By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Government was yesterday praised for focusing on “the small details” that could greatly improve the ease of doing business for Bahamian commercial fishermen.
Paul Maillis, the National Fisheries Association (NFA) director, told Tribune Business the Davis administration could make conducting commerce much easier for industry participants by altering the date on which their duty-free permits expire and ensuring that all agencies - especially Customs - apply equal treatment to its holders.
Speaking after Clay Sweeting, minister of agriculture, marine resources and Family Island affairs, pledged to reduce the bureaucracy and red tape facing Bahamian fishermen, Mr Maillis said: “It would be extremely helpful to fishermen. There are small details that need to be fixed.
“The duty-free permit, for example, expires on July 31, which means that fishermen trying to be focused on the opening of the lobster season, which is August 1, they have to worry about their duty-free permit expiring,” he explained. “The permit should expire at the end of the season (end-March) or end of the year. It should at least expire at the end of the season, not before it starts.”
The permit allows commercial fishermen to import key equipment and other items duty-free, rendering it an important tax incentive and concession for their businesses. However, Mr Maillis said many fishermen were encountering other bureaucratic impediments and obstacles to its use.
“A lot of fishermen are being told by various departments that they need a letter of approval from the Ministry of Finance before they can use the duty-free card,” he explained. “What’s the point of the duty-free card if you have to go to the Ministry of Finance every time you want to use it?”
Mr Maillis added that Customs also needed to be aware of the duty-free permit’s existence and how it can be used. He revealed there have been “many times” he has tried to use it but officers are unaware that it exists and demand validation that he is entitled to use it.
The NFA director added that such problems could be solved by allowing fishermen to produce their commercial licences to prove they are qualified to use the duty-free card, rather than having to go back to the Ministry of Finance for approval each time.
“We see varying opinions coming from varying government departments,” Mr Maillis said, adding that Customs’ approach was inconsistent. Officers who were aware of the duty-free permit allowed fishermen to go about their business, while others required that Ministry of Finance approvals be obtained.
Mr Sweeting, a commercial fisherman by profession, said a primary goal was to make interactions between the industry and Department of Fisheries smoother to boost the ease of doing business, with access to documentation a critical issue.
“In my own experience, I realised that was a major issue for fishermen – to get access to permit applications and duty-free permits, and all of these things are small issues that we are looking at digitising to allow fishermen access to apply online, pay for the permit online, and be able to print it from whatever island they reside from,” he said.
“The Department of Marine Resources is larger than what most people think, and it’s not just permits and applications. It also deals with export of seafood and what companies are up to standard to export. And so we are looking at not just modernising, but enhancing the staff there to ensure that we put a renewed focus on the Department of Marine Resources.”
Mr Sweeting added that he is also seeking to increase The Bahamas’ seafood exports as a means to diversify the economy and raise foreign exchange earnings. “We would like to see an increase in exports in sustainable products such as lobster and stone crab,” he said.
“We can look at products that we haven’t even focused on because the sea bed is very vast. There are a lot of products that we don’t even understand that we can export. So we also need to look at other products so that we can find ways to grow the industry and not just focus on crawfish and stone crab, but other products that fishermen are able to make money from.”
Mr Sweeting visited Tropic Seafood, one of The Bahamas’ largest seafood exporters, which recently announced it was harvesting American Red Snapper as part of its product offering. It also harvests Spiny Lobster for export.
“When you look at what they want to do and varying into different prospect markets… I must commend them and thank them for investing and diversifying the fishing economy because it is very important that we find ways to redevelop and modernise the industry, and aquaculture is a way that you can do that,” Mr Sweeting said.
“I am looking forward to working with them hand-in-hand to ensure that their part in aquaculture, and the business that they are trying to grow, is successful and to ensure that what they do in that department is really able to benefit Bahamians and create more opportunities for persons. It is something that I am excited about and really hope that this is a game-changer to what this ministry is about.”