Over the past decade, the industry has shifted and some Bahamians are struggling to adjust. According to Louis Cahill, “Everything changed. In some areas, independent guides who formerly hung a sign and stood in waiting by their boats suffered. . . . If a guide or lodge operated as they did in the ’90s, they suffered.”
Bjorn Stromsness, another American writer, said, “Bahamian guides are behind the times in how they market and how they sell. They think they just have to be fishing guides and they’ll get the business. They don’t have email; they don’t have confirmation numbers; they don’t answer their phones. They’re losing the marketing game they don’t even know they’re playing.”
Cahill and Stromsness’s comments suggest those guides were looking for a voice to help protect their interests and they found that voice in Prescott Smith and the BFFIA.
The Devil Is in the Details
What, exactly, was so controversial about the 2015 rules proposal? While researching this story, I couldn’t find anyone who publicly opposed a system for selling fishing permits to nonresident anglers. According to Oliver White, “No one has a problem with a legitimate fishing license.”
The conflict stems from the language outlining who could sell those licenses, how anglers would obtain them, and how the proceeds would be allocated. In the original proposal draft, the Ministry of Marine Resources would have authority over granting fishing permits. That office is located in Nassau, which is not a primary fishing destination. Because visiting the ministry in person isn’t practical for most traveling anglers, a provision stated, “The Minister may authorize in writing a fishing guide, fishing lodge operator or a Family Island administrator, for and on behalf of the minister, to accept and process applications and grant and issue permits.”
That language seemed to give guides and lodges the power to decide who gets fishing permits and who doesn’t. There’s little incentive for guides or fully inclusive lodges to sell permits to anglers not utilizing their services.
Another contentious provision required licenses for all guides and lodge operators under the Ministry of Marine Resources. But a guide certification program already exists under the Ministry of Tourism. Why create an extra level of bureaucracy? The proposal further suggested that both guides and lodge operators “satisfy all criteria established and published by the Department of Marine Resources.” The document did not provide any detail about what the criteria might entail.
In its recommendations to the Ministry of Marine Resources, the BFFIA called for mandatory guide training programs to be managed and implemented by the association, a notion that effectively gives the BFFIA control over who does and doesn’t get guide licenses, and requires aspiring guides to pay the BFFIA for training. From the BFFIA’s perspective, it wants to professionalize what it sees as an insufficiently regulated and under-appreciated trade to ensure clients get the experience they pay for and guides get the respect they deserve.
The proposal also expanded the definition of “fishing guide” to anyone who “transports another person to and from the flats, or between different areas of the flats, for the purpose of angling” This was seen as threatening to DIY anglers who regularly hire boats for transportation.
The proposal called for a conservation fund to pay for enforcement of the new laws and habitat restoration programs. Half the fishing permit fees would feed that fund. The other half, and all the revenue from guide and lodge licensing, would go into the general coffers of the government. The document provided no specifics about the management or allocations of the fund.
Again, there’s little (if any) resistance to using permit fees from nonresident anglers to fund conservation. Significant anxiety arose, however, about the lack of clarity as to who would administrate the conservation fund and how it would be appropriated. The BFFIA proposal suggested, “That a Board Member of BFFIA be appointed as Board Representative on the Government Conservation Fund Committee.”
Prescott Smith has criticized the efforts of U.S.-based conservation groups, specifically the Bonefish and Tarpon Trust (BTT). His primary argument is that conservation groups don’t utilize local researchers or work in partnership with Bahamian universities. Smith feels that foreign researchers are coming to The Bahamas, gathering valuable data from the fisheries, and publishing findings to their own benefit, without appropriately crediting the Bahamians whose knowledge is instrumental in those research efforts.
Smith said on a local Bahamian news program, “Major research in bonefish, the mangroves, these things go around the college, they go around BAMSI [Bahamas Agriculture and Marine Science Institute] and so one of the recommendations of this association is that all research in this country should be through BAMSI and the College of The Bahamas.”
According to Beasley’s Midcurrent.com article, Smith “argues that BTT resists local input and is out of touch with ordinary Bahamians” and “that BFFIA has no relationship with BTT now and no plans to work with the group on common-cause conservation concerns in the future. Instead, the BFFIA works closely with Bahamas Sportfishing Conservation Association (BSCA). The BSCA is a Bahamas-based, Bahamian-run organization. Smith started the BSCA in 2003 and remains president. Skeptics worry that the lack of specifics regarding conservation funds would create a funnel directly into the BSCA and shut out other conservation organizations working to manage and improve the inshore ecosystems. Aaron Adams, a biologist who works for BTT said, “We don’t have a formal relationship with the BFFIA.”
A provision regarding “Sports Fishing Vessels” would require that all foreign-owned vessels fishing the flats have a certified guide onboard—a direct attack on mothership operations. But the language is broad, implying that foreigners who own homes in The Bahamas would need to hire guides when fishing from their own boats.
Contrary to widespread speculation, there was no explicit language in the original draft of the proposed regulations that referred to DIY anglers. However, the BFFIA’s proposal to the ministry suggested zoning specific areas for unguided angling, and that local guides and lodges determine the perimeters of those zones, a clear threat to unguided angling. Additionally, the private-vessels provision, along with the expanded definition of fishing guide and confusion about obtaining fishing permits do seem to limit DIY. These changes created the perception, for some, that The Bahamas is no longer an inviting location for traveling fly anglers or foreigners with second homes within the island nation.
A Big Blow
On October 2nd, 2015, Hurricane Joaquin devastated The Bahamas. By then, the fly-fishing industry had been buzzing and bickering over the proposed regulation changes for months—some anglers even cancelled planned vacations and second homeowners talked about selling their properties. The Bahamas Hotel and Tourism Association described the metaphorical press “firestorm” as a “tsunami” hitting the tourism industry.
A week after the literal hurricane hit, the Ministry of Tourism (not the Ministry of Marine Resources) stepped in. They released a statement declaring “all categories of anglers are welcome to fish the Islands of The Bahamas this 2015-2016 season” and “no restriction on fishing, no new taxes, no across the board increase in prices or licensing fees have been introduced.”
According to a representative, “The press release from the Ministry of Tourism was intended to calm fears and reassure everyone that the draft bill was merely a proposal on which the public was invited to comment, and that no changes in law or established norms were expected for the 2015- 2016 fishing season. This action reduced the threat of cancellations by persons who had previously booked visits to The Bahamas, and encouraged the growth of new business.” According to Bjorn Stromsness, The Ministry of Tourism “didn’t want this and they have more power [than the Ministry of Marine Resources].”
The New Rules
On April 6th, 2016, the Ministry of Marine Resources released a new, revised draft of the Fisheries Resources Regulations that are now moving through the lawmaking molasses. This draft will not end the controversy. Though it does contain some important revisions and explanations, it also maintains some of the more contentious aspects of the original and outlines some new, potentially inflammatory, proposals.
For example, the document now explicitly calls for regulations on DIY flats fishing, and there are different fee schedules for anglers fishing alone or hiring guides. DIY anglers would pay $50 for a day, $100 for a week, $250 for a month, or $400 for a year, whereas guided anglers would pay $20 for a day, $50 for a week, $75 for a month, or $100 for a year. There is no discernible language preventing DIY anglers from fishing certain areas. However, it may be much more difficult for DIY anglers to get around—fishing guides are still defined as anyone transporting anglers around the flats, which will mean DIY anglers are no longer allowed to hire boat transport without paying guide fees.
Moreover, the restriction on foreign owned vessels fishing without a guide was revised but without sufficient clarity. It now seems foreigners who own property in The Bahamas can fish from their own boats without a guide if they are alone and have non-resident fishing permits. If they want to fish with friends or family from their boats, they either need to hire guides at a ratio of one guide for every two anglers, or obtain a “sports fishing permit” for the boat. Adding that permit to the rules seems like it might allay fears about preventing second-home owners from fishing, but it isn’t clear what this permit would be, how one would get it, who would regulate it, what it would cost, or even if it would actually allow anglers to fish without guides. The language seems intentionally obtuse. A request for clarification from the Ministry of Marine Resources and the BFFIA was refused.
The most significant, and potentially controversial change, is that the new document requires all guides, regardless of how long they’ve guided, to be certified by the BFFIA. This provision makes those who work in the industry, but who are at odds with the BFFIA and its leadership, uncomfortable.
Another completely new element requires Bahamian citizens to purchase licenses for recreational fishing. This means that Bahamians, who earn $4/hour on average, would have to pay $100 per season to maintain the privilege of fishing the flats for fun in their spare time.
The system for selling fishing permits is no longer at the discretion of local guides and lodges as permits will be available for purchase online. Allocation of the funds generated from these permits remains unchanged: 50% goes to the government at large, and 50% goes into a conservation fund. There are no new details on the management or disbursement of that fund beyond this: “The Minister shall establish a committee, consisting of such officers of the Ministry and relevant non-governmental organizations as the Minister may appoint in writing, to monitor and assist in the management of the flats and the protection of the flats fish stocks.”
The most significant, and potentially controversial change, is that the new document requires all guides, regardless of how long they’ve guided, to be certified by the BFFIA. This provision makes those who work in the industry, but who are at odds with the BFFIA and its leadership, uncomfortable. The Abaco Fly Fishing Guides Association told the Ministry of Marine Resources, “I do not respect the opinion of the board of the Bahamas Fly Fishing Industry nor recognize the Bahamas Fly Fishing Industry NGO as the voice of the fishing industry and ask that the government immediately rescind their endorsement of them as an authoritative group within the industry. BFFIA should have no part in certification of guides, proposing legislation, or any aspect of the fly fishing industry in The Bahamas.”
I asked Prescott Smith a series of questions for this story. His response was he would “not get into answering the questions the way they are framed, as they are following the traditional path and understanding on the situation at hand.” Mr. Smith went on to say, “My position is about true conservation and the benefit and protection of the resources. That can only be done with the local people having a real voice at the end of the day. . . I have been at this particular matter for 23 plus years now. This has just come out to the public, due to the fact that we finally found a way around the SPECIAL INTEREST who was blocking this all those [years].” Smith didn’t elaborate on who the aforementioned “special interest” is, or exactly what and how they have obstructed. The BFFIA board, independent of Smith, also refused to answer any questions, instead referring me to the BFFIA website and previous statements.
To that point, last year the BFFIA stated, “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.”
The momentum of anger and conversation that swept over the fly-fishing industry last summer has waned. Proposals take longer to become law than attention spans or news cycles allow. The updated draft will go to the Attorney General, then on to the cabinet, before it receives a final parliamentary vote.
But the issues underlying this drama—infighting over a limited and valuable resource, competition between guides and lodge owners both Bahamian and foreign, major ecosystem threats like illegal netting, mining pollution, and mangrove harvest—won’t go away. Advocates for the BFFIA will continue to believe that Bahamians are being exploited and manipulated by outsiders while the detractors of the association will continue to lob accusations of corruption and greed hidden by populist rhetoric.
Despite the anger, those involved agree on several points: Fly-fishing is good for The Bahamas. The islands create a unique ecosystem that isn’t managed or protected nearly as well as it should be. Funds collected from fishing licenses could support habitat restoration and law enforcement efforts. Certain areas of The Bahamas experience too much angling pressure and should be equitably restricted. Few things are better in this world than conch salad, crayfish, and a cold Kalik after a day searching for schools of silver fish that somehow manage to appear and disappear in ankle-deep water.
Unfortunately, everyone can’t agree on how to achieve specific goals, as this drama continues to demonstrate. Those of us who love The Bahamas will wait, watch, and hope the imperfect grinding and stumbling of law—that frustrating, glacial mechanism—might achieve something beneficial, before advocates from both sides destroy one another, along with the very things we wish to protect, in the process.
Miles Nolte is the Angling Editor for Gray’s Sporting Journal and author of The Alaska Chronicles. He lives, teaches, and guides in Bozeman, Montana.
For more details on the new regulations, applications for permits and licenses, and the official press release from the Minister of Agriculture and Marine Resources, Alfred Gray, CLICK HERE.