By NATARIO McKENZIE
Tribune Business Reporter
The Opposition's leader yesterday urged the Government to clarify the "uncertainty" surrounding the flats fishing regulations, as the industry has "never been better" since their enactment.
Philip Davis described the ongoing confusion over whether the regulations, enacted in early 2017, have been suspended as "worrying".
"One of the topics out there that is very worrying to me is the suspension of the fly fishing regulations," the Cat Island, Rum Cay and San Salvador MP said. "During our last term in office we put in place specific regulations to govern this industry.
"The intent of the regulations was to protect Bahamian jobs, preserve the fly fishing flats for future generations, and create another stream of revenue. It was reported that regulations were suspended by Cabinet conclusions, but without a formal order of revocation it is challenging to appreciate how could the public servants go about not enforcing these rules."
Mr Davis added: "There is much uncertainty as to what the status is. What we do know is that it is said to have been suspended. We object to the suspension and, if there are issues that impact the industry which this government would wish to introduce through their own policy, then it is not necessary to suspend the regulations but meet with the industry, decide how they want to tweak it and otherwise improve it. To suspend it and leave it just a 'free for all' is not in the Bahamians' interest, and we need to correct that immediately."
Mr Davis also challenged the 40 per cent fall in bonefish lodge bookings claimed by the Abaco Fly Fishing Guides Association in a statement two weeks ago.
"We are reliably informed that the fly fishing business has never been better, and because of our regulations business has increased. Business in 2017 was better than 2016, and 2018 year-to-date is better than 2017. We believe and accept that business is brisk," said Mr Davis.
The Minnis administration has issued no formal statement on the regulations, and attempts to reach Renward Wells, minister of agriculture and marine resources, on the matter again proved futile yesterday.
Tribune Business last week revealed that the Prime Minister and senior officials were at odds over whether the regulations have been suspended. Dr Minnis said the regulations had been suspended when he met with bonefish lodge representatives three weeks ago in Abaco.
But Edison Deleveaux, the acting director of marine resources, wrote in an e-mail last week: "Have spoken with my permanent secretary on this issue, 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."
This occurred against the backdrop of a Cabinet split on the matter. Mr Wells, 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.
The regulations have divided Bahamian guides and the bonefish lodge owners/operators, who are both Bahamian and foreign, into two separate camps.
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 licence and pay a set fee. Non-Bahamians have to pay $15 for a daily license; $20 for a weekly license; $30 for a monthly license; and $60 for an annual licence.
They 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 licence. 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
While there is no opposition to regulation, the Fisheries Resources (Jurisdiction and Conservation) (Flats Fishing) Regulations 2017 have proven difficult to implement in practice as there is no online portal or payment mechanism for foreign anglers to obtain and pay for licences.
And the Abaco Fly Fishing Association is also expressing alarm that the 1:2 guide/angler ratio requirement "will have the unintended consequence of further destroying the Bahamas flats fishing tourism sector, as anglers who don't want to hire a guide will travel to tourist-friendly destinations instead".
Cindy Pinder, its vice-president, said in a statement: "The current regulation allows anglers to wade for fish without a guide, but not to use a boat to get to the flats or to fish from a boat if two anglers fish together. Second homeowners who have invested hundreds of thousands, or millions of dollars, in our country because they are fisherman can no longer flats fish here if Mr Wells does not rescind the regulations.
"The exodus of fishing second homeowners will be felt country-wide when the housing market collapses. Bahamians should expect expat fisherman and foreign real estate investment to become a thing of the past, along with all the money that flows through our local economies because of their investment."
Ms Pinder said the industry "100 per cent supported" a licensing system where permits were easily obtainable, and the revenues went to conservation, education and enforcement.
Yet she warned: "So much needs to be fixed within the current regulation it would be easier to start over, and make it an easy to understand and enforceable regulation that would actually protect the fishery and grow the sport in order to bring tourist dollars into the country.
"The current regulation mandates licensing for only five named fish. Licensing needs to be required for all fish on the flats, and the license must be easy to purchase online. The current regulation stipulates bonefish as 'catch and release', but anglers can also keep one to eat. That regulation is contradictory and ridiculous. Most of the regulation is unenforceable and needs to be abolished by Minister Wells."