By YOURI KEMP
Tribune Business Reporter
A National Fisheries Association (NFA) director yesterday argued that the government should permit fishermen to sell directly to the public at a "well-policed market".
Paul Mailis, while backing the nationwide lockdown to prevent COVID-19's spread locally, said the government should relax restrictions that limit commercial fishermen to only selling their wares to processing plants and wholesale distributors amid the ongoing pandemic.
While urging that the government "order" no price gouging on seafood for as long as the emergency powers last, he said it was possible to limit any COVID-19 risk to the public while still allowing them to buy fish directly.
"Let me be clear. We very much support what the government is doing in trying to limit the spread of the virus," Mr Mailis said. "However, it is the opinion of myself and the NFA, and a number of our members, that we believe it can be reasonably contained in a well-regulated, well-contained, well-policed fish market similar to that of the Gladstone Road Farmer's Market, where fishermen have to pre-clean their fish before they bring them to sale so that they can sell them in a way that is most sanitary and pre-bagged. We limit this touching of the hands and everything of the sort.
"Especially in the out islands, it's very important that the fishermen have an exception to selling to the processing plants because, on many of the islands like Ragged Island and Crooked Island, there are very few active processing plants if any.
"On the cays of Abaco and Grand Bahama, there isn't access to processing plants, so fishermen need to have a way to either sell their fish to the community at large or at least be able to give it out if need be. Right now, as the law stands, that is not permissible," Mr Mailis continued.
"We would just like a greater clarification on that, and we do believe that some of the proposals being submitted by the fishermen make good arguments to allow a well-policed open market as long as the fishermen practice safe social distancing and sanitary protocols."
The nationwide lockdown was imposed just as the crawfish season comes to an end on April 1. "Obviously the virus has disrupted the crawfish season up to this point when we first had our curfew imposed and our full shutdown," Mr Mailis added. "That's when the impact was really felt.
"But the government has extended commercial fishermen the ability to go and conclude the season. So once April 1 comes they have to come home, they bring in all of their traps, and they bring in all of their crew, and that's the end of the season.
"They can sell their tails to the seafood processors and that's the end of their lobster season. So, thankfully, this did not take place during the peak important time that fishermen needed to recover after Hurricane Dorian."
However, Mr Mailis warned: "At the same time it is still hard that fishermen aren't going to be able to go out and bring back fish for the public at large, because that's really what may be very important coming up if this blockade continues into months and months. We are going to run out of food supplies, and Bahamians are going to need access to affordable food that is fresh and healthy.
"I believe that the government should make an order that price gouging is absolutely forbidden in the sale of fish, and that fish should not be raised by any substantial amount during this time of crisis regardless of the increase in cost.
"It would be immoral and unjust for fishermen to hike up the price for the seafood processing plants, who are now mandated by law to purchase the fisherman's product to sell them fair market value, and to make sure that there is no price gouging of the customers who have to go and purchase the seafood from these processing plants."
Keith Carroll, former Bahamas Commercial Fishers Alliance (BCFA) vice-chairman, said yesterday of COVID-19's impact on the crawfish season: "The boats are still out to sea, and they will be here for April 1. They will still be allowed to sell their lobsters to the fish houses. That is what the minister is saying right now.
"I know my boats are out to sea and they won't be in until April 1, but what we are doing is that we will be taking ourselves directly to the fish houses, and whatever fish I don't sell I would hold them in the freezers until things open back up."
Speaking to the COVID-19 emergency powers, Mr Carroll added: "There is nothing you could do. If you look around the world everywhere is shutting down. We just want to be safe for everybody. As far as I am concerned whatever laws the government put in place we will try to abide by them."