By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
and NATARIO McKENZIE
Tribune Business Reporter
Bonefish lodge operators yesterday said they were "confounded" and "mystified" by the contradictory messages coming from the Government over the industry's controversial regulations.
Clint Kemp, president of the newly-formed Bahamas Fly Fishing Lodge Association, told Tribune Business that the Minnis administration needed "to get on message" after the Prime Minister was seemingly contradicted by the Cabinet minister with responsibility for oversight of the $141m industry.
Renward Wells, minister of agriculture and marine resources, issued a press statement over the weekend confirming that the Fisheries Resources (Jurisdiction and Conservation) (Flats Fishing) Regulations 2017 remained in effect.
However, both Mr Kemp and Cindy Pinder, the Abaco Fly Fishing Guides Association's vice-president, have separately told Tribune Business that Dr Hubert Minnis informed them during a meeting on the island around four weeks ago that the regulations had been suspended pending further review.
"It's confounding to me," Mr Kemp, managing partner at the Abaco-based Blackfly Lodge, said of the opposing government statements. "I'm just at a loss to where this government is.
"I respect what he's [Mr Wells] saying, but I heard this directly from the Prime Minister. I don't understand why the message is not clear. They have to get on message together."
Mr Kemp reiterated that statements by Mr Wells and Edison Deleveaux, acting director of marine resources, contradicted the "suspension" message that was delivered last year by Benjamin Pratt, a Ministry of Tourism official, to an international audience at the Bonefish Tarpon Trust's Florida conference.
He added that this position had been "affirmed to us many times" subsequently by Cabinet ministers, plus James Albury, the south Abaco MP.
"I just sit here, as a lodge owner in Abaco, a bit mystified as to what's going on," Mr Kemp told Tribune Business. "I understand a review process is going on, and I haven't contributed to that. Hopefully it will happen soon. But I have to take the word of the highest authority in the land, and that's the Prime Minister."
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".
Mr Kemp yesterday reiterated that "people are not opposed to reasonable regulation", but this was made impossible by the rushed way in which the regulations were implemented without the proper supporting infrastructure in place.
Without a proper online application and payment mechanism, visiting anglers have often been forced to play 'hunt the Family Island administrator' to obtain the necessary licence. This has caused frustration and a loss of time, while the sanctions - financial penalties and even jail time - that can be imposed on those without the required permits has been blamed for "scaring off" potential visitors.
Mr Kemp said the licensing system should have been "properly thought-out out so it was not an inconvenience", while he continued to receive e-mails asking: "What's going on in the Bahamas?"
He added that concerns over the licence and accompanying penalties were being voiced all the time, and said: "This is buzzing on social media. This is a global business, completely dependent on visitors. They [the regulations] didn't take into account the regulations that make it happen."
The Blackfly managing partner added that the mandatory 'guide' requirement was also deterring 'do-it-yourself' fishermen, who did not want to hire such services, from visiting the Bahamas. Instead, they were heading to countries such as Mexico and Belize, and less stringent regulations.
"The Opposition is saying it is not having an impact," Mr Kemp told Tribune Business. "I don't know where they're getting their figures from. It has had an impact.
"According to everyone in the business we know, local and foreign, they'll tell you Bahamas bookings are down primarily because of the confusion going on here. Does the Bahamas want us to fish? It really has to get resolved, hopefully sooner rather than later."
Ms Pinder, of the Abaco Fly Fishing Guides Association, yesterday told Tribune Business that the regulations continue to place the Bahamas in a "bad light", adding that it was a "sad day in the flats fishing world" given the Minnis administration's apparent backing for them.
Mr Wells noted in his statement that the regulations call for "visiting anglers engaged in fly fishing activities to be required to use the services of a licensed guide". Ms Pinder, though, challenged this, arguing: "I'm not sure that he's ever read the law because that is not what it says. Unless, perhaps, he has changed it to ban 'do it yourself' anglers, like Prescott Smith and BFFIA wanted in the beginning, that caused such blow back in the industry?"
She added: "He [Mr Wells] further states that 'we have resolved to empower a new class of entrepreneurs that includes practitioners in the fishing industry'. I'm not exactly sure what he means by that either, as unlicensed guides and small Bahamian-owned and foreign-owned lodges that have always adhered to the rules and regulations.. have already built a $141 million industry without the Government's 'empowerment'. Lodge owners and guides in the southern Bahamas are feeling the downturn in business because of the Government's empowerment efforts."
Ms Pinder added that the Minister also failed to address the contentious guide/angler ratio. "He fails to address the 1:2 guide/angler ratio that applies to both foreigners and Bahamians that fish in boats, and harms foreign investment in our country, and the fact the regulation does nothing to address the commercial mothership issue that has two new operations operating off the coast of Andros this year alone. This legislation continues to put the Bahamas in a bad light in the fishing world."
Tribune Business has reported extensively as to how the regulations have effectively divided Bahamian guides and the bonefish lodge owners/operators, who are both Bahamian and foreign, into two separate camps.
This newspaper also 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 (Bahamas Fly Fishing Industry Association).
The regulations which came into effect last January 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.