Proposed Bahamian Flats Fishing Regulations, A Deeper Perspective

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Photo by Brian Gregson

Photo by Bryan Gregson

By Sarah Grigg

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An Uncomfortable, Unexpected Fisheries Debate in The Bahamas

Some anglers compare fighting a bonefish on the line to wrangling a bat out of hell. Most would agree that few saltwater flats parallel those of the Bahamas for pursuing this species. Perhaps nowhere else on the planet could fishing incite heated international debate. But in the Bahamas, where silver scales translate to serious capital, the first-ever proposal of recreational fishing regulations has incited a volatile reaction among domestic and international stakeholders.

The Bahamas Flats Fishing Alliance conducted a 2010 study revealing that flats fishing (namely fly fishing) generated $141 million annually. The survey was conducted in the height of the U.S. recession and marked the worst year for destination angling. Fast forward to 2015, and those numbers have easily doubled. While not required by law, flats fishing is largely catch-and-release in practice, making it highly sustainable.

The Bahamas is an angling hot spot due to flexibility in options. Anglers may stay at all-inclusive lodges, rent accommodations and hire a guide, or participate in Do-It-Yourself (DIY) flats fishing, which is tremendously popular. DIY allows fishermen to access flats on foot and hunt bonefish on a open-ended schedule with few restrictions. Beyond the public lands and rivers of the U.S., sportsmen are hard pressed to find a hunting or fishing scenario in which they may venture without a guide to chase the quarry of interest.

There’s just one small hitch when it comes to recreational fishing here: there is no system in place to regulate it. Fishing licenses, game wardens, conservation funds fed by license fees . . . nonexistent. This lack of regulation is sorely backlit by the complex history of a recreational economy within a young country sitting a stone’s throw from a major world power.

Since Hemingway’s days at the Bimini Big Game Club in the 1930s, the Bahamas has grown as a preferred spot for Americans and Europeans. Into the 2000s, Bahamian fishing guides and lodges enjoyed great status. Recreational tourism was cranking. When the financial crisis hit in 2008, it knocked the stuffing out of the industry. Tourists simply stopped going.

For recreational fishing, everything changed. In some areas, independent guides who formerly hung a sign and stood in waiting by their boats suffered. As the U.S. bounced back, the Bahamas did not. Some guides saw self-directed, DIY anglers as would-be clients who would pay $500 to $600 daily to fish from boats. Furthermore, clients started to book online. If a guide or lodge operated as they did in the 90s, they suffered.

Additionally, fishing lodges with foreign- or mixed domestic-and-foreign- investment entered the playing field. With the influx of these operations, guides and family-run lodge operations felt the competition. Animosity roiled as some increasingly viewed lodges and DIY anglers as hurting their earning potential. A few disgruntled individuals slashed tires and scratched cars of DIY anglers. In 2011, aggression escalated to verbal confrontations and vehicles set aflame. Within this new playing field, whether a guide or operation sunk or swam was highly contextual, changing from island-to-island and depending on myriad factors.

Nevin Knowles, a descendant of the earliest Bahamian settlers, lives on Long Island–one of the remote Out Islands–and owns Long Island Bonefishing Lodge, a DIY assisted lodge. Mr. Knowles offers accommodations to guests and directs them to flats access points or, upon request, transports them to fishing spots by boat and drops them off for the day. If it weren’t for the DIY option, he’d be out of business. He explained, “I only offer assisted DIY because in Long Island, we don’t have the guide infrastructure to accommodate anglers. We drop you on the flats, but you have to do everything on your own. What we’ve found is that DIY is the future here.”

For Captain Philip Thomas, Jr. of Captain Phil and Mel’s Bonefishing Guide Service, many of the newer lodges present a challenge. “It is very difficult to compete with a lodge,” he said, illustrating his situation on Grand Bahama. “Every year, they can replace their engines, their boats, whatever they need to replace. Then my service looks inferior to the lodges, which have foreign investment. It is difficult to compete. And that is the bottom line.”

“Lodges and guides offer two very different products,” remarked Cindy Pinder, Vice President of the Abaco Fly Fishing Guides Association. “Not everyone wants to stay at an all-inclusive lodge. Many people want to rent houses. On Abaco, independent guides are booked as much as they want to be. All the independent guides have common core issues, but also very localized issues on their island.”

Amid this layered history, the issue of fishing regulations hovered. Bahamian and international stakeholders have long-suggested a system in which anglers may easily purchase fishing licenses online. With a streamlined process, locals and tourists alike could quickly pay for the appropriate timeframe–from three days to six months–and cover all associated taxes and conservation fund fees.

This spring, the Department of Marine Resources set out to draft regulations for recreational fishing linked to a conservation fund, to be adopted under the Fisheries Resources (Jurisdiction and Conservation) Act. The Department claims to have consulted with diverse groups for input, one of them being the newly established Bahamas Fly Fishing Industry Association (BFFIA), a group formed to represent domestic and international angling interests, but which has now been largely disowned by many parties. According to Michael Braynen, Director of the Department, “The Bahamas Fly Fishing Industry Association is a legally constituted body in The Bahamas to represent stakeholders in the fly fishing industry, inclusive of guides and lodge operators.  It is not the only stakeholder group.”

Draft rules were released on June 17th. Rather than celebration, the draft set off Bahamians and the international angling community (The draft regulations have been removed from the Depart of Marine Resources website, but may be viewed here).

Field and Stream’s Tim Romano summarized the rules in their draft form: “In short, the proposed law shuts down DIY fishing, puts the kibosh on foreign-owned lodges, disallows non-Bahamian boats in the water, requires anglers to hire a Bahamian guide, and charges a daily fishing fee on top of it all.”

To many, the tone of the draft sounded highly xenophobic. Officials offered the public a nine-day comment period, which to many stakeholders, felt farcically short for far-reaching legislation. The draft and process is reflective of well-documented and unfortunate gerrymandering within the Bahamian angling community. At a time that one fishing lodge owner described as “a very fragile situation, given the competition from established angling destinations such as Belize, and Mexico and the emergence of Cuba as a new angling option for US anglers,” the actions of a vocal minority have torn Bahamians asunder on the decided future of their fisheries management.

Photo Bryan Gregson

Photo Brian Gregson

It is suspected the unexpected tenor was driven by a small clique of angling professionals within BFFIA with rumored intimate ties to the Hon. Alfred V. Gray, Minister of Agriculture, Marine Resources and Local Government, under which the Department of Marine Resources falls.

Prescott Smith is President of BFFIA and the son of Andros fishing legend Charlie “Crazy Charlie” Smith. He has publicly advocated for the draft regulations. Feeling bludgeoned by the response of the international angling community, Smith said: “The draft is a working document that was put out there for public comment. It doesn’t hold water. There’s been lot of noise and misinformation around that as special interests tried to create stir internationally to put pressure on the government.”

Mr. Smith explained the tone of the draft, emphasizing conservation and the disenfranchisement of Bahamians within the recreational angling industry: “You cannot have a true model of successful conservation if the local people aren’t invested. If locals aren’t empowered through foreign investment, then they are going to net bonefish. If you want locals to engage in conservation, you’ve got to give them ownership in that.” In conversation, Mr. Smith focused on this mantra of conservation, a word that is not mentioned or addressed once within the draft regulations guided by his organization. 

When asked if he was concerned about alienating international anglers in the draft language, particularly with the hovering threat of Cuban tourism, Mr. Smith responded, “Not in the slightest. There’s no DIY in Cuba, there’s no opportunity to go in and build a lodge. Cuba doesn’t have one-tenth the flats we have.”

Mr. Smith vows that he and Minister Gray have no personal ties whatsoever, as the two grew up as far east and west possible, on Andros and Acklins Islands, respectively. Director Braynen evaded a direct answer as to Minister Gray’s direct ties to Mr. Smith, simply stating the functional role of BFFIA.

In other public statements, Mr. Smith has shown himself more inclined to comment upon purported smear campaigns (here and here) intended to tear down him. Many view his command of the stage as the effort of a single individual to use fishing as an entry point into politics, as well as a way to solely empower independent guides and select lodges.

Jason Franklin, a native Bahamian and co-owner of H2O Bonefishing in Freeport, served on the BFFIA Board prior to elections held at the group’s Annual General Meeting in Nassau on June 25th. The meeting was conducted in such a way that officer elections were held after half the voting members left on evening flights to their home islands. This caused division within BFFIA and the overall angling community. Despite paying dues, certain lodges were excluded from this vote, and others were entirely denied membership for not aligning with Mr. Smith’s divisive platform. Following the meeting, numerous groups withdrew support and disowned the organization entirely.

Mr. Franklin stated, “We are an industry of stakeholders, not individuals. Mr. Smith doesn’t speak for this industry throughout the islands. If someone is elected to a position such as this, he should have the ability to pull opinions from the angling community around the country and bring them all to the table. Because he is so blinkered by his own opinions, this process is not happening.”

The draft in its original form remains the standing document. The Ministry has remained overall quiet in the debate, overshadowed by non-governmental spokespeople freely offering public comment.

In an email, Director Braynen explained the process: “After these consultations have been completed, a revised draft of regulations will be produced for further consideration.  The process in The Bahamas will involve approval by the Cabinet before debate and approval by the Houses of Parliament before being brought into force. There has been no date set for the completion of this process although it is a priority item for this Ministry.”

In the meantime, Bahamian and international stakeholders are troubled by the powerful-yet-unclear draft language that laid out tremendous changes to DIY fishing and foreign participation in the market. DIY fishing fuels local economies in a way that lodge bookings and guides do not.

“What many people do not realize,” explained Rod Hamilton, Canadian author of Do It Yourself Bonefishing, “is that most DIY anglers are visiting with their families. Most of these guys aren’t diehard anglers. The DIY option gives them the flexibility to step out and fish alone while the rest of their party participates in other activities. The funds generated by DIY contribute to many amenities, such as car rentals, fuel, shopping, or bed and breakfasts.”

Ms. Pinder highlighted the benefit of DIY on Abaco. “DIY fishing has a $111 million impact on Abaco and guided fishing, $30 million. There has to be a way to deal with this without alienating two thirds of our fishing income,” she pleaded.

Director Braynen defended that, “DIY Fishing was not jeopardized in the draft that was circulated, although there seemed to be many stakeholders who came to such a conclusion.

Everyone agrees that regulation and enforcement are the end goals. Ms. Pinder elaborated this point: “Our belief has always been that the proceeds from a license should go toward enforcement. The biggest issue is not a lack of laws, but lack of enforcement. After that is in place, with wardens stationed on the islands, we would have compliance. Once we achieve that, we could focus on conservation.”

Looking at a completely different set of concerns, foreign and Bahamian lodge owners were taken aback by what many perceived as xenophobic language in the draft. Lodge owners have stepped up to demonstrate their value.

The Delphi Club on South Abaco, established in 2009, is an eight-bedroom boutique lodge held by 38 international shareholders. Managing Director Peter Mantle holds joint British and Irish nationality, as well as permanent resident status in the Bahamas. He employs 14 people, 12 of whom are Bahamian. Since opening, the Club consistently turns over $1 million per annum, but has yet to record a profit. Mr. Mantle reports, “We have injected from our activities in six years $8.5 million into the economy of Abaco and $1 million into the broader Bahamian economy. We employ almost entirely Bahamians. They are the victims in this, not us. The real beneficiary of our existence is the Abaco community. When foreign lodges are taken on, the communities supported by those lodges are taken on.”

Dan Vermillion is an American and managing member of Mangrove Cay Club on Andros Island. The Club was built in 1999 with funds from U.S. investors. Vermillion and his partners bought out an English company and joined Bahamian founders, Liz and Alton Bain, in 2010. The lodge staff is entirely Bahamian, all of whom are paid appropriate base salaries in addition to tips. Mr. Vermillion can’t understand how angling regulations could disrupt his operation. “We went through a very comprehensive process through the Financial Services Board to establish our lodge,” he commented. “If you’re the Minister of Finance, I don’t think you want the security of foreign investments in the Bahamas to be threatened by regulations attempting to regulate fishing.”

Clint Kemp, a native Bahamian with ancestral roots dating to the 1600s, is a partner in Black Fly Lodge on Abaco Island. When he teamed up with American Vaughn Cochran and equity partner Dave Byler–former CFO of SunCor and President of Trout Unlimited Canada–he felt it was an ideal model for global partnership. He shared their mutual concern: “Even though I’m Bahamian, the draft regulations sent a chill down [our] spines. The draft was unfortunately released to the public with xenophobic language. The tones therein pale in comparison to our traditional position on tourism and foreign investment.”

Many tourism vendors point to the necessary symbiotic Bahamian-international relationship critical to supporting the overall economy. “This policy debate has geopolitical implications that are a microcosm of what we are dealing with more largely as a country,” explained Mr. Kemp. “We as Bahamians don’t have the collateral or the global reach into the fishing industry, so we have to reach out.”

Based on his country’s track record, Mr. Kemp is confident that an atmosphere of cordial international collaboration will persist. He maintained, “The Bahamas has always depended on tourism and global investment. The legislation in draft form goes against that universal truth. At the highest level of government, we will never do anything to hurt our foreign relationships and I think that it what will prevail.”

Gregson_B_Sara-Bahamas-HiRes-2Oliver White, an American investor and managing partner of two lodges in the Bahamas, Abaco Lodge and Bair’s Lodge, is not at ease. “Damage has been done already. The hostile language and anti-foreign sentiment resonates with our clientele. People do not want to go where they feel unwelcome,” he emphasized. “The Bahamas has some of the greatest flats fishing in the world and unlike many places they aren’t in need of repair–only protection. Smart regulation is welcomed and encouraged but this draft does more harm than good and does not address the real issues–habitat loss and lack of enforcement.”

Dozens of lodges, hotels and other players submitted letters to government officials urging them to reconsider the draft. The Out Islands Promotion Board, Grand Bahama Island Tourism Board, Marina Operators of the Bahamas, and the Bahamas Hotel and Tourism Association jointly reviewed the proposed legislation and requested additional time for research. The overarching theme was one of deep concern–for angling resources and all-around tourism.

This domestic worry was further justified by reactions from the international angling community. The draft rules came under heavy fire from major industry players, including the American Fly Fishing Trade Association, as well as travel agencies, manufacturers, retailers, and outdoor media with stakes in the Bahamian recreational angling economy and overall concern for the long-term health of the flats. Vendors in the islands and U.S. have already reported cancellations.

Ian Davis is among those. As Bahamas Program Director for Yellow Dog Flyfishing Adventures, the largest angling booking entity working within the islands, Mr. Davis is alarmed by the unfolding situation. “While the potential long-term damage to the economy is significant, we are already seeing short term blow-back stemming from the negative press that this issue has generated,” he averred. “Clients have either backed away from planned Bahamas trips or focused their bookings on other Caribbean and saltwater destinations. The sad thing about this is that out-island guides, lodges and other businesses linked to destination angling are already suffering.”

Perk Perkins, CEO of Orvis expressed sympathy for Bahamians undergoing a tough growing pain. He observed, “The draft legislation clearly took a nationalist and protectionist tone. They are living in the shadow of the most powerful economy in the world. If there are Bahamians who feel their economy will get gobbled up by the U.S., that’s fair. They are just trying to create the same sort of resource protections that many developed nations have and they would be well advised to take the time and learn from some of the most effective measures already proven in other countries.”

In light of strong international responses to the draft, BFFIA board member Captain Kendall Williamson, owner of Grey’s Point Bonefishing Inn on Acklins Island, expressed concern over Bahamians dictating the future of their fishery. “The Bahamas is a young, developing country. Third world countries are often taken advantage of. The investors know the value of our assets more than us, clearly,” said Captain Williamson. “We have to play a role in this. There can be no real conservation if you don’t empower the Bahamian people. Cruise ships? We don’t want more of them. Casinos? We don’t want more of them. One of the only industries we can look at as sustainable and desirable is fishing.”

In the midst of international debate, the discussion always winds back to “conservation”, that word which was not once mentioned within the official draft regulations. Without formal qualitative and quantitative research framing the touted conservation intent, what remains is a case of policy employing observation of the eye as a measuring stick, rather than hard-earned biological evidence and angler surveys. Site-specific data from the Bahamas certainly exists.

The Bonefish & Tarpon Trust (BTT) is a fisheries resources non-profit group with a specific mission to provide information to managers for conservation planning. Dr. Aaron Adams, BTT Director of Operations, made clear that BTT does not unilaterally decide how countries will employ the data collected through collaborative efforts. BTT works collaboratively with the Cape Eleuthera Institute, the Bahamas National Trust, The Nature Conservancy, and Friends of the Environment on Abaco, scientific and conservation groups employing Bahamian experts, support staff and volunteers. These partners have conducted tag-recapture studies in the Bahamas for some years with the aim of identifying habitat critical to supporting bonefish.  Dr. Adams and his colleagues have extensively presented to ministers, guide associations, lodges, as well as at major international conferences held in the Bahamas. Without a doubt, there has not been a lack of communication of the biological data suited to drive fishing regulations.

“If you set aside overfishing, which is not a problem in the Bahamas,” remarked Dr. Adams, “habitat threat and degradation are the number one threats to bonefish worldwide. In the Bahamas, there are dozens of coastal development proposals. Although some of the items raised in the draft regulations may need attention, they are certainly not going to be the source of protection from threats like habitat loss and degradation and illegal netting. If the government is going to consider regulations for their fishery, they need a comprehensive conservation and management plan.”

The Nature Conservancy of the Bahamas likewise issued a statement supporting the use of sound science in the decision-making process: “As part of the Caribbean Challenge Initiative, The Bahamas has committed to the protection of 20% of near-shore marine habitats by 2020. [We support] this by using scientific evidence to help guide protected area managers and decision makers to establish and effectively manage protected areas across the archipelago . . . These efforts synergistically address habitats underpinning the conservation, recreational flats fishing, and associated commercial elements.”

A public consultation meeting took place on July 13th in Nassau. The turnout was tremendous, yet, one attendee described it as “Groundhog Day”, with little assurance or clarity provided. During the meeting, BFFIA was re-affirmed by the Ministry as the voice of the industry and Mr. Smith was invited to take the stage alongside government officials.

In the long run, predicting the outcome for this debate may be likened to divining answers from saltwater clouded with stirred sand. What is clear is that the Bahamas stands at an important crossroads, where it may decide its own future while democratizing and engaging its diverse constituencies across the islands and beyond in the legislative process.

“We could be a model for countries in which marine resources and fishing are so critical to the GNP,” closed Mr. Kemp. “The relationship to foreign investors and tourists has been violated through the exposure of these draft regulations. No doubt. But I believe we can create a solution if we work in community, a local and global community. The Bahamas is starting to feel as it never has before. Bonefish are under tremendous pressure. This tiny country of ours, of 400,000 people, we rely on bonefish. This is a mature process that we have to undergo. It cannot be accomplished by small, politically-motivated ideas. Can we model this dialogue for the world?”

Sarah Grigg
Editors Note:  The situation is grave. There seems to no longer be any point in expressing concerns to the Ministry of Fisheries, who appear to have no concern. The only hope of stopping this insanity lies with the Bahamian Parliament, which must vote on the resolution. below are links to contact information for the Prime Minister’s Office, The Ministry of Tourism and the US Ambassador to the Bahamas. Please take the time to make your voice heard.




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14 thoughts on “Proposed Bahamian Flats Fishing Regulations, A Deeper Perspective

  1. Pingback: Great, well researched article on Bahamas issue | Bonefish on the Brain

  2. Excellent article. As a second homeowner, I both fish DIY and with hired independent guides several times per year. I have no objection to a reasonable permit fee for individuals, guides and lodges as long as the proceeds are principally used for enforcement and conversation. The BTT recently released an updated report and recommendation which, in my opinion, strikes a good balance among competing interests and maximizes the long-term public good that can result from quality regulation.

  3. As a new fly fisher with limited funds, and a young family, the Bahamas was never really in my budget. So it looks like I certainly weight be going now.

  4. Thanks for the information. I love the Bahamas, tip wonderfully to the staff, pay f0or shells that I don’t want, just to keep the economy in the peoples hands that work for it(and depend on it) Please keep me updated on the situation, my wife wants to rent a house on Eluthera(sps) so she can enjoy it while I wander around on the flats but who knows? Mexico is okay with me.

  5. how stupid can you be ! institute a reasonable fee and start making me feel wanted, or i’m not going back! the poor lovely people who will be hurt by this crap…

  6. I find it hard to believe that an educated gov’t minister can not see the problem with putting so many people’s livelyhoods in jeopardy in order to occomodate a few fishing guides. The much bigger picture is the rest of the economy. What bothered me most in that article is Mr. Smith’s assertion that if they didn’t get to control the flats they would net the fish. What jack_ _ _.

  7. Yet another potential for the Great Bahamian Rip Off. Although I am concerned with preservation and sustainability of flat fishing in the Bahamas I am highly skeptical that any of the revenue will be spent for these purposes. The ever increasing cost of visiting and residing in the Bahamas (higher duties and new VAT) should be a major concern for the powers to be. How would laws be enforced? By the 2 boat navy? How much revenue will be required to police the laws? I hope some sensibility finds it’s way into this process.

  8. Pingback: Bonefish on the Brain

  9. Think I got the drift after the first half….Dude should be guiding, and sharing. It’s the most beautiful place to walk. I can’t think for the life of me why peeps wouldn’t pay millions to maintain it!

  10. Pingback: Green Light The Bahamas | Fly Fishing | Gink and Gasoline | How to Fly Fish | Trout Fishing | Fly Tying | Fly Fishing Blog

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