by Larry Smith
A firestorm erupted last week over leaked reports that the Christie administration was in talks to hand over farming and fishing rights to the Chinese.
Despite the fact that a detailed official report was circulating, and the fact that a cabinet minister had authorised the talks, government spin doctors went into an immediate frenzy.
Alfred Gray - the minister at the centre of the storm - first claimed the reports were “utterly false” and then dismissed them as political gamesmanship.
Other spokesmen castigated critics for being anti-Chinese and pointed out that it was former Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham who had initiated relations with the Peoples Republic in the 1990s.
It is also true that China signed a Memorandum of Understanding on agricultural cooperation with Gray’s predecessor under the last Ingraham administration - Larry Cartwright.
A team of Chinese experts toured Abaco back then, and government politicians promoted investments in food production and processing on 5,000 acres of Crown land. There was also talk of mariculture projects - but nothing came to pass
Nevertheless, in 2013 the Chinese ambassador noted that his nation was “very keen” on investing in The Bahamas, especially in the areas of renewable energy, agricultural production and fisheries.
Probably the biggest difference between the Ingraham initiative and the current proposal is that, today, Bahamians know the government is politically desperate to restart the Chinese-owned and -controlled Baha Mar project.
And since this government conducts most of the people’s business in secret, there is no way to know what quid is being offered for which quo. We have to assume that an exchange is taking place, as the Chinese are not here for charitable purposes.
A second big distinction between this initiative and the one discussed under the Ingraham administration is that it potentially involves large-scale commercial fishing in Bahamian waters by foreign interests.
Indications are that the Chinese want to fish for migratory species like wahoo, tuna, dolphin, marlin and kingfish. This would dramatically impact the country’s lucrative sport fishing industry, and affect relations with neighbouring countries who share our pelagic resources.
And who is to say what other species would be targeted by a Chinese-owned fishing fleet? Already there is a Chinese operation here harvesting sea cucumbers, using a vessel owned by a nominally Bahamian company.
With up to 100 joint venture companies undertaking commercial fishing here, Bahamian waters could conceivably be fished-out within a few years. And since our marine resources are an important asset for tourism as well as an essential food supply, it would seem suicidal not to protect them.
Scientists say overfishing is the biggest single threat to the oceans (and our food supply). And the Chinese, unfortunately, have a terrible reputation in this regard.
Some of the world’s most important fisheries are in the South China Sea. But high-pressure exploitation by China and other nations have reduced fish stocks by as much as 95 per cent from 1950s levels, scientists say.
Other reports say that overfishing and pollution have so depleted China’s fishery resources that in some places there are virtually no fish left.
In August, Time Magazine reported on the fight to save the world’s seas from China’s bloated fishing industry. Unregulated overfishing and destructive fishing methods have led environmentalists to warn that without serious action the oceans could face mass extinctions.
In 1993 we were faced with a similar stark choice. A faction within the cabinet, led by Agriculture & Fisheries Minister Tennyson Wells, wanted to allow fleets of foreign longline fishing boats to trawl our waters.
Using extended lines (often miles long) with thousands of baited hooks is a highly indiscriminate method fishing that catches large numbers of target and non-target fish, as well as other ocean animals.
Back then, longliners wanted access to the same migratory species (including sharks) that the Chinese are now interested in.
Public opinion was quickly mobilised and the government eventually banned longlining. Other methods of industrial fishing are also banned here - including drift netting, purse seine netting, and hydraulic dredging. But we are still faced with declining catches.
For example, targeting spawning aggregations has caused grouper stocks to plummet, and conch is more and more difficult to find. Crawfish and scale fish are being heavily depleted by poachers.
In 2004, a fleet of Korean fishing boats arrived off Andros under the banner of a nominally Bahamian company. There was no advance public discussion, but political reaction was swift and, ultimately, no fishing permits were given and the boats left the Bahamas.
In 2007 the government agreed to allow Chinese interests to “experimentally” harvest sea cucumbers and shark fins under the banner of a Bahamian company called Sunco Fishing. Sharks were later protected, but the cucumbers are still being harvested. Local fishers say there are six Chinese and two Bahamians on board the Sunco vessel.
Marine biologists Nicola Smith and Dirk Zeller recently published a paper in the US marine fisheries bulletin that sought to reconstruct catches in The Bahamas from commercial and non-commercial sectors for 1950-2010 They also estimated the demand from tourism over the same period.
The reconstructed total catches (i.e., reported catches and estimates of unreported catches) were 2.6 times the official landings. This was mostly due to unreported catches from the recreational and subsistence fisheries, the researchers said.
"We found that recreational fishing accounted for 55% of reconstructed total catches. Furthermore, 75% of reconstructed total catches were attributable to tourist demand on fisheries. Incomplete accounting for catches attributed to the tourist industry, therefore, makes it difficult to track potentially unsustainable pressures on fisheries resources.".
But the bottom line is that there are no scientific stock assessments of migratory fish in Bahamian waters.
A statement issued by the Bahamas National Trust over the weekend advised against the Chinese fishing proposal and also referred to possible investment in the agricultural sector on Andros. The BNT said this appeared to conflict with current government policy that seeks to take account of the fragile ecosystems that the island supports.
"We referenced specifically the Andros Ecosystem-Based Master Plan funded by the Inter-American Development Bank that is currently being formulated by technical experts in the Office of the Prime Minister,” the BNT statement said.
Government spokesmen - including the prime minister - have failed to clarify this apparent conflict. But research has already demonstrated that ecosystems on Andros are worth about $260 million a year.
This includes 5 per cent derived from forests, 23 per cent from wetlands and 7 per cent from reefs. Commercial fishing (including crabbing and sponging) generates $70 million a year, while tourism produces $43.6 million.
The impact of agriculture on Andros is no more than $1.23 million annually - or about 1 per cent of the overall economic impact from all activities on the island. And farming had the lowest revenue-per-person-employed out of all activities on the island.
In other words, we can earn more from crabs than crops.
It will take constant vigilance and a determined public response to prevent initiatives like the one recently authorised by Alfred Gray from destroying our marine resources. The government’s deliberate lack of transparency seeks to avoid public scrutiny so that deals can be made behind closed doors.