By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Prime Minister and senior officials are at odds over whether the controversial flats fishing regulations have been suspended, amid fears the situation is becoming an “all-around debacle”.
Tribune Business can reveal that Dr Hubert Minnis and the acting director of marine resources have issued conflicting statements on the matter, amid a Cabinet divide on whether to suspend and/or amend the regulations.
The regulations, which have been blamed for causing up to a 40 per cent bookings decline for some fishing lodges, were said by sources to have been discussed at the full Cabinet’s weekly meeting on Tuesday.
No conclusion was reached due to a split between Cabinet ministers on the way forward. Renward Wells, minister of agriculture and marine resources, who has primary responsibility for the matter, is understood to support the regulations and backs the stance taken by senior members of the Bahamas Fly Fishing Industry Association (BFFIA) who pushed for their creation.
Tribune Business sources, though, said other ministers were unconvinced by the case Mr Wells made for retaining the existing regulations given industry complaints about the negative impact they were having on a sector said to contribute $140 million annually to the Bahamian economy.
With the Cabinet divided, the Government “has not been clear on” the way forward, meaning that the public statement being demanded by fishing industry players to clear-up the ‘suspension’ confusion has not been forthcoming.
Well-placed Tribune Business sources said the Government was well aware of the problems created by what one described as the “premature” implementation of the Fisheries Resources (Jurisdiction and Conservation) (Flats Fishing) Regulations 2017 under the former Christie administration.
One source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the “two main issues” were the mandatory ratio of one guide for every two fishermen, and the ability for visiting anglers to easily obtain - and pay for - a fishing licence.
“We all recognise the introduction of the licence was premature, as there’s no way to pay for it intelligently,” they said of the Government’s position. They also questioned whether “any other jurisdictions have the requirement of one guide for two anglers” - something Mr Wells is understood to have said occurs in several US states, including Colorado and Montana.
The ongoing confusion is thus only adding to the uncertainty for the flats fishing industry and its foreign clients, with the Prime Minister and the Bahamas’ most senior fisheries official seemingly not on the same page.
Clint Kemp, president of the newly-formed Bahamas Fly Fishing Lodge Association, yesterday became the second person to confirm to Tribune Business that Dr Minnis said the regulations had been suspended when he met with industry representatives three weeks ago in Abaco.
“I had a face-to-face conversation with the Prime Minister no longer than three weeks ago,” he revealed, disclosing that Darren Henfield, minister of foreign affairs, was also present. “He [Dr Minnis] confirmed the regulations have been suspended pending further review.”
This position, though, has seemingly yet to be communicated to Edison Deleveaux, acting director of marine resources. Tribune Business has obtained an e-mail exchange between Mr Deleveaux and Kerry Fountain, the Out Islands Promotions Board’s executive director, in which the former said the regulations were still in effect.
“Have spoken with my permanent secretary on this issue,” Mr Deleveaux wrote. “The long and short of this issue is that while discussions are being held at the Cabinet level on this matter, the regulations, as enacted in 2017, remain enforced.”
Mr Deleveaux has not returned Tribune Business’s call seeking comment on the matter. Mr Wells, too, has not returned this newspaper’s calls and voice mails requesting comment, and has seemingly been uncontactable. Dionisio D’Aguilar, minister of tourism, whose portfolio is also touched by the situation, was said to be off-island yesterday and unavailable for comment.
Mr Kemp, who is also managing partner at the Abaco-based Blackfly Lodge, told Tribune Business the lack of clarity surrounding whether the regulations have been suspended was “causing tremendous confusion and frustration in the industry”.
He explained that the uncertainty had also created an ‘unlevel playing field’, with the regulations seemingly enforced on some islands but not on others.
“You have an island like Andros where fisheries officials are coming up on a regular basis, wanting to see licences on the dock, and coming with police officers,” Mr Kemp said.
“It seems like that is the only island where it’s being enforced. Fisheries have not heard the word from Mr Wells. I’m not sure what’s going on in the internal realm of government, but it’s confusing.”
Mr Kemp said that despite meeting with the Prime Minister, Mr Wells and Mr D’Aguilar, he had yet to receive “one phone call back” from any of them on the Bahamas Fly Fishing Lodge Association’s proposed changes to the regulations.
“We’ve suggested putting together a Sports Fishing Council, representative of all sectors including international industry professionals, to come up with something reasonable,” he told Tribune Business.
“This is a global game, a global sector. We need to navigate this very carefully.” Mr Kemp said “no one” - guide or lodge - was opposed to a licensing and associated fee regime for visiting anglers, but the payment and issuance methods needed to be free of ‘red tape’.
In the absence of an online payment portal, this process is said to be unnecessarily bureaucratic and time-consuming, with visiting fishermen having to be immediately whisked to the office of island administrators - who are not always there - to obtain the required permits.
The responsibility for licence issuance/payment is also said to have been passed ‘back and forth’ between administrators and fisheries officials on some islands, highlighting how inadequate infrastructure and systems are undermining the ‘ease of doing business’.
Mr Kemp also suggested that the current licence system was “so narrow”, as it only applied to flats/fly fishing and not fishing on boats at sea. He suggested the Government would significantly increase revenues if it created a more comprehensive, user-friendly framework that covered all fishing forms.
The Association president also called for the flats fishing industry to be switched from the Ministry of Agriculture and Marine Resources and placed in the Ministry of Tourism’s portfolio, where it was “for many years”.
“It moved to fisheries in the last administration,” Mr Kemp added. “But the Ministry of Tourism has a much better handle on how to grow, market and develop this business.”
He told Tribune Business that existing lodge owners were also willing to invest in the development of small lodges throughout the Bahamas, possibly via a public-private partnership (PPP) with the Government.
“If a person in Mayaguana has a good experience, we all have a good experience,” Mr Kemp said.
Shifting responsibility for flats fishing from the Ministry of Agriculture and Marine Resources to the Ministry of Tourism was also backed by Cindy Pinder, vice-president of the Abaco Fly Fishing Guide Association.
“It is time for Minister of Tourism and Aviation, Dionisio D’Aguilar, to insist that the flats fishing portfolio be returned to his Ministry at once, because the once-valuable and thriving tourism sector is in rapid decline in the southern Bahamas since the ill-advised... regulations went into effect just over 15 months ago,” she told Tribune Business.
“Because the fish are caught and released, and not kept, and bonefishing is done by visitors for vacation entertainment and rarely by Bahamians, it should be returned to the tourism sector for oversight and regulation of guides and guide training via programmes like the well-established Bahamas Host.
“The valuable $141 million flats fishing resource is a sustainable eco-tourism product that needs to be cultivated by tourism to grow the sector, instead of allowing the shrinkage to continue that is happening now. This is a tourism product that needs to be improved, which falls under the responsibility of Dionisio D’Aguilar as the minister of tourism and aviation.”