by Sir Arthur Foulkes
Two weeks ago Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries Leslie Miller alerted the nation to what he described as the rape of our waters by fishing boats from the Dominican Republic. Mr. Miller said reports from Bahamian fishermen suggest the Dominicans are exploiting all our fishing grounds and becoming more brazen and bold in the process.
This is indeed a threat of the highest order to our national security. The vast marine resources of The Bahamas are a national treasure of inestimable value, and in terms of money are worth billions of dollars to Bahamians of today and succeeding generations.
It is hard to exaggerate the value of what we have in the waters that together with our islands and cays constitute the Commonwealth of The Bahamas. This wealth must be measured first in terms of national food security and then in terms of export potential, and its value is increasing every day as over-fishing and environmental abuse threaten the fish stocks of the planet.
Like Rip Van Winkle, many Bahamians tend to sleep through the battle for our heritage – our historical, cultural, artistic and natural heritage. Enough of us woke up just in time to save some of our disintegrating architectural heritage, the restoration of Villa Doyle being perhaps the best example of this.
We have become conscious of the need to conserve our lobster and, lately, grouper, and there is talk about conch. Without grouper and conch, the quality of life for most Bahamians would be greatly diminished.
Now we need to get really serious about protecting what we have from external threat, and there are two ways to do this. The first is the vigorous defence of our boundaries and the enforcement of our laws, and it is clear that at the moment we are falling down badly on the job.
In alerting the nation to the threat, Mr. Miller said he had been trying to reach the new Commodore of the Royal Bahamas Defence Force to address the threat.
He advised the Bahamian people that we are in dire need of strengthening our enforcement capabilities and, he declared, both ministries -- presumably his Ministry of Agriculture and Marine Resources and the Ministry of National Security – need to work in tandem with each other.
What is happening here?
Mr. Miller is not a citizen agitator; he is not a member of a pressure group; he is a Minister of the Government of The Bahamas. To tell the Bahamian people that he had not been able to get in touch with the new Commander of the Defence Force is mind-boggling.
Does not Mr. Miller every Tuesday sit down in the Cabinet room at the same table with his colleague Cynthia Pratt, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of National Security?
Does he not know how to get Mrs. Pratt on the telephone between one Tuesday and the next to discuss a matter of national security?
Does he not think Mrs. Pratt knows how to contact the Commander of the Defence Force?
Does he not know that the Bahamian people are painfully aware of the fact that we do not have nearly enough enforcement capabilities in the air and on the sea?
And does he not know it has been for many years a fundamental principle of cabinet government that ministers should work in tandem with each other?
What Mr. Miller as a Cabinet Minister should have been able to tell the Bahamian people was that the Cabinet was not only aware of the problem, but had discussed it and decided what to do about it. That is what people expect to hear from their Government.
In addition to taking the necessary steps to protect our fishing grounds, the Government of The Bahamas should engage neighbouring countries at the diplomatic level. The whole idea of having friendly relations with our neighbours is so that we can discuss and settle with them matters of mutual interest.
The Government of the Dominican Republic should be asked to discourage their fishing fleet from poaching in Bahamian waters and to order their own law enforcement agencies to cooperate with ours in respecting mutual boundaries.
If there are issues of boundary delimitation still outstanding between us and any of our neighbours then it is obviously in our best interest and theirs to negotiate a settlement as quickly as possible.
There was a tragic confrontation between our Defence Force and the Cubans in 1980 that cost the lives of four brave Bahamian marines and the loss of HMBS Flamingo, and it was about fishing.
But in recent years it appears that the Cubans have been making an effort to avoid encroaching on our territorial waters. At least Minister Miller did not mention them in his comments about the Dominicans.
This is yet another reason why The Bahamas should be in the forefront of those countries, especially small and vulnerable ones, which support the consolidation of the rule of law in international affairs.
In the final analysis that will be our best protection. If Cuban and American fishing fleets out of Florida should decide to join the Dominicans in their fisheries invasion we would be unable to stop them even with a maximum commitment of enforcement resources.
Collaboration and coordination in the conservation of marine resources should also be an objective of diplomacy. If we make strenuous and even painful efforts to conserve our fish, conch, lobster and endangered species of turtle, and our neighbours fail to do the same, then our efforts will not bear the best results.
The creatures of the sea do not recognize national boundaries and so move freely across them. If our neighbours in the region do not join us in coordinated conservation efforts we may be making all the sacrifice but, as the old saying goes, be simply fattening frog for snake.
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“So there is a hell of a lot of strain on the sea of The Bahamas,” says Minister Miller. He talks about the poaching and also the enormous amount of fish being taken out of our waters by sports fishermen.
But Mr. Miller apparently sees no contradiction in his new-found passion for protecting our fisheries from poachers and his well-known enthusiasm for digging up the seabed to pipe LNG Florida.
From the Caribbean to the Pacific, the horror stories about sick and dying coral reefs are enough to frighten even Mr. Miller. Back in March Seth Borenstein of the Associated Press reported that researchers from around the world are trying to figure out the extent of the loss.
In the U.S. Virgin Islands they found an unprecedented die-off, according to one of the scientists. “The mortality that we’re seeing now is of the extremely slow-growing reef-building corals. These are corals that are the foundation of the reef.’’
The die-off is attributed mainly to global warming which weakens the corals and makes them susceptible to disease. But while the coral reefs are in this weakened state, Mr. Miller and his Government are still talking about allowing LNG projects that will amount to a major assault on our marine environment.
When the coral reefs die, says another researcher, it will not be the same ecosystem. “The fish will go away. The smaller predators will go away. The invertebrates will go away.”
That means not only grouper and snapper, but conch and lobster as well. They will all disappear. So will millions of tourists for whom the reefs are a major attraction.