By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The fisheries industry is discussing whether to impose a deadline beyond which crawfish cannot be sold after the March 31 season close, Tribune Business was told last night.
Paul Maillis, the National Fisheries Association (NFA) director, told this newspaper that talks surrounding the regulations for the new Fisheries Act were focusing on whether such a cut-off was necessary to prevent persons selling lobster caught out-of-season to hotels, restaurants and fisheries processors.
He explained that too often fishermen used “the false pretence” that they were selling-off inventory caught before the season closed as cover for continuing to fish between end-March and the new season’s August 1 start, and greater regulation might be needed to better preserve lobster stocks.
“In the new Fisheries Act, the regulations, it’s being discussed whether or we’re going to amend the law so that lobster can only be sold up to a certain time after the season closes,” Mr Maillis disclosed. “That’s something the NFA is working on, trying to determine whether it’s a good policy or timeframe.
“Perhaps that’s going to help with black market lobster sales, where fishermen and recreational fishermen continue to catch lobster after season and sell them to restaurants, hotels and fisheries processors claiming they caught them in-season.
“We’ve got to eliminate that illegal handling of lobster out-of-season under the false pretences that they had them before the season closed.” Mr Maillis said the period between June 1 and July 31 is presently treated as the closed season.
He added: “Boats tend to go out towards the end of the season and come back with 20,000 to 30,000 pounds. We don’t want to cut that off and punish people for catching in a legal timeframe, but we want to give them enough time to sell their wares and create the habit that once the season is closed that’s it.
“I get a lot of calls from customers in innocent ignorance asking for lobster up until the end of July. Anybody know a fisherman who knows a way to get lobster? We need to work on consumer education and keeping fishermen honest at the same time. I believe having a rigid cut-off point is a good thing, and restaurants are going to have to learn to sell fish out of season.”
Mr Maillis said some species of grouper as well as snapper were still open to fishermen, as he and Keith Carroll, the National Fisheries Association’s (NFA) president, both pointed out that this crawfish season will be much different for vessels and operators that relied on non-Bahamian labour previously due to the ban on their participation taking effect with the new Fisheries Act.
“This year, for the first time in about 28 years, there will be no foreigners on Bahamian fishing vessels,” Mr Carroll said. “The impact of that is that Bahamian boats will be making more, and that will be shared among Bahamian fishermen, so more money will stay in the country and be circulated in The Bahamas.”
The National Fisheries Association has previously fully endorsed a Fisheries Act 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”. However, Tribune Business previously revealed how the Act, and its bar on foreign fishermen working on Bahamian-owned vessels, has caused a split in the industry.
The Coalition For Responsible Fishing (CFRF), a group representing major fisheries wholesalers, processors and exporters, some of whom are involved in the legal challenge to the Act, earlier warned that up to $8m would be lost, and some 1,000 persons hurt, if the reforms went through.
It argued that 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 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.
But Justice Indra Charles denied the group’s request for an injunction to halt the Act’s enforcement on the basis that doing so would “cripple” Parliament and the government’s ability to make and pass laws for “the ‘peace, order and good government of the country’”.
Her verdict gave the go-ahead for implementation of an Act that bars foreigners from working in the Bahamian fisheries sector. However, Justice Charles said the way remains clear for the exporters, boat owners and others behind the action to challenge the new law on constitutional grounds now it has been enforced.
Geneva Brass Seafood, Paradise Fisheries, Fish Farmers and Audley’s Seafood had teamed with boat-owning corporate entities and two Dominican fishermen working legally in this nation, together with their Bahamian wives, to challenge the Fisheries Act and accompanying Immigration reforms on the basis that they are unconstitutional and discriminatory.
While Paradise Fisheries subsequently appears to have been removed as a plaintiff, the remaining members of the alliance and their attorney, Alfred Sears QC, the former attorney general, had sought a “permanent injunction” from the Supreme Court to prevent the government from implementing provisions in the new Acts that they deem offensive.
Their case, in particular, focused on sections 31 and 32 of the Fisheries Act, which bar foreign fishermen - even those in The Bahamas legally with work and spousal permits, or permanent residency - from working on Bahamian-owned fishing vessels.
However, Justice Charles ruled that Mr Sears and his clients had failed to show the matter was sufficiently “exceptional or unusual” to warrant the court’s intervention - and interference with Parliament’s legislative functions - at this early stage of the case.