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Update: Is a Regulatory Sea Change Coming to the Bahamas?

by Beau Beasley

At the 6th Annual Bonefish & Tarpon Trust (BTT) Symposium in Fort Lauderdale, US-based ad agency Admirable Devil sponsored a lively panel discussion titled “Bonefish and the Bahamas,” featuring both Bahamian officials and those most immediately affected by their bonefish harvest regulations. On hand to discuss the updates were Benjamin Pratt, senior manager for the country’s Ministry of Tourism; Eric Carey, executive director of The Bahamas National Trust, and other Bahamian citizens who work as fishing guides.  

The panel audience included lodge owners, guides, and ordinary anglers, as well as industry notables like The Orvis Company’s Tom Rosenbauer, American Fly Fishing Trade Association board member Tom Sadler, and Jim Klug of popular travel company Yellow Dog Fly Fishing Adventures. Many wondered what the new regulations would mean for the future of angling in what is considered one of the best bonefishing destinations in the world.

As if to allay anxiety, Pratt announced with a confident smile that “the Bahamas is open for business. We want every angler who is even thinking about bonefishing to know that we want them in our country, and they are indeed welcome.”

A two-part MidCurrent series titled “The Battle for Bonefish and the Future of the Bahamas” covered the contentious wrangling over changing Bahamas fishing regulations. (Part One of the series is here. Part Two of the series is here.) Since that time, citizens of the Bahamas have continued to spar over issues such as the cost of fishing licenses and whether or not tourists are required to fish with a professional guide. When some Bahamian guides and lodge owners lobbied to ensure that only “certified” Bahamian guides could obtain a guide license, other guides and lodge owners, who spotted a threat to their very livelihood and existence in the island nation, responded swiftly and angrily. Complicating the issue was the fact that although the new law mentioned a “certified guide program,” standards for what might constitute a certified guide program and a curriculum to certify said guides were only at the planning stage.

Stakeholders became more confused and anxious when the new law insisted both that Bahamas bonefish would be subject to a “catch and release only” policy and that locals could keep up to one bonefish a day. Furthermore, few could tell if the new law covered wading anglers—and if it did, it was unclear where wading anglers were permitted to fish. Finally, it was (and still is) difficult to obtain a fishing license: they were available only in person at each of the islands’ Administrator offices during regular business hours. The cost varies from $15 for a daily license to $60 for an annual license.   

Under the law, neither Bahamian government officials nor Bahamian lodge owners could determine precisely what compliance would look like. So it comes as no surprise that confusion soon engulfed the fly fishing tourism industry, and countless fly anglers quickly contacted their sporting travel agencies to cancel their trips and book them instead to places like Cuba, Mexico, and even Florida. These tourists support not just guides and lodges but also restaurants, hotels, taxi cab drivers, and numerous other ancillary businesses, all of which have suffered a direct hit from the tourism decline.

The new Bahamian Prime Minister the Honorable Hubert Minnis, who is a physician, was elected in May 2017 in a general election that swept the old administration out of office and into the history books. Minnis is as intent on improving the Bahamas’ image with anglers as the new Minister of Tourism, the Honorable Dionisio D’Agular, who dispatched Pratt as his special representative to the BTT Symposium to allay fears and encourage engagement among stakeholders and tourists alike.

“Because of the confusion, there will be no enforcement of the past regulations until new legislation is drawn up,” assured Pratt. He informed his audience that a cabinet level committee is reviewing the January 2017 regulations, with a view towards achieving stakeholder equity, protection for the natural resources and a welcoming environment for traveling anglers. Pratt couldn’t promise when it would be finished or what exactly it would look like, but said that a commonsense regulatory update is an immediate priority of the new administration. He made a passionate plea for booking agents and angling customers to continue supporting the nation’s economy by planning fishing vacations to the islands this upcoming season.

One lodge owner in the audience, noting that her business was down a staggering 25 percent because of the uncertainty surrounding the previous legislation, expressed pleasure that a positive change might be in the wind. “The last thing I needed was some government bureaucrat telling me how to train my guides when I’ve been doing that already for more than 20 years. I do agree, however, that we need a clear fishing license program and a clear conservation goal. The ambiguity of the past law was killing our industry.”

“I’m very hopeful that we are going to finally get some meaningful legislation,” said Cindy Pinder, whose husband Captain Buddy Pinder has been a bonefishing guide for more than 25 years. As vice president and secretary of the Abaco Fly Fishing Guides Association, Pinder was an outspoken critic of the last administration’s poorly thought out regulation and went to great lengths to oppose the regulation that went into effect in January.  

We have recommended that 100% of the license fees paid by all anglers be set aside for conservation,” says Pinder. “No fly angler or guide I’ve ever spoken to about this issue objects to purchasing a fishing license but all of them have great concerns on just how these funds will be spent. We simply must invest in conservation and especially in meaningful enforcement because without evenhanded enforcement of meaningful laws and a serious eye towards conservation, we don’t have anything.”

While the Bahamian Government has struggled to fine-tune its resource management, it is worth noting that several individual Bahamian citizens and organizations like the Abaco Fly Fishing Guides Association have been working for years with BTT on tagging bonefish. The Bahamian National Trust, an organization set up in 1959 to protect the country’s natural resources, also strives to maintain the best fishing grounds possible, while understanding that business development on the island nation is crucial for its future.

As of this week, the Bahamanian government appears on their way to clarifying expectations and working toward commonsense policies. Traveling anglers, local guides and lodge owners have reason to hope that ambiguity and in-fighting among stakeholders will fade as more inclusive, practical plans gain ground.

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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