The Government has suspended the flats fishing regulations after their “hasty crafting and poor implementation” was blamed for up to a 40 per cent fall in bonefish lodge bookings.
The Abaco Fly Fishing Association, in a statement yesterday, said the entire Bahamas was now “feeling the pinch” due to the significant loss of tourism revenue in the Family Islands.
It blamed the Fisheries Resources (Jurisdiction and Conservation) (Flats Fishing) Regulations 2017, introduced by the former Christie administration, for causing a major decline in anglers visiting the Bahamas to bonefish. Lodge bookings, it added, had fallen by between 20 per cent to 40 per cent.
“The Out Islands of the southern Bahamas have been especially hard hit,” the Association said. “Bonefishing lodges on Andros and Long Island, as well as the US-based Bahamas booking agents, report declines in bookings of 20 to 40 per cent or more, which means guides and staff are not working as many hours this year and our taxi drivers are losing business. “Without the influx of operating capital by the foreign anglers being spread throughout the communities, houses are being left unfinished, medical care is put off, and plans are put on hold because of lack of income. The job of caring for one’s family and raising children has gotten harder because of the flats fishing regulations, as noted by one lodge owner on Andros.
“This is most alarming because the anglers are still flats fishing; they are just doing it in other places. Cuba, Belize, Mexico, Central America, Christmas Island and the Seychelles are the recipients of those tourist dollars now.”
The Association said the Minnis administration has now suspended enforcement of the regulations until their impact can be reviewed, as angler licenses have been extremely difficult to obtain and pay for.
The regulations require anglers over the age of 12, and those who wish to fish in the flats, to apply for a personal angler’s license and pay a set fee. Non-Bahamians will have to pay $15 for a daily license; $20 for a weekly license; $30 for a monthly license; and $60 for an annual license.
The regulations also require a foreign vessel wishing to fish in the Bahamian flats to obtain the usual sports fishing permit, with each person on the vessel also holding a personal license. The regulations ban commercial fishing in the flats, and anglers are only allowed to catch and release when catching bonefish, permit, snook, cobia and tarpon. A Conservation Fund for the management and protection of the flats and fisheries resources in the Bahamas is to be established.
The suspension was immediately slammed by PLP chairman Fred Mitchell as “an act of madness”, adding that the Opposition was “confounded” that the Government had “stripped away protection” for the fishing grounds and Bahamians.
Accusing the Government of “looking out for foreigners and not for Bahamians”, Mr Mitchell added: “The PLP put in place regulations which protected fly fishing for Bahamians, and maximum protection against pilferage by strangers coming into this country to pillage our fish stocks.
“All the patient work done by the Fisheries Department under the PLP has been scrapped, and now there is open season in our fishing flats.”
Describing the situation as “shameful”, Mr Mitchell said Renward Wells, minister of agriculture and marine resources, had failed to “stand up” for conservation and Bahamian bonefish guides while foregoing the revenue that will now be lost from licenses.
“The PLP pledges as soon as it returns to office to return the provisions and rules to protect Bahamian fishing stocks and the fly fishing sector for Bahamians,” he added.
When the proposed regulations for the industry were first unveiled, they created considerable controversy and effectively divided the 400 local guides and the lodge owners.
The latter were more opposed to the proposals, while there was concern that the regulations, as initially drafted, gave the impression that the Bahamas was being too protectionist, restrictive and anti-foreign, tying up access by foreign anglers in bureaucracy and red tape, not to mention increased costs.
“A flats fishing license with funds supporting conservation, education and enforcement is supported by 100 per cent of visiting anglers, guides and lodge owners. But the roll-out of the licensing process has been confusing and extremely difficult for anglers and lodge owners,” the Association said.
“With only a few days prior notice, licensing was put into effect in January 2017. Officials on Out Islands were scrambling to obtain the documents from central government to initiate licensing sales. Anglers were to buy the licenses at the Administrator’s Office. Administrators were busy, so they gave the licensing materials to the fisheries offices to sell, leaving anglers wandering around trying to find the proper offices in which to buy the license.
“To complicate matters for the angling visitors, who would naturally surmise that a fishing license would be sold by the Department of Marine Resources, after a few weeks, fishery offices were told to stop selling licenses and only administrators were authorised to do so.”
The Association added: “There is a license application available for download on the Government’s website. But there is no way to actually buy the license online. The application must be filled out, printed, signed by the angler and then presented to the island administrator’s office for issuance when they arrive at their fishing destination.
“The website also advises that the turnaround time is one day, and that opening hours are 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday, except public holidays. Most tourists travel Saturday to Saturday.
“The Government must stop the bleeding of our tourism dollars to other countries and bring our flats fishing tourists back to the Bahamas by enacting sensible flats fishing regulations that welcome visitors. Prime Minister Minnis should return the flats fishing tourism portfolio to the Ministry of Tourism, who did a much better job of welcoming angling tourists to our islands before the Bahamas Fly Fishing Industry Association’s ideas led to the decline of angling tourism.”