By NEIL HARTNELL and YOURI KEMP
Tribune Business Reporters
A BAHAMIAN fisherman last night confirmed the long-standing “split” with the sector’s major wholesalers and processors over what he described as “a tragic and ironic reality”.
Paul Maillis, the National Fisheries Association (NFA) director, told Tribune Business that planned changes to fisheries law that his organisation supports had highlighted a decades-long rift with other parts of the industry concerning the use of expatriate labour (see other article on Page 1).
The proposed Fisheries Bill is being opposed by the Coalition For Responsible Fishing (CFRF), a group whose members include the likes of Paradise Fisheries and Geneva Brass, on the basis that barring legitimate expatriate workers from crewing on 100 percent-owned Bahamian commercial fisheries vessels would retard the sector’s jobs, production and export earnings.
The Coalition, advocating for the major wholesale and export houses, argued there was insufficient qualified labour to operate large New Providence-based fishing vessels without foreign workers who specialise in diving and potting in particular.
Errol Davis, of Fish Farmers Ltd and a Coalition member, told Tribune Business: “We came together based on an urgent need to address misinformation in the industry; primarily to address the misinformation about legitimate non-Bahamians and other matters of concern in the fishing industry. “Group affiliates are not members of the other fisher groups. We consider affiliates more progressive in our approach to expanding the business in a sustainable way, with due regard to conservation and preservation. We are in the process of formalising the organisation.”
However, Mr Maillis said those foreign nationals relied on by the Coalition’s members largely came from the Dominican Republic - the nation whose boats and fishermen have frequently been arrested and hauled before the Bahamian courts for poaching in this nation’s waters.
Suggesting it was “ironic” that nationals from the country blamed for depleting The Bahamas’ fisheries stocks now stood to benefit from the Coalition’s recommendations, Mr Maillis urged its members to encourage their Dominican employees to become “invested in this country” as Bahamian citizens rather than relying on work and spousal permits for their lawful employment.
“There is a rift,” said Mr Maillis, whose Association backs the new Fisheries Bill. “This goes back several years where several fisheries processing owners decided to go and hire mainly Dominican fishermen to work on their sea food processing vessels. That’s been their business model.
“The National Fisheries Association has always been fighting against this for years - many, many years, even before it was formed. If you speak to Bahamian fishermen across the country, they don’t like the reality and see it as something that goes against the law, the Fisheries Resources (Jurisdiction and Conservation) Act.
“The problem really isn’t the Act as it is. It speaks about Bahamian fishermen working on commercial vessels. It’s that the Immigration Act provides the loophole for anyone with a valid work permit or spousal permit to work in any industry....... It seems like Bahamian women only have eyes for Dominican men.”
Mr Maillis said Bahamian fishermen, who have “been on the front line dealing with the implications and impact of Dominican poaching for several decades”, were naturally suspicious of those who were now here possessing valid Immigration documents.
Suggesting that many may have just come off poaching vessels prior to arriving in The Bahamas, he added that local fishermen were often suspicious that Dominicans working on Bahamian-owned boats were still in touch with their countrymen and relaying advice on the location of the vest fishing grounds and how to avoid detection by the Royal Bahamas Defence Force.
Denying that “race” had anything to do with Bahamian fishermen’s concerns, Mr Maillis told Tribune Business: “What I would say to those owners is: If there’s any of their Dominican employees who have been here long enough, let them apply for citizenship.
“If they have a family and children here, they can apply for citizenship and live here and work on Bahamian fishing vessels. If they only have a work permit, as long as their owners need them they will be sending money back home. We’re not interested in that type of model. We want people invested in our country to be working on our fishing vessels.
“Their country [the Dominican Republic] is responsible for the worst crisis in our fisheries history; the poaching crisis. It’s an ironic reality that the country responsible for taking our fisheries resources is able to export its citizens to work on our boats. It’s a tragic and ironic reality for many fishermen, and has become unpalatable.”
Arguing that the Coalition and its members are “in the minority” over their views, Mr Maillis acknowledged the fisheries sector had issues with finding a sufficient supply of qualified labour but said these were no greater than for other industries.
“Are there challenges? Yes. There are challenges across the board in this country when it comes to sustainable labour, but fisheries is one of the few industries where Bahamians have a substantial stake and control of the outcome,” he said.
“Where is there going to be a place for the dwindling Bahamian fisherman if we don’t work to protect it? Some may say it’s affirmative action, but it’s about enforcing the law.”