By NATARIO McKENZIE
Tribune Business Reporter
The Bahamas Fly Fishing Industry Association’s (BFFIA) president yesterday fired back at opponents of the industry’s regulations, suggesting they were pushing a “doom and gloom” narrative to pressure the Government to back down.
“It’s not scaring anyone off,” Prescott Smith told Tribune Business. “The critics are using these conflicting narratives and talk about hurting the industry, which is not true. You can’t go to any of those other countries and do what they want to do here.
“All the talk is simply trying to paint the narrative to the Government that it will hurt the industry, but it’s all foolishness being put out by special interest groups. If it wasn’t about money there wouldn’t be any noise about this.”
His comments came as Renward Wells, minister of agriculture and marine resources, yesterday said the controversial Fisheries Resources (Jurisdiction and Conservation) (Flats Fishing) Regulations 2017 remain in effect.
He said in a statement: “The significance of the flats fishing industry is fully appreciated by this Government. In fact, the Government recognises that the stability of our economy depends on the strength of its middle class and small and medium-sized businesses.
“We have resolved to empower a new class of entrepreneurs, and that includes practitioners in the fishing industry. As a consequence, I am happy to reiterate the continuance of the Flats Fishing Regulations 2017, and I look forward to the input and continued support of stakeholders as we move this process forward.”
Mr Smith told Tribune Business that the legislation has been good for the industry. “The legislation has passed, and business has increased for all those foreign lodges. It’s the Bahamian lodges that have been hurt,” he added.
“The BFFA has been targeted. We will have no control over the resources of this country if we lose this legislation. All of this doom and gloom talk, it’s all about creating a false perception to the Government. We haven’t scratched the surface of this industry and we’re trying to create local ownership.”
The Minnis administration had been called upon repeatedly in recent weeks to clarify the status of the regulations, which came into effect last January. Last week, Opposition leader Phillip Davis described the ongoing confusion over whether the regulations, enacted in early 2017, have been suspended as “worrying”.
The regulations have divided Bahamian guides and the bonefish lodge owners/operators, who are both Bahamian and foreign, into two separate camps. The Ministry of Tourism last week launched a survey to garner feedback from industry stakeholders on the current legislation.
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 also ban commercial fishing in the flats, and anglers are only allowed to catch and release when catching bonefish, permit, snook, cobia and tarpon. One of the most contentious aspects of the regulations is the requirement of a ratio of one ‘certified guide’ to every two anglers, if they are fishing from a boat.
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, among the regulations’ major critic, 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”.
Tribune Business previously revealed that the Cabinet was split on the matter, with some ministers not convinced of the arguments put forth by Mr Wells and the BFFIA.
Cindy Pinder, the Abaco Association’s 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.”