By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A fly fishing lodge chief yesterday warned the industry will be "completely decimated" if its controversial regulatory regime remains in place.
Clint Kemp, the Bahamas Fly Fishing Lodge Association's president, told Tribune Business that many foreign anglers had been "scared off" by regulations that threatened heavy fines - and even jail - if they were violated.
With confusion over whether the Fisheries Resources (Jurisdiction and Conservation) (Flats Fishing) Regulations 2017 have been suspended only adding to industry uncertainty, Mr Kemp said The Bahamas was in danger of driving "prime tourists" to rival destinations such as Belize and Mexico.
He argued that the Government and others seemingly failed to appreciate how important the flats fishing industry is in generating spin-offs for second home investment, transport companies, vacation rentals and stores - especially in the Family Islands.
The regulations, introduced by the former Christie administration, were hailed as preserving the industry for Bahamians by mandating a ratio of one guide for every two fishermen. They also introduced a licensing system, and associated fee schedule, for visiting anglers to ensure the Government gained its 'fair share' in taxes.
Mr Kemp, though, said the regulations' appeal to nationalist sentiments would be of little use if they resulted in the elimination of an industry estimated to generate $141 million per annum to for the Bahamian economy.
"If these regulations go into effect as they are written, you may have wonderful nationalist policy, but you will not have this industry for long," he told Tribune Business. "It will be decimated, particularly in Andros and the southern Bahamas. It will be completely decimated.
"The fly fishing industry is a very small world, and if you go on social media people are waiting to see and are hopeful. We hope the Prime Minister makes a decision that's good for this country, not the people who speak the loudest."
The controversial regulations, which divided guides and lodge operators/owners during the consultation and implementation process, were heavily pushed by Prescott Smith, president of the Bahamas Fly Fishing Industry Association (BFFIA), and other senior members of that organisation.
But Mr Kemp, whose Association covers 12 lodges, said the regulations appeared to have been forced through for "political" reasons under the former government, with the "loudest voices" drowning out all others with a contribution to make.
The Bahamas Fly Fishing Lodge Association, in a May 24, 2017, letter to the Minnis administration, urged it to suspend and review the regulations within two weeks of taking office due to the threat they posed to its members' collective $40 million investment.
"We collectively employ 246 people, almost all Bahamians, with an annual payroll of $4.45 million. We directly attract over 5,000 high-spending visitors each year and generate more than $13 million in tourist income," the Association wrote.
"We have invested $40 million in our businesses, and believe strongly that fly fishing is a major jewel in the crown of the Bahamian tourism industry. It is sustainable, eco-friendly and of great economic and social importance to communities throughout the Family Islands."
The Association added that it fully backed "reasonably-priced fishing licences" that generated funds for fisheries conservation and management, but argued that the regulations had ignored industry recommendations "for narrow, parochial political reasons".
"The subsequent failure to introduce an online license application system to optimise revenue and compliance is particularly regrettable," it warned. "We have united because we are deeply concerned by recent regulatory developments, which have severely damaged our industry and thus both the image and broader economy of the Bahamas.
"We respectfully ask the new Government to suspend the new regulations with immediate effect, pending a thorough and measured review of the provisions in consultation with all key players in the industry."
But, with the Minnis administration seemingly unable to issue a public statement clarifying whether the regulations have been suspended amid a Cabinet split, Mr Kemp said he was losing faith that it was different from its predecessor.
"We thought it would be different with this new government, but it seems like business as usual, and the loudest voices are being heard while the experts are being ignored," he told Tribune Business.
"I say this in humility, but we are the experts. Our lodge is full almost a year out. There are other similar lodges in the Bahamas. No one's listening to what we have to say."
Mr Kemp described the process for how the regulations came into being under the former government as "so fraught", with very little consultation despite the Ministry of Tourism's ambitions to "upgrade fly fishing in the Bahamas".
"It became a political nightmare where the loud voices took over," he added. "I watched it taken away, and it became a disaster. We formed the Association last year, and thought with the new government it would be a lot more understanding, and we would have more involvement in the regulations' crafting.
"It was the political nature of the way this was all laid out. It was very scary. I felt it was more a political decision than anything else, and that's scary when you're dealing with international investors and visitors. That's never a good footing."
Mr Kemp said industry booking agents had informed him their Bahamas' angler bookings were down by 25 per cent or more, due to both the uncertainty created by the regulations' content and lack of clarity over whether they have been suspended.
"Agents have not written off this jurisdiction, but they don't want to send people here because there's no clarity," he explained. "All the other jurisdictions are the beneficiaries. Belize is thriving, Mexico is thriving, and Cuba is opening up. There's a lot of options.
"It's [flats fishing] a small fraction of the tourist dollar, but the people involved are the prime tourists. They come here year after year, and a lot of them invest in the Bahamas with second homes. It's a tremendously important part of the tourism sector, and I just don't think people understand in government how vital the sector really is."
Now, with the uncertainty surrounding the regulations, Mr Kemp said many anglers and their bookers have been "scared off" the Bahamas. "Clients are calling us all the time and saying: 'Are we going to get arrested for fishing in the Bahamas?", the managing partner at Abaco's Blackfly Lodge added.
"We have clients in Michigan and elsewhere, and they say to us all the time that friends who used to come here will no longer come here. They're afraid to come. That has such an effect on cars, vacation rentals and stores. These people spend a lot of money when they come here, not just in the lodges and Family Islands. This has been such a mess from the beginning."
Mr Kemp said the Bahamas was in danger of squandering an opportunity to introduce "comprehensive" recreational fishing regulation, adding that the absence of an online portal for the existing licence payment was "untenable" in terms of the bureaucratic delays imposed on clients.
"The Government is leaving tons of money on the table by not having a general fishing licence," he told Tribune Business. "I have heard of Andros lodge owners driving clients 40 minutes to the administrator's office to get a licence, and they're not there. It's a debacle all the way around."
Mr Kemp said the fines prescribed by the regulations were "unlike anything seen in the world", and added: "It's very scary. Tourists are afraid of having equipment taken away and them being put in jail. It's crazy. We have to reassure people all the time it won't happen.
"But the way the legislation is written you can be fined heavily and put in jail. It's ridiculous. These sorts of things start to scare people."