* Major processors, wholesalers urge Bill halt
* Fear over 1,000 impacted, $8m exports lost
* At odds with fishermen on foreigners bar
By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A fisheries industry “rift” has been exposed over arguments that over 1,000 persons will be hurt, and up to $8m lost, if planned legal reforms stop foreign nationals working on Bahamian-owned boats.
The Coalition For Responsible Fishing (CFRF), a group representing major fisheries wholesalers, processors and exporters, warned that proposed changes to fisheries and Immigration laws preventing foreigners working on locally-owned boats “in any capacity” would result in “the unemployment of hundreds of Bahamians” at a time when the country could least afford it.
The group’s October 25, 2020, position paper, which was signed by the likes of Anthony McKinney, Paradise Fisheries’ principal, and Percy Roberts at Geneva Brass Seafood, warned that more fisheries businesses will fail without “significant amounts of experienced skilled labour” that are presently not available in The Bahamas.
Arguing that trained potters and divers, in particular, were in short supply, the Coalition warned that the ban on expatriate labour proposed under the Fisheries Bill 2020 was counter-productive and could result in the loss of millions of dollars of export-driven foreign currency earnings just when The Bahamas needed every cent it could get following COVID-19’s devastation. Estimating that the survival of 17 New Providence-based vessels alone could be endangered, the Coalition’s paper said that when dependents were added to the 260 total crew who worked on these boats, some 1,040 people could be negatively impacted.
It added that the fall-out would be felt throughout the Bahamian economy given that these vessels did business with companies ranging from Bay Street Garage to the Montague fish stalls through to the likes of Sam’s Refrigeration and Kelly’s Home Centre.
The Coalition’s position stands in direct opposition to that of the National Fisheries Association (NFA), which last week said it fully endorsed a Bill that “represents the will of the majority of law-abiding Bahamian fishermen” and “puts Bahamians first as the stewards and managers of the fisheries sector”.
Paul Maillis, the NFA’s director, yesterday confirmed to Tribune Business that the use of legal expatriate labour - primarily Dominicans possessing either work permits or spousal permits (meaning they are married to Bahamians) - had long caused a “split” between local fishermen on one side and the wholesalers, processors and exporters on the other.
However, the Coalition, saying that it wanted to provide “a different perspective” on the Fisheries Bill, said the planned legislation as it currently stands creates “survival challenges” that will make it difficult for the industry to achieve the expansion in industry output targeted by the Economic Recovery Committee (ERC).
The Committee, in its report to the Government, had set the goal of increasing combined fisheries and agriculture output from $150m to $1.2bn per year within ten years - the equivalent of a leap from the present 1.5 percent of Bahamian gross domestic product (GDP) to 10 percent of GDP.
“The existing fisheries sector has been in decline over the years with several boats and seafood-related businesses failing,” the Coalition’s position paper argued. “In order to sustain what we have, we will need significant amounts of trained manpower (divers, potters) to diversify and grow the economy, similar to most skilled industries in The Bahamas, that lack required expertise.
“Presently that trained workforce, like most major industries, need an injection of experienced skilled labour. Therefore, the proposed changes to the Fisheries/Immigration Act that would exclude non-Bahamians from working on 100 percent-owned Bahamian fishing boats in ‘any capacity’ is not in the best interests of any stakeholders.”
The Coalition’s position paper included the Bahamian public and government among these “stakeholders”. Listing the names of the 16 impacted New Providence-based vessels, it said that should Parliament pass the Bill as is it would result in the “guaranteed failure of a significant number of additional fishing boats”.
Besides the job and foreign exchange export earnings loss, the position paper - which was also signed by Errol Davis of Fish Farmers Ltd and Ronald Lebranche of Los Primos Ltd - argued that the Government would also experience reduced tax revenues while fuel suppliers, dive shops and grocery stores will also take a revenue hit.
Also suggesting that the Bill’s provisions would hit food security, the Coalition said it represented “a violation of the human rights of persons living and working in the Bahamas with permanent residencies (some with 20-plus years) with the right to work, spousal permits and work permits”.
“Without the help of these non- Bahamians it would not make sense to fish, as the operating cost and expenses are too significant to even try,” it added.
“The typical expense to prepare a large commercial boat to go out to sea is approximately $50,000 to $60,000. It requires a break even of at least five thousand pounds of lobster.”
Pointing out that a total of 260 persons worked on the 16 affected boats, split into 180 Bahamians and 80 non-Bahamians, the group argued that 1,040 livelihoods could be at stake based on four dependents per crew member.
“Many of these persons, if not employed on these boats, would otherwise resort to criminal activity,” the Coalition said, suggesting many crew were otherwise “unemployable” due to having criminal records or no formal education.
Breaking down the economic impact from the 16 vessels, the group added that fuel sub-suppliers - three to four small companies that credit diesel and gasoline to the boats - typically received $3m- $4m per year from these vessels and would be “severely impacted” if they stopped operating due to the proposed Bill.
Wholesale grocers were said to earn around $800,000 per season from their activities, while a further $600,000 was generated by credit advances from the fisheries wholesale exporters. Average maintenance and repairs, excluding major jobs, were pegged at around $132,000 per season.
“Catch generated is approximately 500,000 pounds at $13 per pound for a total of $6.5m,” the Coalition said. “This translates into approximately $8m in direct foreign currency earnings from lobster export among the three major export companies in New Providence from these 16 boats.
“Numerous boats sit vacant at Potter’s Cay for a lack of a decent crew,” it added, suggesting that the Fisheries Bill’s blanket prohibition on expatriate labour “is not the solution to growing and diversifying the industry, and will hurt more Bahamians than it helps.
“Any suggestion to the contrary is supported by special interest groups that have no interest, understanding or appreciation of the economics of the industry, and have not suggested a significant enough reason for such an unnecessary act except anecdotal.”
The Coalition said the majority of dive permits issued to locals went to self-employed Family Island residents who had no interest in spending four weeks at sea on large commercial fishing vessels from Nassau.
Telling the Government that it was “time to grow the industry, not shrink it”, the Coalition and its members urged it to drop the proposed Fisheries Act changes and instead work with all stakeholders to develop a “balanced” approach that also involved training and knowledge transfer for Bahamians.
The group added that they had sought to engage the National Training Agency and Ministry of Agriculture and Marine Resources on developing training programmes to expand the Bahamian labour pool, but this effort had suffered several false starts.
It said it wants to revive this initiative with training in potting for fish, crab and lobster, as well as diving, with the aim of graduating 30 persons per year in each discipline.
Funding, it suggested, could come through the $50m a year that the Government is granting to small businesses as well as the private sector.