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The Battle for Bonefish and the Future of the Bahamas, Part 1

by Beau Beasley

Bonefish are one of the top targets of saltwater fly anglers worldwide, with good reason: when hooked, these torpedo-shaped, silvery fish, which can grow nearly three feet long and tip the scales at 15 pounds, are known for their blistering runs and fierce fights. The angler who hooks such a brute can quickly find himself looking at his backing and whacking his knuckles on his whirling fly reel handle. In fact, if he tied his knots improperly, he’ll probably even see his fly line disappear through the end of his rod tip. Once tipped off to a predator, wary bonefish simply vanish into the flats they call home. Stealth, speed, and tenacity: perhaps it makes sense that the US Navy dubbed two submarines USS Bonefish (SS-582 and SS-223).

Bonefish and their future are currently at the center of a conflict raging on the island nation of the Bahamas. This Caribbean island chain, where Columbus first made landfall at the end of the 15th century, lies northeast of Cuba and east/southeast of Florida. The Bahamas’ main industries are tourism and banking.

Many of the current inhabitants of the Bahamas are direct or indirect descendants of slaves who were brought there by Europeans. Great Britain, for example, relocated some American Loyalists (supporters of the Crown) and their slaves to the Bahamas after the American Revolutionary War. When the islands became a Crown colony in the early 18th century, the British hotly pursued the pirates who had been plying their trade quite freely. In 1973, the Bahamas gained their independence from Great Britain.

This year, the Bahamian government, its citizens, local businesses, tourism booking agents, independent fly fishing guides, and foreign-owned or -influenced fly fishing lodges have become embroiled in a debate over what an outsider might deem a seemingly innocuous piece of draft legislation released in mid-June, titled the Fisheries Resources (Jurisdiction and Conservation) Act. At the center of the controversy are the Bahamas Fly Fishing Industry Association (BFFIA) and its president, Prescott Smith, a well-known fly fishing guide and son of Charlie Smith, designer of the famed “Crazy Charlie” bonefish fly and the very first fly fishing lodge owner in the Bahamas.

BFFIA

BFFIA is an association that represents guides and various lodge owners and operators who run fly fishing-related businesses across the country’s many islands. In addition to lobbying the Bahamian government as an  industry voice, the BFFIA now seeks to establish professional standards to which all fly fishing guides in the Bahamas must adhere; to be involved in local conservation efforts of industry interest; and to establish a conservation fund, a percentage of which would underwrite BFFIA itself.    

Prescott Smith (recently re-elected as president of the BFFIA) and the rest of the Association’s leadership have faced intense scrutiny and harsh criticism in recent weeks. Allegations have ranged from incompetence to using the BFFIA as a cover to shore up personal businesses that detractors say are failing as a result of mismanagement. Accusers suggest that BFFIA leaders have pushed the proposed legislation in order to stifle and eventually crush competition from non-native-owned lodges. Critics also say that the legislation’s conservation language is merely hiding what in truth is nationalistic and xenophobic protectionism, and that the bill provides BFFIA with legitimacy and an unending source of operating cash funded primarily by foreign anglers. But how much of this criticism is founded on fact, and how much is speculation? Is the evidence against BFFIA anecdotal, or does proof of wrongdoing exist? What do we know?

Contentious Election

On June 25, 2015, the BFFIA held its General Membership meeting, the highlight of which was a leadership election that would presumably determine whether the Association continued to support the proposed controversial legislation, which first appeared in emails to Bahamian guides and lodges and was posted on the government website on June 17. The Tribune, the island nation’s paper of record headquartered in Nassau, the capital, covered the BFFIA election and cited Cindy Pinder, an official of the rival Abaco Flyfishing Guides Association (AFFGA), as among the most vocal opponents of the legislation. (Read AFFGA’s position on the proposed legislation here.)

Pinder’s criticism has been withering and unrelenting. For example, she has described the recent BFFIA elections as a “dog and pony show” and has asserted that Smith and other board members intentionally delayed the General Meeting so that many BFFIA members, who had to catch planes back to their home islands, were unable to vote in the election. It is true that although the election was slated to be held between 11 AM and 4 PM, voting did not actually begin until two hours after the meeting was scheduled to be over. As a result of delays, dozens of members who attended the meeting intending to cast a vote had to leave before the election was actually held.

“The AFFGA does not recognize the BFFIA as a respected voice in the fly fishing industry,” says Pinder. “They do not represent us. Not a single one of our members was afforded the opportunity to vote at the AGM. Because of their manipulation of the voting process and their exclusionary leadership, we don’t want anything to do with the BFFIA.”  She also suggests that AFFGA is considering legal action against BFFIA.

Pinder is hardly alone: other stakeholders have also cried foul. Several bloggers and online media columnists and even The American Fly Fishing Trade Association (AFFTA) entered the fray within days of the first draft legislation appearing.  AFFTA released a statement that reads, in part: “The ill-conceived and downright puzzling attempts by a small number of self-serving individuals in the Bahamian fly fishing industry to fast-track the proposed Fisheries Resources Regulations has already put the destination fishing industry of the Bahamas at great risk. The industry outcry, social media reaction, and backlash in the last two days alone have already tarnished the image of the Bahamas as a paradise for traveling anglers.”

The AFFTA statement continues:

“Ian Davis, co-owner and saltwater program director for Yellow Dog Flyfishing Adventures commented, ‘It is unfortunate that a small number of self-serving, outspoken guides and lodge owners have gathered momentum to the point that these regulations are actually being considered and discussed. The potential harm to the Bahamian sportfishing industry is immeasurable.” (Read AFFTA’s statement in its entirety here.)

In the FlyTalk blog at Field & Stream online, Tim Romano wrote:

“That’s not to say I don’t have a vested interest from a business perspective in seeing the bill fail, too; I have friends that own lodges in the Bahamas. But in the end, the bill smells fishy, and I imagine somebody, somewhere is greasing the wheels. Sure, the proposed measures could be posturing, an attempt to get parts of the bill passed, but if passed, this law would be a bad deal for almost everybody involved save a few fat-cat officials.”

Sarah Grigg, writing for the blog Gink & Gasoline, described how even the internal politics of BFFIA seemed rigged for a specific result:

“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.”

Marshalling the Facts

According to BFFIA secretary Geneva Wilson, the association’s bylaws distinguish between two types of members—voting and nonvoting—and only those members who are designated as “professionals” fall into the voting category. Wilson continues, “We had 168 Professional Voting Members at the time of the June 25th AGM. 149 of them attended the AGM and registered, and 127 voted.”

The association’s bylaws also establish that “no business shall be transacted at any general meeting unless a quorum of voting members is present at the time when the meeting proceeds to business,” and that “25% of voting members present in person shall be a quorum.” As the association’s total membership is 229, the 127 members who voted in June clearly constituted a quorum according to BFFIA bylaws. The country’s Department of Labor, which acted as the independent third party election monitor for the vote, released its official results, which you can download here, on July 1.

A primary goal of the opposition to the bill was the defeat of Prescott Smith as BFFIA president. Results indicate, however, that Smith garnered 51 votes—more than any single candidate in his region. Had every one of the 22 members who registered to vote in the election but left before the vote was held voted against Smith and for his closest rival (Randy Thompson), it seems Smith still would have won reelection.  

Despite the apparent validity of the election and its outcome, questions remain. First, some BFFIA professional who believed they were members in good standing were told before the election that they would not be able to vote. One such association member is The Delphi Club, a fly fishing lodge in Rolling Harbour on Abaco Island. Shortly before the election, club manager Peter Mantle engaged in an email exchange with BFFIA secretary Wilson in which he was informed that he would not be able to vote because his business license did not have the words “bonefish lodge” on it. Mantle turned the matter over to his attorney, who assured Wilson in writing that both the association and the Bahamas Investment Authority had previously recognized The Delphi Club as a bonefishing lodge, and that Mantle would attend the association’s meeting with every intention of voting in the election. Ironically Mantle was among those who did not have the option to vote because he had to catch a scheduled flight home.

Second, some BFFIA members have charged that opponents of Prescott Smith and the proposed legislation waylaid them and pressed them to vote against him and the bill just moments before the election. Abaco Island guide Paul Pinder says that he and a group of other guides from the island “arrived in Nassau the morning of the AGM. When we stepped out of the terminal, there was [former BFFIA board member] Cheryl Bastian directing the guides to two waiting buses. We got on the buses with the idea that we were headed to the Hilton where the AGM was to be held.” According to Pinder, the group was driven to an entirely different building and told to disembark. “I thought the venue for the AGM had changed,” he continues, “so I got off the bus. We were then directed to a room and asked to take a seat.” Pinder says AFFGA official Cindy Pinder [no relation to him] then took control, telling the guides that she and others were putting together a group to run against Prescott and his supporters. Pinder says he and the other guides left the meeting when they realized the leaders’ intentions.

BFFIA Addresses the Issues

Because the BFFIA itself lies right at the center of this debate, I sent  a series of questions directly to re-elected association president Prescott Smith and his fellow board members. Here are my questions and their answers, as I received them (with only minor punctuation and capitalization edits made for clarity):

Q: Why is this legislation needed?

BFFIA: The Legislation is needed for several reasons: empowerment of local Bahamians; legitimize the guiding profession; heighten the need for protection and conservation of the flats and our fragile nursery systems throughout the Bahamas which feed the entire Western hemisphere; the additional protection of bonefish; protection of permit, tarpon, snook, stingray, and our national fish, the blue marlin; control of the illegal lodges run by second homeowners without government approvals etc.; prohibition of the mining in the flats to extract sand, calcium carbonate etc.

Q: I read in one of the Tribune articles that a “smear campaign” has been launched against your organization. Who is behind this campaign, and what would their goals be for doing such a thing?

BFFIA: The smear campaign and personal attacks are being launched by a small fraction of renegades—primarily Yellowdog Flyfishing Travel Company from Montana, Cindy Pinder of Abaco Flyfishing Guides Association, H20 Bahamas, Dan Vermillion, Oliver White, Cheryl Bastian of Swains Cay Lodge, and Benjamin Pratt of the Ministry of Tourism. They wanted to control the outcome of the board structure of BFFIA, the first grassroots association in our number one industry, at the June 25 AGM. Because things did not go as they had planned, they set out to discredit the voting results of the association, which was conducted by an independent body. 127 of the 149 Professional Members registered attending the AGM voted.

Q: Critics of this legislation say it is designed to do little more than protect local anglers and local lodge owners and to build in a minimum price for hiring guides, which could price the Bahamas out of the market. What is your response to this criticism?

BFFIA: It is sad that critics would see things that way. The idea of this legislation was to regulate the fly fishing industry because without laws we will eventually have chaos! Our main reasons are the protection of the flats and its species by conserving and improving the population of the fish, so they do not become depleted or made extinct by over fishing or destruction of their marine environment; and the implementation of a fishing license system, so that the funds can be used for conservation and a National Wardens Program to enforce the law. Also, for the first time in our country’s history, the honorable profession as a flats guide would be legally recognized. This would allow guides to have access to proper equipment and funding. How can such things take place if the profession does not have a legal foundation, similar to the medical or legal profession in America and other parts of the world? They all have a legal structure that allows them to lobby in the best interest of their industry. [This has] nothing to do with building in a minimum price for hiring a guide, but to ensure that anglers are not overcharged.

Q: The legislation calls for a “guide permit [license].” You’ve been quoted in the newspaper as saying that your organization should get a large portion of the fee raised to teach and certify the local guides. Please explain why your organization alone should be permitted to do this?  

BFFIA: In the Tribune, as it relates to the fishing license, the board suggested that a considerable or determinable portion of the funds collected by [the] government, say between 3%-5%, be given to BFFIA because of the unique geography of the Bahamas—unlike the USA or Canada where you can drive from one state to the other—and to assist with the following:

  • The education of the public and those engaged in recreational fly fishing with respect to the proper handling and care of the bonefish, tarpon, permit, and snook. The proper use of the flats, including the protection and conservation of the marine life and its environment, by its sustainable use in the best interest of the Bahamas and its sister countries.
  • To abolish injurious practices and establish a uniform code of ethics in the industry.
  • Support a mentoring program within our educational system to encourage a cadre of young Bahamians to enter the profession of fly-fishing guides and become stewards of our flats, as well as, to advance [sic], support educational and training projects, certificates and related programs and research by upgrading of the skills of current fly fishing guides and key local stakeholders in the industry.
  • To provide an instrument through which members may coordinate their efforts in handling matters of common concern.
  • To assist in the promotion and the marketing of local Guides and Lodges, locally and internationally.
  • To create and encourage the adoption of a national set of quality standards and ethics for the fly-fishing industry.
  • Improve the operations and profitability of local fly fishing lodges and facilities.

Q: What standards will be used to measure the guides for certification, and who will the instructors be?

BFFIA: We have an existing certification manual, which we are upgrading over the next few months to be used as a guideline for the certification. The guides in the Bahamas are and [are] expected to be the very best in the world when it comes to polling and casting in the saltwater environment, no matter if it is twenty-plus knots. So our standards would be high. Some of the standards would be:

  • Must hold a current Class B Captain License
  • Must be able to swim
  • To learn the history of the Bahamas fly fishing industry
  • To learn the Fisheries Regulation Act
  • To learn the elements of fly fishing equipment and tools and their proper usage
  • Required safety equipment, life jackets, and VHF Radio in flats boat
  • To identify fly patterns and for what flats species and basic fly-tying
  • Fly casting techniques and universal terms used
  • Bonefish, tarpon, permit, and snook biology and psychology
  • Outboard engine and boat maintenance and repairs
  • First aid & CPR procedures
  • Effective communication and customer relation skills
  • Business ethics
  • Proper guide attire, personal presentation, and grooming
  • 1-year apprenticeship with a certified guide
  • Require public liability insurance

The instructors will be made up of mainly professional certified guides from around the Bahamas, along with other experts from various backgrounds in the industry.

Q: Where can I get a copy of the guide standards or the criteria for the test?

BFFIA: Once approved by the board, it will be posted on the association’s website for viewing.

Q: Also, will there be a fee for guides who want to take this certification course, and if so how much will that be? Can they take the test more than once?

BFFIA: Yes, there will be an affordable fee, and the test can be taken more than once. Theoretical and practical tests will have to be taken.

Finally, I asked Prescott Smith why this issue was so important to stakeholders. Here is his response:

“I believe that true conservation is when local people of a country are able to use their environment in a sustainable way to support themselves and their families. I believe this would instill value and pride fostering the need for protection and proper use of their natural resources for generations to come. It is imperative that everyone understands that the nursery system and marine environment in the Bahamas is important to many countries in this region including [the United States of America], Canada, Dominican Republic, Honduras, and Cuba, as well as many global companies that rely on its healthy marine environment.

“Beyond the rights and protection of the guides and local lodges from this proposed legislation, I am hopeful that it will be one of the greatest conservation success [sic] in the Western hemisphere by the protection of four flats species (bonefish, tarpon, permit, and snook), the largest bonefish flats on the planet, the third largest reef in the world, and the largest concentration of mangroves in the entire Western hemisphere.

“I wish that persons [could] look beyond all the sensationalism and misinformation and see a sovereign country just trying to protect and regulate its industry in the best interest of the Bahamas for generations to come, so it can be enjoyed by all for a very, very long time!”

The Government’s Position

A 2010 study (The Economic Impact of Flats Fishing in The Bahamas; Tony Fedler, Ph.D) found that $141 million was generated by flats fishing in the Bahamas. Because the pending legislation has the potential to dramatically affect flats fishing tourism, I directed a number of questions to Bahamian government figures through official channels.

First, I sent the following questions to the Hon. Alfred Gray, Minister of Agriculture, Marine Resources, and Local Government, who has publicly stated he recognizes BFFIA as the official organization that represents the fly fishing industry in the Bahamas.   

Q: Since no legislation has ever been passed regarding recreational flats fishing since the inception of your country, what was the reason behind allowing only 11 days for input and comments from the citizenry on such an important topic? If the time frame I have put forth here is wrong, please send me the correct time frame and instrument that was used to solicit input from the citizenry and industry stakeholders.

Q: All parties both in favor of and against this proposed legislation seem to favor stronger conservation measures. All parties also agree that poorly worded legislation could negatively affect the tourism industry, which is so critical to the local economy. Is your ministry considering doing some sort of study to determine which conservation needs pose the greatest threat to bonefish so those are addressed first in any proposed legislation?

Minister Gray did not respond to either of these questions.

Next, I submitted the following questions to Michael Braynen, director of the Department of Marine Resources:

Q: How many marine wardens are currently enforcing Bahamian conservation laws?

Q: What is your largest enforcement issue or concern?

Q: What year was your department founded?

Q: How many people including you work for the department?

Q: When was the last time fishing laws pertaining to recreational fishermen were enacted? (I have been told it was 1986, but I believe these laws pertain to commercial and not recreational fishing.)   

Director Braynen did not respond to any of these questions.

Finally, I submitted a series of questions to the Hon. Obediah Wilchcombe, head of the Bahamas’ Ministry of Tourism:

Q: What is the Ministry of Tourism prepared to do to combat the view that fly fishing on your own is being discouraged with this new legislation?

Q: Why should customers book a trip to the Bahamas if they are uncertain where they can legally fish by themselves?

Q: Are you concerned that imposing a new fishing fee of $20 a day and requiring anglers to hire a Bahamian guide for at least $600 a day is going to make the Bahamas less competitive in the fly fishing market?

Unfortunately, Minister Wilchcombe did not respond to any of these questions.

I invited all three government officials to send me statements to clarify their official, individual positions on the legislation. None accepted my invitation.  

By its own admission, the BFFIA has stated that its primary interest in the proposed legislation is to protect Bahamians and their future employment as guides. They are also clearly concerned about unofficial, tax-dodging lodges run by non-Bahamian and second-home owners, as well as boat-based operations that use foreign guides. Undoubtedly if these operations  are permitted to exist, they could hurt legitimate lodges in a number of ways. After all, these lodges are not just avoiding taxes and failing to comply with government regulations; they are, in a sense, stealing from their neighbors, whether those neighbors are Bahamian-owned and operated lodges, or operations owned primarily by foreign interests.

Unsanctioned, unregulated fishing operations also easily operate outside of resource management rules. Meanwhile, BFFIA’s proposed conservation measures remain vague. Nor does there seem to be a clear mechanism for the collection, transfer and use of license-generated revenues, and BFFIA’s plans to tap into the revenue to the support the Bahamian guide community leave all decision making in the hands of one group, which itself may not have the support of all Bahamian guides.

The Battle for Bonefish and the Future of the Bahamas, Part 2” reviews the proposed legislation itself and how it might affect visiting anglers as well as foreign lodge owners. In particular, we examine the conservation issues facing the Bahamas, and how the proposed legislation purports to address them.

MidCurrent Fly Fishing
 
Beau Beasley is an investigative conservation writer and the director of both the Texas and Virginia Fly Fishing festivals.
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