• Conch: 23% ‘harvested illegally’
By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Bahamians were yesterday warned it was “folly” to believe the oceans have an inexhaustible fisheries supply after it was revealed that 36 percent of landed catches are illegal or unregulated.
Paul Maillis, the National Fisheries Association (NFA) director, told Tribune Business that the country suffers from a “cloud of the unknown” as to the health of its fisheries resources because too many catches are either improperly reported or not recorded at all.
As a result, he was “not shocked” by an Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) report’s estimation that more than one-third of Bahamian fisheries catches fall into the illegal, unreported or unregulated (IUU) category - thereby representing a significant threat to the industry’s long-term sustainability and the livelihoods of many families and communities.
The data, contained in a report on The Bahamas’ so-called “blue economy” potential, which focuses on sustainably monetising the nation’s ocean resources, cited the Queen Conch as a prime example of these concerns. The IDB document suggested that almost one-quarter of all conch landings are illegal, and that some 60 percent are harvested before they can reproduce.
“The Bahamas deep-water offshore environment creates a rich diversity of marine species as the fisheries sector contributes around 1 percent to GDP, being the second [largest] exporter of fisheries products in the Caribbean,” the report said.
“The Bahamas produced 11,400 tons from captured fisheries in 2017, with the Caribbean spiny lobster and the queen conch accounting for about 68 percent and 29 percent of total catches respectively, with an annual contribution of 5.6m pounds in spiny lobster catch in 2017.”
However, warning that this performance could be endangered long-term, the IDB said: “The sustainability of these fisheries, as well as other fisheries - queen conch, Nassau grouper, snappers, stone crab and others - is challenged by the Government capacity to address IUU fishing as is estimated that 36 percent of all Bahamian landings fall under the IUU category.
“Queen conch constitutes the second biggest fishery in the country, with landings valued at $3m-$5m per year, and it is estimated that 23 percent of conch is harvested illegally and six out of ten are harvested before they are ready to reproduce.
“There is a need to strengthen the fisheries management plans, in combination with the use of new technologies such as vessel monitoring systems, regional and international partnerships and efficient licensing of fishing vessels to support the sustainability of the marine species,” it continued.
“Experience in other countries shows that the community-based approach to fisheries management could be more sustainable in the long-term, particularly in remote archipelagos where enforcement by fisheries authorities faces constraints.”
Mr Maillis told Tribune Business that numerous studies, especially by Dr Kathleen Sullivan Sealey, had come up similar figures to the IDB report’s 36 percent when it came to the amount of lobster (crawfish) that was caught illegally in The Bahamas.
“I’m not shocked by the figure. It’s not a surprise to me,” he added. “We have lots of recreational fishermen in this country, Bahamians as well as tourists, who do not report their catches. There are tens of thousands of them each year.
“There are commercial fishermen that do accurately report their catches, but sometimes it’s very difficult because they base it on the weight of sale as opposed to weight of the catch. There can be substantial differences.”
Mr Maillis explained that fish catches could lose up to 60 percent of their weight if filleted before they were sold, resulting in a major reduction that potentially skewed records. “And there’s a lot of fishermen that do not report outright,” he added.
“There’s not a strict mandate for commercial fishermen to report their catches under existing legislation. It’s never really been a big thing. There hasn’t been a lot of pressure from the science community or Department of Marine Resources to find out this information for many, many decades.
“It’s changing now. For many years, and most of the history of Bahamian commercial fisheries, this data has been lost. The only accessible data here is export data, and that probably represents only treated and sold product - not what is caught,” Mr Maillis continued.
“The 36 percent figure is accurate, though not all of it is illegal. A lot of it is unreported, a portion of which can be said to be illegal given the problems we have coming from Florida poachers, Cuban poachers, Dominican poachers and Bahamian poachers.
“We have a lot of different ways in which seafood is leaving the country, or is being consumed illegally without being reported.” The National Fisheries Association director said there were only “limited ways” in which the problem could be addressed, such as mandating accurate reporting by commercial fishermen as a condition for the annual renewal of their licences.
As for recreational fishermen, fisheries officers would need to check and record their catches for accuracy - an exercise requiring significant time and manpower. “We won’t know how to properly regulate if we do not know how much is taken from our waters,” Mr Maillis told Tribune Business.
“We can feel things are going wrong and try and make corrections, or work out what is going wrong and take action but, until then we will have this cloud of the unknown as to what is truly in our ocean.
“A prevailing mindset in this country is our oceans are infinite and cannot be exhausted, but as a commercial fisherman I can tell you that a very productive area can be over-fished in a short period of time and not replenished for a very long time. It’s folly for us to continue on this path of the unknown. It’s so dangerous.”
Calling for “greater national attention and focus” on this issue, including by the Cabinet, legislative process and Department of Marine Resources, Mr Maillis said it was vital to alter what he described as a “lackadaisical” approach to the Bahamian fisheries industry’s long-term sustainability.
He described the Queen conch as a prime example of this trend, adding: “We have gross over-harvesting of conch in this country. While most expert fishermen know where they can get conch, the vast generating habitats of conch have been hugely depleted..... Travelling through renowned conch areas you can hardly find any where there should be thousands.”
One consequence, Mr Maillis said, was that recreational fishermen - both tourists and Bahamians - struggle to find Queen conch because stocks have been “reduced to the point where they are only accessible to experienced Bahamian fishermen”.
“We have to take the conch problem very seriously,” he added.