What’s going on in the Bonefish Capital of the World?
[by Miles Nolte]
THE BAHAMAS ARE KNOWN FOR EXCEPTIONAL AND EXPANSIVE FLATS, home to some of the globe’s best bonefishing. They are also associated with calm, laid-back island life. However, on June 17, 2015, the country’s Minister of Marine Resources drafted a list of recreational fishing rule changes titled, Fisheries Resources (Jurisdiction and Conservation) (Flats Fishing) Regulations, 2015, and the fly fishing community’s reaction was anything but “laid-back.”
The original document was 10 pages of judicial boilerplate that recommended several seemingly innocuous shallow-water fishing regulations like fishing permits for nonresidents and certification for guides and lodges.
No big deal, right? Those rules are standard in much of the fly fishing world. Yet the proposition precipitated a rift in the Bahamian fly fishing industry that pitted government ministries against one another and spurred hundreds of traveling anglers to cancel trips to the islands—foreign owners of vacation homes even considered selling their Bahamian properties. What the hell is all the fuss about?
Enter the BFFIA
The Bahamas Fly Fishing Industry Association (BFFIA) formed as the Bahamian government’s recognized voice of the fly fishing industry in 2012. According to the organization’s website, “The mission of the BFFIA is to serve as the representative voice of the industry, and provide support services in fulfillment of the social, economic, and environmental aspirations of its members.”
Prescott Smith, son of famous Bahamian guide Charlie Smith (inventor of the Crazy Charlie pattern) and owner of Stafford Creek Lodge, serves as the association’s only president (ever) and was instrumental in its inception. He is a polarizing figure, seen by some as a tireless advocate for the Bahamian people and staunch inshore fisheries defender against foreign and domestic threats. Others see him as a self-interested politician—a “megalomaniac who wants to consolidate his control of the industry,” as one American writer put it.
Everyone involved, from guides to lodge owners to representatives of the Bahamian government, agrees that the Bahamian fly fishing industry needs an organization to lobby for and support its members and interests. But not everyone approves of the goals and actions of the BFFIA over the past four years.
Critics assert that Smith and his allies use the association as an instrument for their own benefit, employing xenophobic fear tactics to consolidate power and connections in government to pressure competing businesses. On the other hand, BFFIA leadership and Smith himself feel railroaded by outside interest groups that don’t want to see Bahamian people profit from, or control, their industry. In an interview for MidCurrent.com, Smith said, “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.”
Election Disputes and a Divided Industry
Two weeks after the 2015 release of the proposed regulations, internal tensions came to a head at the Associated General Meeting (AGM) of the BFFIA. The purpose of the meeting was to elect board members and decide whether or not to continue under the direction of Prescott Smith. The events of the meeting are disputed, but whatever occurred fractured the association. Various guides and lodge owners who opposed the administrative direction of the BFFIA believe the meeting and voting process were altered and intentionally delayed to nullify dissenting voices.
What’s more, the owners of several lodges including Blackfly, East End, Bair’s, Abaco, and Delphi were told at the meeting they were not eligible to vote. Oliver White, part owner of both Bair’s Lodge and Abaco Lodge said, “I’ve paid dues and been a member for years, they never asked for anything until two weeks before the vote. Then at the meeting they told me that I was ineligible for not having the word bonefish on my business license. . . . All we’ve ever been is a bonefish lodge.”
The BFFIA insists that the election was fair and transparent. According to the secretary, Geneva Wilson, “We had 168 Professional Voting Members at the time. One hundred forty-nine of them attended the AGM and registered, and 127 voted.” She points out that this constitutes majority participation. Last year, writer and American Angler contributor Beau Beasley reported on the election for MidCurrent.com and concluded that the election results were valid.
“Had every one of the twenty-two 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,” Beasley said.
What’s not disputed is the outcome. Prescott Smith was reelected, infuriating his opposition. One group of guides from the Abaco Islands withdrew from the BFFIA and created a separate group, the Abaco Fly Fishing Guides Association (AFFGA). AFFGA filed a lawsuit against the BFFIA and denounced it, claiming, “The AFFGA DOES NOT RECOGNIZE the BFFIA as the voice of the Fly Fishing industry.”
The meeting also bothered the fly fishing advisor to the Ministry of Tourism, Benjamin Pratt. “It became patently clear in the 2015 Annual General Meeting of the BFFIA that neither [founding] documents [Memorandum of Association and Rules for Governance] were being followed by the spirit nor letter as originally intended,” Pratt said.
Why Change, and Why Now?
But how did the Bahamian fly fishing scene get to this point? What, in those seemingly benign regulatory suggestions, could cause such upheaval? Answering those questions requires some context—an understanding of how the Bahamian fly fishing industry changed over the past decade because of the global financial crisis, the influx of “mothership” operations, an increase in do-it-yourself (DIY) flats fishing, and environmental degradation.
Flats fishing in The Bahamas is big money. According to a 2010 study titled “The Economic Impact of Flats Fishing in The Bahamas,” fly fishing anglers bring an average of $141 million a year to the islands, creating the equivalent of 2,500 fulltime jobs. Louis Cahill, a fishing writer and regular Bahamas visitor, notes that study was conducted during the deepest part of the economic recession and conjectures that “those numbers have easily doubled” in the past six years.
Before the financial crisis, industry growth in The Bahamas was steady. Starting in 2007, fly fishing travel as a whole declined, squeezing everyone living off the disposable income of anglers. At the same time, tightening financial markets made it more difficult for new lodge owners, especially Bahamian ones, to secure funding. Lodges with significant foreign backing gained advantage. The combined factors led to fierce competition over territory and clientele. Conflict was inevitable.
Some very successful lodges like Abaco Lodge and Bair’s Lodge have ownership ties to the United States, and a huge media and marketing presence. The BFFIA has targeted those lodges, claiming the operations do not represent the interests of Bahamians and are “raping” local resources for the good of wealthy foreigners.
Oliver White is from the United States, but married a Bahamian and maintains Bahamian residency. He takes issue with being singled out. “I feel that I do a lot of good. I have twenty nine full-time Bahamian employees. This wasn’t a cannibalization of an existing business. I went up there and created a new business. The clients I have were not fishing other places in The Bahamas. I dump a ton of money back into the local economy.” However, White went on to suggest, “There is legitimate concern among the community in The Bahamas about the motherships.”
“Mothership” operations are almost exclusively foreign-owned and -operated yachts that act as floating lodges. Each ship sends out four to six flats skiffs with anglers daily, often piloted by non-Bahamian guides. Though it’s already illegal for non-Bahamians to work as fishing guides, mothership operations operate with impunity, angering many communities because of the added pressure on the fisheries without any benefit for local economies.
The number of unguided anglers has also surged over the last 10 years. Operations like Long Island Bonefishing Lodge offer accommodations, meals, and transport to and from flats, but not guide services. Books like Do it Yourself Bonefishing (written by Rod Hamilton and released in 2014) and numerous websites provide independent-minded anglers loads of information with little effort.
Finally, environmental degradation is affecting inshore ecosystems. Calcium carbonate and silica mines, dredging operations, mangrove depletion, and illegal marine harvest threaten The Bahamas fisheries.
These factors stress and shape the livelihoods and perspectives of the guide community, and the regulations proposed last year address them. That community is upset. According to Prescott Smith, “Seventy percent of Bahamian-owned lodges can’t make their bank payments.”