By YOURI KEMP
A CABINET minister says the Government will not abandon legal reforms that bar foreigners from working on Bahamian-owned fishing vessels despite push back from major wholesalers and processors.
Michael Pintard, minister for agriculture and marine resources, told Tribune Business that the Fisheries Bill 2020 will proceed through Parliament despite the Coalition for Responsible Fishing (CFRF), which represents the large processing houses, warning that this will negatively impact over 1,000 livelihoods and cost the country some $8m in export earnings.
He said his ministry had consulted with both the Coalition and the National Fisheries Association (NFA) on the Bill prior to the Cabinet approving the changes, which he added had been in the making for the past ten years. The Bills are expected to be debated before the parliamentary Christmas break. Describing the issues raised as “not new concerns”, Mr Pintard added: “I have approved both the amendment to the Fisheries Act, as well as the [one to the] Immigration Act that would complement the Fisheries Bill.
“So there’s nothing we have heard prior to bringing it to Cabinet or subsequent to laying it in the House, on the table at the House, that will cause us to make any adjustment.”
He said: “When I came in the chair, I approved at that time spousal permits as well as work permits, and indicated that one year from now I did not intend - based on advice given - to renew those permits, as successive governments have indicated that they believe the appropriate course of action would be to reserve, as was intended, commercial fishing for Bahamians.
“Fish processing can be ventured into by non-Bahamians, but not fishing itself.”
The Coalition had last week argued 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.
The Coalition’s position, though, was countered by the National Fisheries Association, representing the fishermen, which said 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.
Describing suggestions that more than 1,000 persons will be impacted as “absurd”, the Association blasted:
“We are in an era of COVID, with mass unemployment, and they are concerned about hiring more foreigners?
“Hire Bahamians and invest in Bahamian labour. You cannot run businesses that lower wages, and undercut Bahamian labour, then claim to be supporting Bahamians.”
Mr Pintard, meanwhile, said his ministry has worked with commercial fishermen and partnered with the industry to create a “national dive programme” in conjunction with the National Training Agency and the Royal Bahamas Defence Force. He said this was “oversubscribed”, indicating there is no fear about a lack of trained divers to staff commercial fishing vessels.
The minister said: “This is not an action specifically seeking to target persons who are bad. This is really about looking at a couple of sectors because we really have lost the vast majority of sectors in the economy that have been reserved for Bahamians.
“But we believe it is so important that we protect the scarce resources with conch being under threat, with grouper being under threat.”
Mr Pintard added that he does not want the merits of the legislative reforms to be “hijacked” by a “narrow discussion on the immigration component”, given that the Bills do much more to help grow the fisheries industry.