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Flats fishing is a ~$140 million a year industry in The Bahamas. Photo by Vince Tobia.

Cabinet and Industry Split Over Fly Fishing Regulations

The government has announced the continuance of the Flats Fishing Regulations introduced by the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) government last year, bringing both clarity and further confusion for some on the controversial act.

The decision followed concerns by members of the fly fishing industry that the new Free National Movement (FNM) government was considering a repeal of the regulations.

“The significance of the flats fishing industry is fully appreciated by this government,” said Minister of Agriculture and Marine Resources Renward Wells in a press statement released by his ministry.

“In fact, the government recognizes that the stability of our economy depends on the strength of its middle class and small and medium-sized businesses. We have resolved to empower a new class of entrepreneurs and that includes practitioners in the fishing industry.”

Mr. Wells pointed out that the Ministry of Agriculture and Marine Resources is seeking to bring clarity to the ongoing public discussions concerning the Fisheries Resources (Jurisdiction and Conservation) (Flats Fishing) Regulations, 2017.

“I look forward to the input and continued support of stakeholders as we move this process forward,” he added.

Fly fishing is worth more than $500 million annually for The Bahamas and has drawn in more than 400 Bahamian businessmen.

The regulations were introduced in January 2017 by then Minister of Agriculture and Marine Resources V. Alfred Gray. They were created via a collaboration by the Ministry of Tourism, Ministry of Agriculture and Marine Resources, the Bahamas Fly Fishing Industry Association, the Ministry of Immigration, the Royal Bahamas Defence Force, the Office of the Attorney General and the Royal Bahamas Police Force.

Opposition Leader Philip Brave Davis had previously expressed concerns about reports circulating in the fly fishing community that the government was considering revoking the regulations.

“The Progressive Liberal Party will not support the repeal of the regulation that safeguards local guides,” he said in October last year.

“The Free National Movement has a pattern, since May 10, of eroding policies and programs which were put in place by the PLP to protect Bahamians.

“A repeal of these fly fishing regulations would be contrary to the interests of Bahamians and not in the economic interest of our Family Island communities.”

However, in response, Press Secretary in the Office of the Prime Minister Anthony Newbold said the government had not made a decision to repeal fly fishing regulations.

“I know that there has been a presentation made by several members of the fly fishing industry to the government,” Mr. Newbold told reporters.

“I know that the government is looking at that presentation, but no decision has been made to repeal any part of that act or the act at all. No decision has been made on that.”

Bonefish lodge operators on May 7 said they were “confounded” and “mystified” by the contradictory messages coming from the Government over the industry’s controversial regulations.

Clint Kemp, president of the newly-formed Bahamas Fly Fishing Lodge Association, told ‘Tribune’ Business that the Minnis administration needed “to get on message” after the Prime Minister was seemingly contradicted by the Cabinet minister with responsibility for oversight of the $141m industry.

Both Mr. Kemp and Cindy Pinder, the Abaco Fly Fishing Guides Association’s vice-president, have separately told ‘Tribune’ Business that Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis informed them during a meeting on the island around four weeks ago that the regulations had been suspended pending further review.

“I respect what he’s [Mr. Wells] saying, but I heard this directly from the Prime Minister. I don’t understand why the message is not clear. They have to get on message together.”

Mr. Kemp yesterday reiterated that “people are not opposed to reasonable regulation”, but this was made impossible by the rushed way in which the regulations were implemented without the proper supporting infrastructure in place.

Without a proper online application and payment mechanism, visiting anglers have often been forced to play ‘hunt the Family Island administrator’ to obtain the necessary licence. This has caused frustration and a loss of time, while the sanctions – financial penalties and even jail time – that can be imposed on those without the required permits has been blamed for “scaring off” potential visitors.

“According to everyone in the business we know, local and foreign, they’ll tell you Bahamas bookings are down primarily because of the confusion going on here. Does the Bahamas want us to fish? It really has to get resolved, hopefully sooner rather than later.”

Mrs. Pinder, of the Abaco Fly Fishing Guides Association, said that the regulations continue to place the Bahamas in a “bad light”, adding that it was a “sad day in the flats fishing world” given the Minnis administration’s apparent backing for them.

Mrs. Pinder added that the Minister also failed to address the contentious guide/angler ratio. “He fails to address the 1:2 guide/angler ratio that applies to both foreigners and Bahamians that fish in boats, and harms foreign investment in our country, and the fact the regulation does nothing to address the commercial mothership issue that has two new operations operating off the coast of Andros this year alone. This legislation continues to put the Bahamas in a bad light in the fishing world.”

Mrs. Pinder said the industry “100 per cent supported” a licensing system where permits were easily obtainable, and the revenues went to conservation, education and enforcement.

Yet she warned: “So much needs to be fixed within the current regulation it would be easier to start over, and make it an easy to understand and enforceable regulation that would actually protect the fishery and grow the sport in order to bring tourist dollars into the country.

It was reported in a ‘Tribune’ article on April 27, 2018 that the Cabinet was split on the matter, with some ministers not convinced of the arguments put forth by Mr. Wells and the BFFIA (Bahamas Fly Fishing Industry Association).

The BFFIA president fired back at opponents of the industry’s regulations, suggesting they were pushing a “doom and gloom” narrative to pressure the Government to back down.

“It’s not scaring anyone off,” Prescott Smith said in a Tribune article. “The critics are using these conflicting narratives and talk about hurting the industry, which is not true. You can’t go to any of those other countries and do what they want to do here.

Mr. Smith said in the article that the legislation has been good for the industry. “The legislation has passed, and business has increased for all those foreign lodges. It’s the Bahamian lodges that have been hurt,” he added.

He said that “We will have no control over the resources of this country if we lose this legislation. All of this doom and gloom talk, it’s all about creating a false perception to the Government. We haven’t scratched the surface of this industry and we’re trying to create local ownership.”

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