By Morgan Adderley
Tribune Staff Reporter
WHILE new Agriculture and Marine Resources Minister Michael Pintard is calling for stricter penalties for poachers to be implemented, he stopped short of advocating for their vessels to be sunk.
In an interview with The Tribune yesterday, Mr Pintard suggested other avenues could be taken instead, such as harsher fines, imprisonment, and seizing the vessels.
However, he insisted that the overall decision would be made at the Cabinet level, not unilaterally by his ministry.
Mr Pintard declined to characterise the recent spate of poaching and illegal fishing incidents in the country as an “uptick” in such crimes. Instead, he acknowledged that these are “age-old” issues, and gave four measures the government could use to combat them.
On Sunday, 46 people on board a 70ft Dominican fishing vessel were apprehended by the Royal Bahamas Defence Force for poaching and were found with a large quantity of illegal fisheries products.
“This has been a perennial problem that we have had,” Mr Pintard said. “It is a very serious problem that’s going to require us working on multiple fronts.
“One will be…from a legislative standpoint, we have to increase the penalties for persons that are poaching in our waters.”
Mr Pintard added that consultation on this matter has commenced. He also said that stakeholders have made recommendations on what they believe are the appropriate penalties; and noted that “in the not-too-distant future” the government will address this matter.
When asked for specifics, Mr Pintard said officials do not believe that the “present regime of penalties” is sending a strong enough message to poachers.
“We are going to avail ourselves of every possible remedy in the law, inclusive of stiffer fines as well as looking at imprisonment, et cetera. All options are on the table…and it has to be dramatic enough to send a message to boat captains and engineers, so that it serves as a disincentive for them taking a risk.”
When asked if such dramatic deterrents could include sinking boats, Mr Pintard instead pointed to alternative measures that could be more beneficial to the country.
While reiterating that he did not wish to pre-empt any future Cabinet decisions, Mr Pintard pointed to the fact that it could be better to seize such illegal vessels and recoup resources through selling them or using them in training exercises for marine experiments or studies.
Resources, Mr Pintard clarified, could include “both the content, which would include the marine products caught, equipment used, as well as the vessel.”
“To the extent that we can utilise (them) in a way that’s beneficial to the country that’s being savaged by what they are doing, then to me that would be the initial option that I would be interested in.
“But again, I’ll have further discussions. This is not going to be a decision made unilaterally by the ministry.”
The second strategy to be used to combat this problem is diplomacy, via discussions with the governments of the illegal fishermen.
When asked when the last talks were held between the Bahamas government and the government of the Dominican Republic, Mr Pintard did not point to a specific date, but said these discussions have been “ongoing”.
One such diplomatic tactic was calling for the Dominican Republic government to intervene by placing trackers on vessels. However, Mr Pintard said the RBDF has not found such devices on Dominican poaching vessels.
“(This suggests) either it’s not been done or these ships have removed them in the event that they were applied,” he said.
Mr Pintard added that the minister of foreign affairs has “seized every opportunity” during the last 13 months in office to raise the matter at meetings where officials from both countries were present.
The third measure, Mr Pintard said, is protecting the sector for Bahamian fishermen.
He described how the methods used by both poachers and foreign fishermen with work permits can prove harmful to the environment.
“We have to act resolutely in making sure we are not disadvantaging Bahamian fishermen in a sector that is designed for them in how we go about addressing the work permit issue. We must make sure that we protect this livelihood for us.
“Because it’s not just an issue of availability of workers, which some may make the case to government that they need to hire foreign workers…it is also the methods used by workers that some Bahamian companies seek to employ.
“According to those stakeholders who the ministry has been consulting with, their methods are damaging to the industry. In terms of how they break shells and leave conch shells for example, in locations that hinder or drive away conch from feeding there in future. The lack of attention to the size of what is caught, the use of compressors…despite what the law says.”
The fourth strategy is centred around improving the RBDF’s fleet and technology.
While commending their efforts in apprehending the recent spate of illegal fishing, Mr Pintard said the government is looking into increasing the fleet, improving their positioning, and seeking “what other technologies might assist us in policing the borders, inclusive in looking at the option of drones.”
According to Mr Pintard, one tactic used by poachers is the use of multiple dinghies, which dispatch from a single large “mother ship”. These dinghies then spread out across the Great Bahama Bank, fish, and then reconvene with the mother ship and go back into international waters.
Mr Pintard also regretted the fact that poaching out of season is affecting marine life negatively, and ultimately affecting the number of Bahamian fishermen will be able to export in the future.
“What we seek to do as a government is really to be responsive to these hardworking Bahamians who have helped sustain Family Island communities over time. And we’re going to work in tandem with them and other stake holders in making sure that we protect our country by protecting their livelihood.”