ON Friday of last week, Minister of Agriculture and Marine Resources Michael Pintard announced in Grand Bahama that legislation was going to be introduced with stiffer penalties for poaching, the illegal taking of fish, conch and crawfish from Bahamian waters by non-Bahamians or non-Bahamian owned vessels.
All we can say is: “It’s about time.”
We look forward to seeing what the stiffer penalties are. We also want to know how it is going to be monitored, what resources are being directed at enforcement and whether the new penalties will be stiff enough to offset the potential profit of a large catch.
We also want to see a plan to expose those who violate the law once charges have been filed.
The marine resources of The Bahamas are our lifeblood. The fish, conch and crawfish are not only a part of our food culture, they help define The Bahamas, our way of life, our fishermen’s way of life from the time their great-grandfathers and others before them took to the sea. They are part of what makes us unique and it is only because we have been blessed with thousands of coral reefs over 100,000 square miles of open ocean that our resources have been so plentiful.
But those resources are being depleted. Part of it is our own fault. We consumed so much grouper that to protect it, a closed season had to be introduced to allow for spawning. Depletion of grouper with fishermen having to go further and further for their catch and finding far smaller fish than they did even a decade ago is partly the fault of Bahamian fishermen who violate the law and continue to get away with it.
Part of the fault lies with restaurants whose waiters quietly advise guests they have ways of getting fresh grouper year-round. They wink and boast, knowing their owners pay fishermen for the illegal catch. The fishermen take the risk because of the price grouper brings, and especially during the closed season when price reflect that greater risk. Many fine restaurants obey the law and it is up to Bahamians to patronise those that post notices on their menus stating either there is no grouper during closed season or in recognition of closed season, the grouper being offered was caught prior to that date and frozen. Restaurants and wholesalers are required to report the inventory they have prior to season closure and inspectors are expected to do their job verifying the report.
Bahamians are also depleting the conch supply at an alarming rate. It’s been said conch were once so plentiful it was hard to find a place to walk in Montagu Bay without stepping on a shell. There were areas in the Berry Islands where you could walk into the water and gather mature conch by the armful, as many as you could hold, in a matter of minutes. Now divers are going as deep as 40 feet and up to 50 miles from Nassau to bring back a day’s catch.
But nothing Bahamians do in their own waters begins to compare in scope with the destruction of stocks by poachers. In the Northwest Bahamas, boaters coming from South Florida are among the guilty, believing that by paying a fee, they can fish the waters and take back whatever they want for their freezers or, worse yet, to sell. There are clear limits related to personal consumption, but boaters with fancy fishing equipment, multi-thousands of dollars’ worth of reels and electronic fishfinders to help them spot prime areas mine those areas as if they had every right.
Hopefully, the legislation that Pintard plans to introduce will put the brakes on a practice that is so routine it is hard to imagine what resources will be required to change the behaviour. Thus, the need for public exposure so that violators are embarrassed in their own home country by having been charged with a crime in The Bahamas.
Even worse is the poaching by Dominicans and Hondurans in the southeast Bahamas, a battle that Bahamian fishermen have been waging for decades. Now, because many of the vessels have a Bahamian owner or part-owner and some have armed crew, confrontation is more intense and dangerous. The Royal Bahamas Defence Force with its new ships has made inroads but the job is far from done and it is hard to stem the flow when other countries have largely fished out their waters and the jewels of the sea lie close by.
Stealing another country’s fish is not like robbing a store where there is an entrance, lighting and security cameras to capture the culprit. These are wide open seas, lit only by the moon and stars. Fishermen are clever, lying low by day in concealed coves and anchorages, slipping out at night and powering up engines and equipment on their sophisticated vessels complete with processing plants.
“Poaching is now a fundamental issue we are addressing vigorously,” Pintard said during last week’s visit to Grand Bahama. Mr Pintard can take a page from what South Florida Fish and Wildlife and law enforcement were doing while he was speaking those words. In the two days of mini-season spiny lobster fishing for recreational boaters, South Florida law enforcement was out in full force. In that 48-hour period they stopped 400 vessels, boarding many. They checked for licences, measuring device or ruler, size of catch and spiny lobster size. Boaters with undersized specimens were fined, lobster was taken and placed back in safe waters. Law enforcement also checked for a range of violations, including exceeding the legal limit of six per person in the Florida Keys and 12 per person elsewhere in the state. By day two, 40 people had been arrested. By that evening the images of two men in the Florida Keys were splashed across TV screens following their arrests for fishing without a licence, having no measuring tool on board and an undersized catch.
Tougher legislation is a good first step. We look forward to seeing the details – regulations, fines, penalties and plans for enforcement. But we urge those who are found guilty be exposed. Combined with a hefty fine, jail time or community service, embarrassment is a wondrous deterrent.