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Challenges Facing the Fisheries Industry in North Abaco

By Lauralee McIntosh

About nine years ago, when realizing the plight of Abaco fisheries, Friends of the Environment began liaising with fishermen to identify the most notable threats. It was discovered that outstanding among them was the capture of undersized lobsters. A campaign called Size Matters was launched.

“Size Maters” involved Friends’ then Education Officer and the Campaign Manager, d’Shan Maycock, along with a Spiny lobster mascot named Spike. They made appearances at schools, churches, evening halls all across the island of Abaco. It was accompanied by a catchy song, written by Mrs. Maycock and sang by popular artist Geno D, “Oh yes! Size Matters”. There were outreaches, T-shirts, posters blazing: SIZE MATTERS! Today, our fishing industry may be in grave trouble; very specifically, our Spiny lobster; this article is with particular emphasis on the plight of the Spiny lobster in North Abaco.

To initiate and to obtain informal data on the status of the lobster, well-known stakeholders in communities from Treasure Cay to Grand Cay were contacted and interviewed. One thing stood out immediately: there was a concentrated use of bleach and in some cases joy detergent to get the lobsters from the shoals. While it is seemingly widespread, what was amazing was the known fact of the impact of acid on coral and consequently, on our fisheries.

While this was one factor, further questioning revealed practices such as poaching, illegally built traps and litter of debris on the reefs. These were believed to be isolated incidents. However, concerning debris, one diver in Cooper’s Town described the frequency of debris (pipes, aluminum) hitting the reefs creating irritating vibrations that would frighten lobsters away.

Several buyers have agreed, not surprisingly, that the lobsters being caught in recent time, while still meeting the minimum size limit, are considered to be much smaller than in previous years. In addition, the amount of larger lobsters are becoming scarce. 

The cause of this decrease, according to Mr. Randre McIntosh, a local fisherman, may be attributed in part to the many part-time fishermen.

“They have their main jobs, but occasionally to ‘catch up on bills’, they would take off a week during the month of August especially and take to the sea. While there, they swipe as many lobsters as they can, regardless of size; and this may include ‘berried lobsters.’ They do this because it does not directly impact them, or so they think.” He continued, “for us who are fully employed by the sea, we are more careful as we are always thinking of the years to come.”

A similar sentiment was expressed by Mr. Craig Cephas of Grand Cay, “catching undersized lobsters is a deliberate act as there is a large market for them in Grand Bahama. This fact was emphasized by Mr. Harry Newbold of Green Turtle Cay, when he opined that the decreasing lack of sizeable lobsters is directly impacting our buyers. Companies are closing down.

With many of our communities being almost totally dependent on this industry, something has to be done. According to Mr. Romeo Rolle, a seasoned fisherman, a great number of the families are dependent on fishing as it employs about 90% of the people in Fox Town. Mr. Russell, one of the buyers in the north commended the diligent efforts of the fishermen there also. According to Mr. Theophilus Rolle, a local entrepreneur of Crown Haven, in addition to lobsters, people also catch scalefish, stone crabs and conch. Mr. Cephas of Grand Cay stated that while Walkers Cay employs some persons, most persons in Grand Cay are dependent on the marine environs.

Mr. Rolle, better known as Tommy, has expanded his interests. He owns a store, restaurant, farm, rents/outfits fishing boats and buys their products. He has taken a different approach. He adamantly refuses to sell bleach to fishermen and even goes to great lengths to educate them as to the impact of the chemical on the reefs. He has expressed his concerns over the lack of policing of the waters (a concern that was a consensus.) This concern was further emphasized by Mr. Romeo Rolle who pointed out that both local fishermen and visitors need to be monitored. He went on to hammer the point that the relevant authorities need to listen to the fishermen and really allow them to be a part of the decision-making process.

Having received input from fishermen and buyers, it was only fair to hear from law enforcers about their perspectives. An interesting point was made by a RBPO who prefers to remain anonymous,

“Maybe if focus was to be placed on the total Fisheries Act as opposed to the selective portions, less challenges would be faced.”

Chief Fisheries Officer, Mr. Leslie McIntosh agreed that there are several grave challenges at every level of the industry. He acknowledges the aforementioned ones, but disclosed that lack of manpower is another. For North Abaco, including Green Turtle Cay and Grand Cay, there are only two fisheries officers. Exacerbating this is the lack of both land and sea transport. He of course, uses his own transport when necessary.

Mr. McIntosh asserted that having been a part of the industry as a fisherman for almost forty years, with the knowledge that he has accrued, coupled with his passion for the marine environment, he intends to make a difference. In the meantime, workshops are being held. He also makes it a point to diligently stake out landing areas. Mr. McIntosh further divulged that education is key. If people know better, they may do better. This education however has to be consistent due to new fishermen entering the industry. It should also have performance indicators.

While this article specifies the fishing industry, one must note that of all the saleable species, lobster is deemed most commercially important and brings in millions of dollars in revenue. If this industry experiences its demise, hundreds of families throughout Abaco and consequently, The Bahamas, would be impacted. There would be loss of employment, minimized food resource for many, in addition to loss of revenue.

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