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‘We’d have accepted 100-150%’: Government suspends boat fee hikes

• But confusion over whether it applies to all vessels

• Four-digit rises ‘taxing fishermen out of business’

• Increases likely adjusted with mid-year Budget

By NEIL HARTNELL

and YOURI KEMP

Tribune Business Reporters

Bahamian fishermen yesterday said they would “have no problem” paying 100-150 percent boat registration fee increases as they hailed the decision to suspend the “utterly devastating” four-digit hikes.

Keith Carroll, the National Fisheries Association’s (NFA) president, told Tribune Business the industry would likely have accepted first-time and renewal fees doubling but added that increasing them by 1,000 percent or more “couldn’t work” and amounted to “taxing Bahamian fishermen out of business”.

And Paul Maillis, the NFA’s secretary, in slamming the boat registration fee schedule introduced with the 2023-2024 Budget as “unjust”, said much angst could have been avoided if the Government had both consulted the maritime industry before imposing the increases and acted more swiftly to adjust them rather than waiting a further six months in the face of growing opposition.

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DEPUTY Prime Minister Chester Cooper.

The duo spoke out after Chester Cooper, in his capacity as acting prime minister, announced via a ZNS TV interview that the Davis administration’s Cabinet has elected to suspend the ten-fold and greater hikes that have sparked maritime industry anxiety and protests.

He promised that the current boat registration fee schedule will be reviewed, and industry consultation undertaken, and hinted that the changes could be unveiled with the mid-year Budget that is due to be presented by the last week in February. Revenue enhancements will likely occur elsewhere so that the Government makes up any shortfalls caused by lowering boat registration fees.

However, Bahamian excursion operators yesterday revealed that critical agencies do not appear to be on the same page as Mr Cooper. They said that while the deputy prime minister’s comments seemed to imply that fees will be slashed for all vessel types, the Port Department had informed them the reduced fees will only apply to private and recreational vessels - not commercial craft.

Adoni Lisgaris, the Bahamas Excursion Operators Association (BEOA) president, told Tribune Business: “I actually went to the Port Department today [yesterday] and they’re saying something different. They are telling me now that that only pertains for private vessels, which is contrary to what Mr Cooper said.”

This, if accurate, would still leave the likes of fishermen, ferries, tour and excursion operators, tug boat owners, salvage vessels and barges exposed to the existing hiked fees as Mr Lisgaris called for urgent clarification of what he described as an “outrageous” breakdown in communication within the Government.

“Mr Cooper specifically said all boats and tour boats. So there is obviously miscommunication there somewhere. There is obviously miscommunication because the minister is saying one thing and the Port Department is saying something else, which is outrageous,” he added.

Mr Lisgaris said he was under the impression that the suspension of the boat registration fees applied to all boat types, and from the smallest to the largest. Lieutenant Commander Berne Wright, the Port Department’s acting controller, was said “out of country” and returning today, and the tour operator chief said this will hopefully assist in providing greater clarification.

The NFA’s Mr Carroll, meanwhile, said it was critical that he and other fishermen are informed as swiftly as possible what the new fees will be. There are also questions over how boat owners who have paid the hiked fees will be treated - whether they will be reimbursed the difference to the adjusted fees, or if the Government will allow them to obtain credits against future payments.

“All the fishermen are happy to hear that,” Mr Carroll said of Mr Cooper’s announcement. “We are still wondering what the [new] fees are going to be. We’re waiting to hear that. I don’t think we have a problem with them going up 100 percent, even 150 percent, but what they were trying to do to the fishermen, there was no way that could work.

“Some of the fishermen might be able to afford to pay them, some of them cannot. I don’t know if it would put them out of business, but it would put a hindrance on their business. I think fishermen would have no problem with a 100-150 percent rise. I don’t think that would be a problem. If I pay $200 now, if I to pay $500 a boat I don’t think that would be a problem, but to go higher kills us.

“I don’t know who decided to go up on the fees that high. I’m sure that not one of them has a fishing boat or pleasure boat. They should have consulted with the fishermen and private boat owners before they made a decision, but they didn’t consult with nobody. They didn’t consult the NFA, and we’re the biggest fishing organisation in the country and cover all the islands of The Bahamas.”

Mr Carroll said it would have been sufficient for the Government to only approach a small group of fishermen over its plans, as word would have quickly spread around the industry and groups such as the NFA can then provide feedback.

“You don’t have to listen to us, but at least consult with us if that’s the route you’re taking,” he added. “The fishermen and all the boat owners I talk to are happy, but they really want to know what they now have to pay.

“At the end of December, I usually get my boat registered for next year. I don’t sit around waiting for nothing. I want to be up to date with my stuff, and want to know the fees so I can go and pay them. They [the Government] should say: ‘Go ahead and pay what you used to pay, and next year they will go up by whatever percentage it goes up’.

“The percentage it went up by did not make sense. You won’t get more revenue by simply increasing taxes on your citizens. I don’t know how they’re going to do it but they will have to find another way than to tax the fishermen out of business.”

Mr Maillis, in common with Mr Lisgaris, confirmed he interpreted Mr Cooper’s remarks as meaning that boat registration fees for all vessels - private and commercial - will be cut by an as-yet unspecified amount. He voiced gratitude that the deputy prime minister had clarified the Government’s position following multiple “rumours” that changes would be made.

“It’s unfortunate we have to be at this point,” Mr Maillis added. “Had consultation taken place properly from the beginning, the Government would be fully aware it did not have the support. If it had properly consulted from the get-go, the Government would have been fully aware and gone into this process with eyes wide open that this would not be well-received and tolerated.”

He said “law-abiding and hard-working fishermen” have had “to take the blow and sacrifice” since July last year by paying the hiked registration fees given that they had little choice if they wanted to remain on the ocean. Many now asking whether the Government will offer vouchers or credits to those who have already paid, with Mr Maillis describing the latter as an “equitable solution”.

The NFA secretary, though, said the pain could have been further eased if the Government had responded more quickly to the maritime industry’s cries in the Budget’s aftermath. “We had been informed by a Cabinet minister and other officials that a review of the regulations would be coming promptly,” Mr Maillis said.

“They were aware of the problems it was causing and said they would make swift changes, but that did not manifest until five to six months later.” However, he added that the most important issue now is to quickly rectify the situation and move the maritime industry forward, while arguing that the situation showed the need to create the National Fisheries Stakeholder Forum as called for under the Fisheries Act 2020.

That would serve as a body through which industry consultation on issues such as boat registration fee increases could take place. “The current fee system that was enacted is unsustainable, unjust and needs to be swiftly parked,” Mr Maillis said, telling Tribune Business it would be “utterly devastating” to fishermen and spark “conflict” between the Government and boaters if left in place.

Mr Cooper, in his Wednesday interview, acknowledged that the boat registration fee increases have caused “much concern” especially with small boat owners. He said: “This has become problematic. We have listened to the people and Cabinet has determined to suspend the new fees.

“This has caused much concern with small boat owners, Family Islanders who use their boats for their very way of life, and for transportation - for fishing or tours.” The Boat Registration (Yacht) Amendment Rules 2023, which contain the increases, will have to go back to Parliament after being “revisited” by the Ministry of Transport and Energy.

Mr Cooper added: “We will come back after some public consultation on the issue, and there will be a formal notification by my colleague, minister for transport (JoBeth Coleby-Davis) in due course.

“It is not the intention of the Government to penalise boat owners in any way. This has been a revenue measure by the Ministry of Finance in collaboration with the Ministry of Transport, and I’m happy to say that my colleagues have seen the wisdom in revisiting it and therefore we are suspending these fees for now.”

Mr Maillis, who earlier this week revealed that fishermen were planning to protest outside Parliament, said: “We don’t want that. We are a peaceful country, respect the rule of law and want proper procedure to be followed. We at the NFA have no animosity. We want what’s best for the industry and the country. We come with open minds, open hearts and want to participate in the process.

“We want genuine consultation, not lip service consultation, and a government that respects and has the interests of its people at heart. We don’t want to be law breakers. We are honest, hard-working, law-abiding citizens and hate to be put in such a position.

“We can’t return to a fee structure even close to this one. Like Mr Carroll said, we would have been accepting of a 100 percent increase in fees but to jump to what it did was simply unacceptable.”

Kwasi Thompson, the east Grand Bahama and Opposition MP, said of the Government’s move: “These fees were implemented without consultation, ignoring the human impact on small fishermen and on the cost of doing business, and thus retail prices of marine products sold to the average Bahamian kitchen table. This is homegrown, self-inflicted inflation.”

Comments

Sickened 4 months ago

Typical PLP crap. And Brave gone AGAIN!

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sheeprunner12 4 months ago

The New Day PLP is just trying to squeeze the "small man" while the political elite is living the high life .............. One of these days there will be a revolt

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ThisIsOurs 4 months ago

who is making all these rash, dumb decisions one after the next at Finance that Brave Davis never seems to be aware of that eventually have to be walked back? Shouldnt Mr Davis at minimum do the job of Minister of Finance and relieve that person from their post of Chief of Confusion?

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BONEFISH 4 months ago

@This is Ours. You simply do not understand much. The officials at the Ministry of Finance do not live in a bubble like you. I personally do not care much about the Financial Secretary.Some body told me several years ago what was happening and will happen. The Bahamas is on a slippery slope to bankruptcy and the IMF is pressuring this country to deal with it's deficits. The country can not borrow as it use too. So this government like the previous government has to increase tax collection. It is simply by what method. I do not support this rate of tax increase. But i know what they are desperately trying to do.

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ThisIsOurs 4 months ago

True! I do not understand much, but I do grasp a little more than you gave me credit for. Ive said repeatedly, their upbeat messaging of tourism numbers and rebound and good news all around, does not match their aggressive blood out of stone tax strategy and we must be hanging off the fiscal cliff by our fingernails. My exact language. What I am saying here that went completely over your head is, whether the IMF is breathing down our neck or not, who thinks it makes sense to introduce measures that are immediately rolled back and deemed nonstarters? Who doesnt feel the weight of the bad decision on fuel hedging? That certainly was not inline with any IMF advice. Have these decisions solved anything or did they just create an ever increasing ball of confusion?

You know the first action they could take? Eliminate the leaks, the corruption, the over priced contracts, the contracts for shoddy work and the hiring of unqualified party supporters. Do that at minimum, that makes sense. They might actually balance the budget with just that. After that target the people who have the money for additional taxes, that makes sense. And it is completely within their power to do. Dont target the poor fisherman who might be making 2-5k month with a 1000% tax increase. The concessions to the foreign investors reexamine them and eliminate reasonable concessions.

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sheeprunner12 4 months ago

Agreed 💯

Then take away the fuel monopoly that Snake enjoys, along with ALL of his other perks (for his PLP donations).

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The_Oracle 3 months, 4 weeks ago

Higher rates still apply (Monday 22 Jan) as Out island Port Dept offices have received no official word from on high. DPM spoke while he was acting P.M. so must be some higher authority?

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