Bahamas Flats Fishing Gone as We Know It?

New proposed legislation could make big waves for Bahamas fishing industry

Envision that you have only 11 days to comment and amend potentially historic legislation that will affect an entire industry. That's happening right now.

Proposed legislation was made public on June 18 and will go to a vote on June 29. It threatens to impact a current $141 million annual economy within flats fishing.

Bjorn Stromsness of Bonefish on the Brain set the tone in a recent blog posting of an alternate reality that could be presented to visiting anglers in the future:

Imagine the Bahamas with no Deep Water Cay, no Abaco Lodge, no Andros South, no Bair’s Lodge. These are foreign-owned operations and they are some of the best in all the Islands. They invest heavily in their lodges, they market, they hire well, they manage well and they are the types of places we think about when we think about fly fishing the Bahamas. There are a number of great Bahamian operations as well, don’t get me wrong, but they are as good as they are because they are competing with the foreign operations.

The idea of no Abaco nor Bair's Lodges doesn't sit well with Oliver White, the managing partner for both of those lodges, popular with enthusiasts internationally.

"The language is particularly hostile," says White. "As written, it creates a very polarizing response, particularly to foreigners as it has a heavy xenophobic undertone, particularly, in regards to foreigners owning lodges and having access to the flats."

Tourists, second-home owners, current employees — many of the fishing industry and recreational-fishing interests generally — could be directly affected by the change.

"As written, a second-home owner who has legally imported a flats boat, paid duty on it, registered it, could no longer take that boat out himself to fish," White says. "He would have to hire a registered guide. Not to mention, there is no system in place currently for any type of guide certification or registration. It says foreigners cannot own lodges — only Bahamian citizens and permanent residents. Every foreign business in the Bahamas, not just fishing lodges, has gone through a lengthy and arduous process with the Foreign Investment Board and received approval to conduct business. I think it’s a mistake to word it in such a manner."

There's also the confused notion of the wording in this legislation, that Stromsness addresses:

One other aspect of the proposed regulations I don’t much care for is the vagueness surrounding exactly why an angler or guide could be turned down for a permit to fish or guide. It seems very subjective and in a place a small as the Bahamas, I would worry the authority to deny someone the ability to fish or to make a living could be abused.

Such vague wording, and incorrectly following the law, can create repercussions. Consider that wording in place within the legislation:

(1) A person who contravenes or fails to comply with any provision of these Regulations commits an offence and, except as otherwise provided by the Act or these Regulations, or any other regulation, is liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding three thousand dollars, or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three months, or to both fine and imprisonment.

(2) A court may, where a person is convicted of an offence against these Regulations, in addition to any other penalty, order the confiscation and forfeiture to the Crown of any fishing gear and related supplies or devices inclusive of boats, engines, trailers, trucks and vehicles used in the commission of the offence or that is the subject matter of the offence.

White says that those pushing this legislative change didn't even consult with the industry stakeholders at large.

"I’m a partner in two lodges in the Bahamas. We have more than 25 Bahamian employees, we are the single largest employer of fishing guides in the Bahamas," he says. "We were not consulted or even informed this was going on. The shocking language in the draft, coupled with the incredible short notice to give comments, I have to think there is something going on behind the scenes."

The play here, says White, is to keep working towards smart regulation and taking preventative measures instead of slapping a band-aid on the concern at a later time.

"This is the time opinions on the issue are being heard. Write the minister, give your views," White says. "That’s how we get the next draft cleaned up. I do think good will prevail with the continued involvement of stakeholders and anglers to shape this into a meaningful piece of legislation. Fishing licenses are a good thing, especially if the money is earmarked for conservation. Smart regulation can be beneficial."

To speak out and give your comments, one can do the following:

Email The Bahamian Ministry of Fisheries (be received before Friday, June 26): fisheries@bahamas.gov.bs

Email The Prime-Ministers Office: primeminister@bahamas.gov.bs

Christopher Balogh