by Larry Smith
"illegal poaching has put at risk our entire marine resources as it is done without regard to species, maturity or sustainability of the catch. Entire areas are wiped out by the poachers. We need to be serious about protecting this fragile industry so Bahamian fishermen can have a future in it." -- Ryan Pinder, November 2011
"We in the PLP have a comprehensive plan to secure our borders and deal with poaching. We have to do it because its the only way we can ensure that our fisheries and our fishermen are protected." -- Perry Christie, April 2012
Illegal fishing by Dominicans and others was one of the hot-button issues of last year's general election campaign.
Both the PLP and the FNM pledged to upgrade the Defence Force with more marines, ships and aircraft to address poaching. But fiscal realities have forced the government to cancel these proposed investments.
The scale of the problem can be judged from anecdotal evidence provided by fishermen, as well as by politicians - when they are out of power. For example, in 2011 then opposition MP Ryan Pinder (whose family is from the key fishing community of Spanish Wells) told parliament that Bahamians were being shot at by Dominican poachers.
"With all due respect, there is nothing political about protecting the lives of Bahamians. The boldness of these criminals in our waters is remarkable. Where is the protection for our Bahamian fishermen, where is the reassurance that this industry will be protected."
And he pointed out that unrestricted poaching was destroying our fishery resources. "Not only are Bahamian fishermen at risk, but the entire industry is at risk. When the poachers fish our waters, they do so without discrimination. They take juvenile fish, conch and crawfish, decimating the future of our industry. Something has to be done."
As Lance Pinder, owner of First One/Miss Londa Marine in Spanish Wells, told me recently: "The bottom line is that the Dominican poaching situation has reached out-of-control status, and the government must deal with it to protect our resources and to protect Bahamians trying to make a living. The southern edge of the Bahama Bank is borderline wiped out now."
Ross Albury, of the Spanish Wells boat Sea Gem, had this to say: "Anytime we are out there we see poachers and chase them, but the Defence Force can't find them. It is pathetic! There is no good reason for it. The whole Defence Force should be patroling the southern edge. Poachers, drugs and illegal aliens all come from the south."
The previous administration had awarded a $10 million contract (funded by the European Union) to build a harbour at Gun Point in the Ragged Islands to accommodate cargo vessels and Defence Force patrol boats. The base was to have accommodated up to 35 marines and was supposed to be operational last year, but there has been no word on its status from the present government.
Environmentalists view the "rape and pillage" of Bahamian fish stocks as perhaps our greatest national threat. Bahamas National Trust chief Eric Carey argues that in addition to the huge physical toll on marine resources, there is a psychological price paid by Bahamian fishermen who feel defeated and defenceless against an unchecked foreign onslaught.
"They are telling us it is unfair and illogical for them to be policed and fishing banned during closed seasons, when the Dominicans can do as they please. This must stop. Bahamians are born of and dependent upon the sea and its resources. This poaching threatens the very core of our existence as a people."
Apart from the anecdotal evidence of fishermen, a two-year-old report by a top marine scientist has confirmed that poaching by commercial fishermen from the Dominican Republic is the greatest single threat to Bahamian seafood resources - although the findings are never discussed in the media or by government officials.
The report on illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing was produced for the Bahamas Lobster Fisheries Improvement Project. This initiative is sponsored by local seafood processors in a bid to win endorsement for crawfish exports under the European Union's new Catch Certification programme.
Hotels along the Dominican Republic's northern coast have lobster on the menu for US$16, about half the price of a typical lobster tail dinner in Nassau. And 89,000 pounds of lobster tails were legally imported into the US from the DR in 2010, although no commercially viable stocks of spiny lobsters exist in Dominican waters. It is obvious where the lobsters for Dominican resorts and exporters are coming from.
From the DR's northern coast, it takes less than three days to reach the Great Bahama Bank in a fishing vessel making 10-12 knots. These boats are typically 65 feet long, and each is attended by a number of smaller skiffs. Fishermen operate from the skiffs using hookahs and spears, at depths well below 60 feet. And divers fish to depths of over 200 feet, reaching deep reef resources not legally fished by Bahamians, according to the IUU report.
"The implications in terms of lost jobs, lost revenue to the government, and lost fisheries resources is in the tens of millions of dollars," the report warned. "This is a serious threat to national security and economic growth."
The report was produced by Dr Kathleen Sullivan Sealey, of the University of Miami's highly respected Rosenstiel School of Marine Science. She has decades of experience working in marine conservation in the Bahamas and was formerly dean of the College of the Bahamas science division.
"Foreign fishing vessels operate across the southern Bahamas, venturing further north and across the Great Bahamas Banks during the summer when the lobster fishery is closed to Bahamians," Sullivan Sealey said. "There are no accessible records of sightings of foreign fishing vessels, but anecdotal information puts the number at about six per month. Reports of illegal immigrants from Honduras and the Dominican Republic working on Bahamian fishing vessels have also been verified."
Her report says it also could be concluded from interviews with Defence Force officers that the interdiction of poachers is not a priority for the patrol vessels. "The RBDF is itself a significant fishing entity, with both shipboard and island-based personnel engaging in recreational fishing as a way to supplement incomes."
The number of lobsters taken illegally out of Bahamian waters by poachers - based on 30 vessels making six trips a year, with a catch of 10,000 pounds per trip - was estimated at a staggering 35 per cent (or 4.3 million) of the known export of 12.5 million lobsters from the Bahamas."
The report pointed out that as many as 65 fishing vessels could be operating from northern DR ports, and lobsters are not their only target. Conch, grouper and other finfish are also taken, as all are highly marketable in the Dominican Republic. And each vessel could land over 70,000 pounds of catch per trip.
""The greatest number of lobsters caught and removed from the ecosystem is likely through illegal foreign fishing in Bahamian waters," Sullivan Sealey concluded. And that could well be applied to other fishery resources too.
"The key to reducing the illegal fishing loss is to prevent illegal fishers from entering Bahamian waters," her report said. "The process of seizures and prosecutions, along with the cost associated with holding the vessels, crew and catch is largely ineffective. There are charges of corruption, and clearly a strong motivation with the amount of money involved in the sale of lobsters."
Diplomatic efforts to address the problem are likely to be more effective, the report said, along with identifying the vessels involved and pursuing their financiers.
This burning issue was reignited on Facebook recently - not long after the Commercial Fishers Alliance (a group of some 300 Bahamian fishermen) aroused a storm of protest from environmentalists by asking to fish for grouper during the current closed season. When the request was denied, CFA President Adrian LaRoda published photos of Dominican boats in Bahamian waters laden with illegal groupers.
According to LaRoda, the pictures were taken by an American yachtsman near Cay Verde, when he approached the Domincans to buy fish. The mother ship is said to be under investigation by the CFA. In his Facebook post LaRoda said "the poachers boldly bragged about how often they come to fish and how much fish they could supply."
Another set of pictures posted in December carried this caption: "Three poaching vessels spotted on south Bahama Bank this week. This is as close as we could get before being shot at by the poachers. There were about 30 men per boat. The RBDF was notiied but did not respond."
Last summer Immigration Minister Fred Mitchell announced a ban on work permits for non-Bahamian fishermen. But LaRoda said this is easily circumvented. "They must not be on any Bahamian vessel working in any capacity. That is against the law. They have to arrest these people," he said. "That would be a definite deterrent for any foreigner to go out there and fish.”
Early last year, the previous administration launched a diplomatic initiative, with intergovernmental talks set to begin after the election. And Trade Minister Ryan pinder, Foreign Minister Fred Mitchell, National Security Minister Bernard Nottage and Fisheries Minister Alfred Gray held four days of meetings in Santo Domingo at the end of October. That was followed up by a visit of Dominican naval officers to Nassau in November.
The meetings with Dominican officials covered information-sharing, tracking of Dominican fishing vessels, stiffer penalties for poachers, and new ways to fight drug smuggling at sea. “We are cautiously-optimistic that there will be some change on the high seas with regards to this poaching issue,” Mitchell said at the time. “We can expect greater enforcement over the next few weeks."
But there has been no report of any concrete outcomes, and in a rare public response to the posting of the Facebook photos over the weekend, a Defence Force spokesman conceded that "no apprehensions of Dominican poachers have been made in recent times." Meanwhile, Bahamian fishermen say Dominican poaching is at an all-time high.
"The Defence Force cannot stop these boats, either because they are too lazy or because somebody is getting paid off," one fisherman told me told me. "It's that simple."
According to former National Security Minister Tommy Turnquest, "There is collusion between Bahamian and Dominican interests. The problem is that Bahamians apply for boat engineers etc, and then use those individuals to fish. And many of the Dominicans working on Bahamian boats alert their nationals when the RBDF is in the area."
Turnquest added that the previous administration had worked to improve communication between bahamian fishing vessels and the Defence Force, but Spanish Wells fishermen, in particular, say this is a waste of time.
"Every trip we see these Dominicans and run them off the banks, but as soon as we leave they return. They are not scared of us because we can't use force unless we want to end up in jail. We are frustrated beyond words. We can't take another meeting with the Minister of Fisheries or the Defence Force. We just need them to do their job."
Clearly, business as usual is not an option. The problem has been getting worse over decades - and no government has been able to get the Defence Force to do its job of protecting our resources. Unfortunately, Minister Pinder, who had so much to say before the election, did not respond to my inquiries for this article.
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