gone for the day."
Referring to criticism of the regulation's suspension, Mr Hawkins posted: "Someone please have this PLP chairman Fred Mitchell give me a call. Is he on here? I'd like to discuss with him his definition of 'shameful' and who's to blame for the loss of income of the licences."
Such problems, and confusion over who is responsible for issuing and paying for these licences, is at the root cause of industry concerns - especially in the absence of online payment mechanisms. The responsibility on some islands has allegedly been passed back and forth between Department of Marine Resources officers and administrators.
The regulations require anglers over the age of 12, and those 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.
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 ban commercial fishing in the flats, and anglers are only allowed to catch and release when catching bonefish, permit, snook, cobia and tarpon. A Conservation Fund for the management and protection of the flats and fisheries resources in the Bahamas is to be established.