By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Bahamas has “not even scratched 10 percent” of the fly fishing industry’s economic potential, it was asserted yesterday, amid “urgent” calls for it to rapidly increase guide numbers to “catch up” with rivals.
Prescott Smith, the Bahamas Fly Fishing Industry Association’s president, even suggested to the Andros Business Outlook conference that this nation is losing “billions” in fly and bonefishing revenues because the sector lacks a dedicated marketing unit within the Ministry of Tourism.
Pointing out that the ministry has a weddings director, and unit that handles this niche, he questioned why the fly fishing industry was not afforded similar treatment and priority when “we have the largest flats of their kind on planet earth”. And, focusing on Andros, Mr Smith argued that the island needed to “double” its 25-plus existing guides by attracting younger persons aged in their 20s and 30s into the sector.
“We have been pushing also for a national training programme to get a whole new generation of guides into the industry,” he told attendees, adding that he was “equally passionate about all areas of eco-tourism”. Mr Smith continued: “Presently we have 400 [fishing] guides in The Bahamas.
“I notice here at BAMSI, through Dr Raveenia Roberts-Hanna and a few others on our team, we were very instrumental in getting a national training programme here at BAMSI. But I can share with you, clearly with the average age of guides in The Bahamas, there is really an urgent need to get persons into this industry.
“I spoke to the head of fisheries sector in Belize yesterday. When I first wrote to the Cabinet of The Bahamas, which was 20 years or two decades ago, they had a dozen. Today, Belize has 1,000 full-time fishing guides. The Bahamas is around 400, and Belize doesn’t have one-tenth of the area in terms of their fishing grounds compared to The Bahamas. We have lost a lot of ground in developing the industry.”
Creation, and implementation, of a national training programme for Bahamian fly fishing guides was contained in legislation to regulate the industry which came into effect on January 9, 2017. However, Mr Smith argued that this needs to extend far beyond BAMSI and “really needs a lot more support if we are to do some catching up, which is badly needed”.
He added: “The country can capitalise many times more than we are presently doing at the moment. When we think of the fly fishing industry, we have not scratched the surface in terms of its true potential.” Calling for improvements to the fishing licence/permit process, Mr Smith urged that cruising and fishing permitting be reviewed as “incredible abuses” are occurring.
“The permit review of the fishing/cruising permit system in The Bahamas,” he added. “It allows incredible abuse presently taking place with our fisheries, as persons can buy a cruising permit but nobody buys an individual fishing permit. Many anglers who fish at my lodge are always asking me: ‘Prescott, why is it that the Government allows such abuse of its fisheries in The Bahamas?’.”
The Fly Fishing Association president also argued that the fly fishing industry was a large enough, and sufficiently important, economic contributor - especially in the Family Islands - to merit closer attention and its own dedicated unit in the Ministry of Tourism.
“A separate department in the Ministry of Tourism is urgently needed when it comes to this industry,” Mr Smith said. “The way the industry is marketed presently, it does the country a great disservice and The Bahamas has lost billions of dollars in revenue.
“You can imagine... We have the largest flats in the world, but even in our Ministry of Tourism, they have a director of weddings but don’t have a specific department to deal with the largest fisheries of its kind on planet earth. It means we as a country have to know where every fishing club is, where every outfitter is, whether they are in Japan or England or elsewhere in the world.
“The industry, in terms of its true potential, we have not even gotten as close as 5-10 percent of it.” Asked by Kerry Fountain, the Bahamas Out Island Promotions Board executive director, whether a fishing guide needs assessment has been conducted for every Family Island, Mr Smith replied: “A conference like this is sometimes very important to say things that are not very popular.”
He argued that all other tourism industry bodies had fought against the fly fishing legislation that was enacted in early 2017 even though many of their individual members stood to benefit from it. Emphasising that he and the Association placed the industry’s interests first, ahead of individual lodges, businesses and guides, Mr Smith said: “I will tell you that if we are to protect this resource we have a very narrow window because there are a lot of competing interests out there pushing The Bahamas in a direction that will destroy these resources.”
He argued that The Bahamas should have “five to six times” the number of guides it presently has, but added that they also need to be in specialist areas such as permit fisheries, tarpon and freshwater fisheries. “There’s no written policies in place,” Mr Smith said. “The country is losing a lot of revenue. As simple as having an outfitter’s licence, which means fishing gear can be bought in-country.”
Many anglers who try to buy equipment in The Bahamas cannot find what they need, he added, while a “repressive tax system” meant Customs was unsure what to charge visitors bringing in rods, reels and other essentials. As a result, Mr Smith said The Bahamas was losing out on potential foreign exchange earnings.
“Andros has 25-plus guides with their average age in the early 40s-50s,” he added. “We should have double the amount of individuals in their 20s and 30s coming into the industry. We need to get women into this industry. It’s not just lodges and taking anglers to the flats.....
“On a scale of one to ten, we’ve not even reached 0.1 in terms of the potential of this industry. The potential is endless in terms of developing what this industry really has to offer. The approach has to be to develop it in the interests of the country beyond our individual businesses.”