* Over 100 'natural new products' from EEZ
* Multiple pharmaceutical patents sought in US
* Gov'ts failed to ensure nation also benefited
By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Bahamian people are earning nothing from foreign exploitation of this nation's marine genetic resources that has produced over 100 "new natural products", a report has revealed.
The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), in a document accompanying its recent $200m loan to the Government, disclosed that this nation is gaining zero commercial and financial benefits from the research activity it permits annually in the waters of its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
This is despite the granting of more than 100 research permits annually, most of which are to institutions based in the US and Canada. The report revealed that many of these research initiatives had resulted in patent applications being made in the US, "a large cluster" of which covered "a marine microbe" found in Bahamian waters and its use in the lucrative global pharmaceutical industry.
The IDB said one of the "biomolecules" generated from this Bahamian microbe strain had made it to "clinical phase II" drug trials in 2014, but the failure of successive administrations to establish a commercial and regulatory regime to ensure this nation gains a just share of any resulting revenues/profit from such exploitation of its resources has deprived it of a potentially "significant" income source.
"The Bahamas used to issue over 100 research permits per year, about 90 percent of which were issued to foreign institutions (generally from the US and Canada) enabling access to genetic resources, mostly in the marine environment," the IDB report said.
"A study published in 2012 calculated that 125 new natural products were discovered in EEZ in the 2000s. A preliminary review of the patent databases of the US revealed that a significant number of research initiatives conducted in The Bahamas applied for US patents.
"A large cluster of patents covers a marine microbe originating from The Bahamas, the production of biomolecules with this specific Bahamian strain and their use as pharmaceuticals. For one of these molecules, clinical phase II tests were announced to start in 2014," the report continued.
"These inventions based on a Bahamian genetic resource might be developed into commercially successful drugs with significant revenues. Due to the lack of a regulatory access and benefit (ABS) regime in The Bahamas and appropriate contractual provisions, almost no benefits are flowing back to the country from these and other cases of utilisation and commercialisation of Bahamian genetic resources."
With The Bahamas' foreign exchange earnings having almost completely dried-up due to the COVID-19 pandemic and tourism industry shutdown, which have left the Public Treasury in a similar cash-strapped state, it behooves the Government to seek out, identify and extract such revenue-earning opportunities as the one potentially identified by the IDB.
While the subject of The Bahamas' natural resources, their exploitation by foreign and local entrepreneurs, and how the public should benefit and to what extent, have all become controversial topics in recent weeks, marine microbes are not a product that has featured in the debate.
The IDB report suggests persons have been looking in the wrong place, and nothing was mentioned in the just-released Economic Recovery Committee (ERC) report about this potential earnings source even though there was an entire section in that 60-page document on "revenue generation for the environment".
"There are many avenues for new or improved government revenue streams within the environmental sector. This increased revenue can support a more efficient use of public resources, as well as help to fund a number of critical environmental improvements," the Committee's report said.
It instead focused on imposing levies on cruise ships and freighters passing through Bahamian waters on their way to destinations throughout the western hemisphere, as well as extracting fees from the telecommunications cables that pass through this nation's waters and connect Florida to central and South America.
The IDB, meanwhile, said the Government is moving to create an ABS policy framework that would allow The Bahamas to share in the financial benefits from research, development, innovation and commercialisation of its marine microbe assets as part of its economic diversification strategy via the so-called "Blue Economy".
The Blue Economy involves maximising economic growth and environmental sustainability through controlled exploitation of this nation's marine industry, and the IDB revealed that the Government is in the process of establishing an Inter-Departmental Blue Economy Co-ordination Group to drive this effort.
Headed by the Ministry of Agriculture and Marine Resources, the Group will have input from academics as well as the private and public sectors, and be responsible for co-ordinating agencies with responsibilities for ocean affairs and marine resources.
"The Bahamas' Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) covers 260,000 square miles, of which five percent is land and 95 percent is sea, representing the largest development space for the country. The geographical and climate conditions of The Bahamas provide unique possibilities derived from the Blue Economy if properly managed and protected," the IDB report said.
"With 95 percent of the country’s territory located in a marine habitat, and a regional average of 70 percent of the country’s population living on the coast, marine resources have the potential to become an even more important source of economic production.
"The fisheries sector only contributes an estimated one percent to the GDP, and still plays a limited role in the economy in terms of foreign currency earnings, food supply and employment, as it is mainly concentrated in traditional activities.
"The Bahamas produced 11,400 tons from capture fisheries in 2017, with Caribbean spiny lobster and queen conch accounting for about 68 percent and 29 percent of total catches, respectively, and exported $87.7m. Ninety percent of spiny lobster is exported. Without proper conservation measures, such as the establishment and management of Marine Protected Areas, the sustainability of the traditional products is challenged."
Sea cucumbers, sea moss, pelagic species, marine aquaculture, marine biotechnology and renewable energy were among the niches that the IDB recommended The Bahamas target as it seeks to rebuild and diversify its economy following the devastation inflicted by COVID-19.
The report acknowledged that some 41 MPAs have been declared in The Bahamas to-date, while a proposal for 43 new sites was submitted to the Minnis Cabinet for 43 new sites by a working group involving the Department of Marine Resources and several non-profit groups in 2019. A Biological Diversity and Conservation Bill has also been drafted and consulted with stakeholders.