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The island nation of the Bahamas boasts the largest saltwater flats in the entire Caribbean, reputedly ten times larger than those of Mexico. Countless celebrated saltwater species—including bonefish, tarpon, permit, snook, crabs, shrimp, and lobster—call these flats home. Protecting the future of these flats in perpetuity is, unsurprisingly, of paramount importance to interested stakeholders, who include Bahamian fishing guides and lodge owners, governmental officials, and all other citizens who benefit from the nation’s sporting tourism.

The Battle for Bonefish and the Future of the Bahamas

Above: Flats fishing is a ~$140 million a year industry in The Bahamas that many within the business and out feel is threatened by new regulations which have been presented without proper consultation. Photo by Vince Tobia.
Above: Flats fishing is a ~$140 million a year industry in The Bahamas that many within the business and out feel is threatened by new regulations which have been presented without proper consultation. Photo by Vince Tobia.

By Beau Beasley // MidCurrent Travel

This is Part II of a series on the new bonefishing regulations. A link for Part I of this article can be found HERE.

The island nation of the Bahamas boasts the largest saltwater flats in the entire Caribbean, reputedly ten times larger than those of Mexico. Countless celebrated saltwater species—including bonefish, tarpon, permit, snook, crabs, shrimp, and lobster—call these flats home. Protecting the future of these flats in perpetuity is, unsurprisingly, of paramount importance to interested stakeholders, who include Bahamian fishing guides and lodge owners, governmental officials, and all other citizens who benefit from the nation’s sporting tourism.

This article is part two of a series on the controversy surrounding proposed conservation legislation in the Bahamas. (Read Part I of the article online at the digital version of this story.) From the beginning, Bahamian legislators have faced strong opposition to the proposed Fisheries Resources (Jurisdiction and Conservation) Act, which seeks to more closely regulate fly fishing guides and lodges and establish a saltwater conservation fund paid for by the sale of fishing licenses. Among its most vocal critics are foreign lodge owners who fear they are about to be regulated out of business, and local fly fishing guides, many of whom have invested their life savings—and a lifetime’s worth of sweat equity—in their Bahamian businesses.

This article examines critics’ complaints about the proposed measure, which include:

-Its protectionism has resulted in more than a little bad press for the island nation;

-The legislation talks a good game about conservation but is woefully short on specifics;

-No mechanism is in place in the legislation to account for the funds collected from the sales of fishing licenses; and

-It severely curtails do-it-yourself (DIY) fishing.

The article also examines ongoing conservation work in the Bahamas and provides an overview of the bill’s possible future.

Protectionism in Conservation Clothing?

As written, the draft legislation requires anyone fishing recreationally from a boat to hire a certified Bahamian guide. In fact, the current language is so restrictive it would even require locals who own a second home in the Bahamas and have their own boats to hire a guide when fishing. This sort of stipulation, critics charge, demonstrates that the measure is little more than a jobs bill cloaked in the veneer of conservation legislation. Abaco Lodge co-owner Oliver White contends, “I don’t know what this legislation is about, but it sure isn’t about conservation.”

Protectionism certainly isn’t new—but neither is it obviously effective. Indeed, protectionist legislation often proves the economic “law of unintended consequences” rather spectacularly. What should perhaps give proponents pause is the fact that even many locals have raised boisterous objections to the proposed measure.

What disgruntled locals understand is that this issue has generated plenty of bad press for the Bahamas. What they wonder now is, will the acrimony result in a downturn in the tourism on which this island nation’s economy depends?

“I do feel the negative press is having an impact on all the lodges in the Bahamas,” says Miriam Cartwright, owner of Greenwich Creek Lodge. “Guests are being put off from travelling here. If anglers are required to use a guide to fish with every day of their trip, this would make the trip much more expensive.” Cartwright wants visiting anglers to understand that “small lodges like Greenwich Creek Lodge operate independent of the guides. The goal of the lodge is to give the guest a memorable, warm, hospitable, fun-filled experience while staying here. This includes fishing experiences where a guide is not always necessary.” (Perhaps legislators should consider Cartwright’s words as well.)

Noting that there is much more to do in the Bahamas than fish, Cartwright says, “We have the deepest blue hole in the world, we have pigs that swim, miles and miles of beaches, and with 365 days of summer, our outdoor activities are practically unlimited.”

Recognizing that local support is crucial to any conservation success, Abaco Flyfishing Guides Association (AFFGA), which actually opposes the legislation, has developed a guide to the bill for Bahamians titled “How Will This Affect Me?” (Read the AFFGA document here.) Locals might believe the bill will affect angling tourists alone, but AFFGA argues that any legislation that DIY anglers perceive as hostile to foreigners or foreign-owned interests will inevitably provoke a backlash. The anglers who don’t come to the Bahamas also won’t patronize restaurants, car rental agencies, and second home rentals.

 

What Are We Conserving?

Critics charge that the proposed legislation is vaguely worded and short on specifics. It mentions only that a percentage of fishing license sales will be used to establish a Conservation Fund; it does not address conservation goals, objectives, priorities, or enforcement. But where critics see a bug, supporters see a feature: they argue that the bill’s ambiguity enables all stakeholders to weigh in on and shape this potentially groundbreaking conservation legislation.

Adding fuel to the fire is the fact that few local stakeholders had any voice in the crafting of the legislation, and then only nine days to respond to the bill after it was made public. I asked government officials why such an important bill featured such a brief window for public comment; unfortunately, none responded to my inquiry.

 

Whose Money?

Critics charge that BFFIA president Prescott Smith has an ulterior motive in his admittedly tireless support of the legislation—namely, establishing BFFIA as the voice of Bahamas fly fishing and the recipient of a portion of the government-mandated conservation dollars. Smith’s supporters counter that BFFIA is the first to propose national conservation legislation, and that Smith himself has spent years traveling at his own expense to surrounding islands to educate locals about the importance of protecting bonefish and the justification for catch-and-release and other good stewardship practices.

Smith does not apologize for supporting what he believes will advance the interests of Bahamians ahead of others: “There are many people who are happy with Bahamians as long as they pole the flats boat,” he says. “They aren’t however too happy at the thought of these same Bahamians having a significant say in how their natural resources are managed, or how the fly fishing industry runs on a national scale.”

The proposed legislation mandates that funds collected from fishing licenses be divided equally between the Consolidated Fund—the Bahamas’ general fund—and a newly established Conservation Fund. Critics immediately see a problem: AFFGA vice president Cindy Pinder believes that the efficacy of the legislation depends upon the distribution of the collected funds. “If the licensing fees go to the Consolidated Fund, an opportunity to create a much-needed, self-sustaining, independently funded mechanism to begin effective enforcement of our flats fishing laws could be lost forever.” AFFGA would like to see one hundred percent of funds generated from license sales directed toward conservation and enforcement. (Read a letter to Director of Fisheries Michael Braynen written by AFFGA president Justin Sands and concerning conservation efforts in the Bahamas here.)

Critics also wonder how enforcement of new conservation legislation would be paid for. Acknowledging that the unique geography of the Bahamas could make enforcement of conservation laws particularly costly, supporters of the bill look to the Consolidated Fund and suggest that the government should perhaps set aside a portion of license dollars right from the beginning for enforcement.

For its part, BFFIA recently proposed a different split of funds:

-Consolidated Fund: 40 percent

-Conservation Fund: 40 percent

-Bahamian Banks: 15 percent

-BFFIA: 5 percent

 

Why should funds collected from fishing licenses go to banks? BFFIA argues that currently, foreign-owned lodges have access to better banking terms than do locals, who find themselves at a disadvantage in their own country. Providing island banks with government-collected dollars, BFFIA contends, would help level the playing field for Bahamian lodge owners and guides.

Opponents, by contrast, argue that it is wholly inappropriate to use money raised from general angling tourism to establish banks whose mission it is to promote one set of lodges and guides over another. (And it is particularly frustrating for foreign lodge owners and guides to finance their own competition by selling a fishing license.) Instead, they suggest, put market forces to work: Locals with better business plans and practices will be able to secure capital.

But why does BFFIA itself require a piece of the license fee pie? The association insists that the five percent of the kitty that it would like to claim for itself would be used to cover the costs of educating all participating guides to a national standard. (Certification classes, for example, would need to be held in various locations around the island nation.) Critics—who assert that they have no interest in any “help” that BFFIA wants to offer them in the first place—point out that for BFFIA to lobby the government to give it a portion of funds collected from mandated license fees is a clear conflict of interest.

 

DIY Fishing

Critics fear that the language of the bill makes DIY fishing from a boat illegal unless done with a certified guide aboard. What’s more, wading anglers may fish on their own, but the price of getting to their fishing spot in the first place could go up: the proposed legislation reads that even the person who ferries you to your favorite spot on the flats requires a permit as well.

Anglers who fish without a guide or wade in an area designated off limits—either intentionally or in ignorance—could be fined up to $3,000 or sentenced to three months in jail…or both. Critics argue that such steep penalties create a climate of anxiety that encourages anglers to stay home or to fish elsewhere.

My reading of the current legislation indicates that, despite numerous, much-publicized assertions to the contrary, the bill does not establish a minimum guide fee. Nevertheless, legislation that requires anglers to hire a guide does set up an environment in which anglers are forced to pay whatever a group of guides decides to charge for service.

The bill does, however, provide a legal definition for a “flats” area, which could enable officials to put fishing restrictions in place in certain highly pressured areas at different times of the year. Indeed, such restrictions seem almost inevitable and, in fact, highly desirable to those who argue that Bahamian flats protection and management are long overdue.

 

Unsung Conservationists

Those unfamiliar with Bahamian fishing resource management might conclude that the draft legislation represents a first step toward effective conservation policy in the Bahamas, but that conclusion would be inaccurate. In fact, a number of non-governmental organizations have been involved in conservation work in the island nation for years.

The Frank Kenyon Centre for Research, Education and Conservation, which opened in April on Abaco, is just one result of the cooperation between nonprofit environmental groups, local businesses, and private benefactors. This solar-powered, eight-bedroom facility near Marsh Harbor was constructed to provide low-cost housing and storage for visiting scientists and researchers and to serve as a basic lab. The facility also hosts visiting high school students involved in field work and long-term research projects.

Bonefish & Tarpon Trust (BTT), the Trout Unlimited of saltwater conservation, is a 501(c)(3) organization headed by Dr. Aaron Adams, who travels the US extensively and writes frequently about the need to protect saltwater resources. Dr. Adams and BTT staff members have participated in conservation efforts in and around the Bahamas for years. “We have worked with Bahamas National Trust,” which manages the Bahamas’ national park system, “for many years to provide information necessary for conservation of bonefish and their habitats,” says Adams. “For example, we conducted tag-recapture research of bonefish on Abaco and Grand Bahama that the Bahamas National Trust used to formulate proposals for national parks on those islands.”

The goal of the BTT is to protect “the habitats that support bonefish foraging areas, juvenile habitats, spawning sites, and spawning migration corridors,” continues Adams. “In addition, we provided funding to Bahamas National Trust to conduct the public meetings that are part of the National Park proposal process.” BTT says it also “shared our information with the Department of Marine Resources and the Minister of the Environment.”

And yet BTT had no input in crafting the conservation portion of the current draft legislation. Nevertheless, Adams and the BTT have very specific conservation proposals for the Bahamian government; in particular, the BTT is concerned that the means for preventing habitat degradation are not clearly spelled out in the draft legislation. (Read the BTT’s series of collaborative recommendations for a Bahamas comprehensive conservation plan here.)

Other nonprofit, non-governmental organizations and universities involved in conservation work in the Bahamas include Abaco Flyfishing Guides Association (AFFGA), Friends of the Environment, The Nature Conservancy, Cape Eleuthera Institute, North Carolina State University, University of Florida, and Florida Atlantic University. And the list goes on.

BFFIA president Prescott Smith, who argues that BTT resists local input and is out of touch with ordinary Bahamians, says that BFFIA has no relationship with BTT now and no plans to work with the group on common cause conservation concerns in the future. Instead BFFIA works closely with Bahamas Sportfishing Conservation Association (BSCA), which Smith himself began in 1995 to address conservation issues he believed were of particular importance to Bahamians. According to Smith, BSCA has approximately 250 members; a request for the number of members with fisheries science backgrounds and/or advanced degrees in marine resources or natural resources management went unanswered. In any case, Smith asserts that locals know more about local fish behavior and patterns than do experts who visit the islands for a few months for programs like bonefish tagging.

Smith lists as BSCA’s conservation accomplishments educating (1) locals that there is much more to the Bahamas than sun, sea, and sand, and (2) the entire Bahamian government about the nation’s precious natural resources.  Smith also sent a letter in March on behalf of BFFIA and BSCA encouraging officials in the North Andros District Council to deny mining operations in Joulters Cay. (You can read the letter here.)  The organization’s future conservation goals include providing protection for the flats and surrounding areas, training the next generation of guides, establishing a national marine warden program, and emphasizing marine sciences and an outdoor educational program in the local schools.

 

Where Do We Go from Here?

The draft legislation has been turned over to the attorney general of the Bahamas, the Hon. Z.C. Allyson Maynard Gibson, for review. In theory, at least, the attorney general will draft a “clean bill” that provide answers to all of the questions the current bill raises, including how and by whom funds will be collected and how and to whom funds will be disbursed.

From the attorney general’s office the bill moves to the Bahamian cabinet, which is not required to make it public. The cabinet could let it die or move it forward to Parliament for a vote. Ultimately, critics are concerned that by the time they see what the final language of the bill actually is, it could already be well on its way to becoming law—at which point it will be too late for them to lobby their representatives or mount any further opposition to the measure.

Protecting Tomorrow’s Bonefish Today

Both supporters and detractors of the measure can agree on one thing: Flats safeguards are long overdue. Even if they disagree on the specifics of the legislation, they commend Bahamian officials—notably Prime Minister Perry Gladstone Christie—for attempting to enact natural resources protections. It is regrettable however that the only protection provided in the proposed legislation is aimed at deterring anglers from causing damage. There is no language in the bill that addresses mining or dredging operations whatsoever. Compared to the potential impact of large-scale mining or dredging operations, the impact of catch-and-release anglers seems miniscule.

In the meantime, however, the bonefish and tarpon habitats in the saltwater flats aren’t the only thing hanging in the balance.  The future of the Bahamian economy has a big question mark hanging over it as well. If the atmosphere of angst and confusion that currently pervades the Bahamas causes anglers and other recreational tourists to question their welcome in the island nation, they could take their tourist dollars to the Florida Keys, Belize, or even Cuba instead. And no one interested in the future of the Bahamas wants to see that happen.

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