Boy, oh, boy, have the interwebs come alive over this Bahamian brouhaha, or what?
Haven’t heard yet? First, good for you--you may have missed the party, but you’ve also missed some of the most inane pablum coming from the Bahamian side the Caribbean since Columbus sailed past the northern tip of Long Island and proclaimed himself the master of the Indies.
Here’s the skinny. The Bahamian Department of Marine Fisheries is floating a new set of proposed regulations that would severely restrict the ability of “do it yourself” anglers to ply the flats in the Bahamas, and, as written, prohibit foreign operators from being permitted to run fly fishing lodges. I've read the proposed legislation, and despite all kinds of assurances floating around Facebook from leaders in the Bahamian fly fishing industry, the above information is factual. See for yourself.
Under the draft rules, foot-bound anglers will be subject to a $20 daily fee and a $10 administrative fee. The permit can be granted by the government or the government can authorize a guide, outfitter or lodge to grant permits on the government’s behalf. Or deny them subjectively. When that happens--and it likely will, assuming a Bahamian guide or lodge operator will eventually acquire some heartburn when he sees a buff-laden New Yorker stalking bones on his flat--the denied angler can then apply to the minister of marine fisheries, who can either override the guide/outfitter or hold up the denial. There is no, “Here’s why a permit might be denied” language in the proposal. Simply put, you pay the fee and take your chances. It’s not up to you; it’s up to the government or the government’s agent who might very well have a dog in the hunt.
Now, realistically, what’s $20 a day to walk a gorgeous Bahamian flat? Not much--most of us would agree that it’s worth the cost of admission. But what’s it worth to a local Bahamian lodge operator to keep us plebeians who can’t (or don’t want to) fork over $3,500 a week (or more) for a lodge stay on his little piece of paradise? These are the little nuances that have all of us who love to walk the flats terrified, despite the pleas from Bahamian fly fishing leaders who claim we’re propagandizing this whole mess, and who just want us to trust a proposed system that, by definition, holds non-Bahamians in contempt.
But wait. There’s more.
Under the draft rules, only Bahamians or permanent Bahamian residents can apply to the Department of Marine Resources to be a permitted flats guide or a fishing lodge operator. It would appear that foreign operators and guides are no longer welcome--at least that’s the perception among the masses on social media of late.
“A person eligible to apply for certification as a fishing lodge operator … must be a citizen or permanent resident of The Bahamas.” That’s right from the proposed rule. The same applies for guides.
I have several problems with this "model" of fishing management (and please, let's not confuse it with fisheries management, because that's not what this is). It's great to say that some of the new fees will go to conservation causes, but I have a hard time with the notion that going after anglers and foreign operators for the money to beat back industrial dredging operations or salt mining developments to protect bonefish will do much at all.
Who are the best stewards of the resource today? I submit that anglers and lodge operators are. Foreign lodge operators aren't stringing nets across passes on Long Island and taking out entire pods of fish. Footbound DIY anglers aren't building new developments on bonefish flats and bisecting them with boat channels. The government is going after the wrong people here. It amounts to taxing hens (or making criminals of them) to fight off the foxes. For crying out loud… go after the foxes.
Simply put, the proposal, if passed as written, makes life uncertain for unpermitted foreign operators who have invested small (or large) fortunes in their businesses that provide jobs to Bahamians and pay taxes, not to mention the trickle-down economic impacts of these operations that buy food, fuel and supplies from local merchants. It makes a criminal out of the guy who, while on vacation with his family, decides to walk a flat with a fly rod, not knowing that he’s suddenly a scofflaw and at the mercy of the government or some turfy Bahamian guide or lodge owner who wants to protect his territory. From one foot-bound angler.
And what if you’re caught violating these new laws, should they be approved? The proposal, while short on details as to why foreign investors are being shunned and why the foot-bound flats-walker is suddenly a massive threat to Bahamian sovereignty, is pretty clear. You could be on the hook for $3,000 in fines or three months in a Bahamian prison. Or both. And there’s no jury trial, folks. According to the proposals, for those found guilty “on summary conviction,” you’re pretty well screwed.
The draft proposal is not going unnoticed by the fly fishing industry in the States, either. Tuesday, Ben Bulis, the president and executive director of the American Fly Fishing Trade Association, sent a letter to the Department of Marine Fisheries on behalf of his organization.
“We strongly encourage the Bahamian government to reject the draft of these regulations in their present form and seriously evaluate whether these proposed regulations are truly good for the Bahamas as a whole,” the letter reads. “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. If key elements of this proposed legislation become reality, there is a chance that the lucrative and valuable destination angling industry servicing the Bahamas will suffer catastrophic damage that will negatively affect the Bahamian economy.”
A recent report titled, “The Economic Impact of Flats Fishing in the Bahamas,” claims that foreign anglers spent $141 million fishing the flats in 2010.
Prescott Smith, the president of the Bahamas Fly Fishing Industry Association, took to social media this week to counter all the negative reactions from anglers. There was lots of talk about “protecting the resource,” and listening “to the concerns of Bahamians.” But if you read the letter from AFFTA, there are clearly some underlying politics involved in this attempt to fast-track these regulations.
“While a handful of local guides and lodge owners might see this as a short-term win and a way to artificially strengthen their own small businesses,” the letter continues, “the Bahamas as a whole will lose in a big way. Heavy-handed and unnecessary regulations will send a message to destination anglers throughout the world that they are not welcome in the Bahamas unless they are willing to pay to fish with a small number of ‘select’ guides or lodges.”
And for the record, Smith operates Stafford Creek Lodge on Andros.
Finally, if you love to fish the Bahamas, you don’t have much time. The “public comment” period ends June 26. So get busy, and send an e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org) to the Department of Marine Fisheries. Tell the Bahamian government just how much money their country’s merchants would lose—just from you—if you decided to take your next flats trip to the Yucatan. Add it up for them. From the East Coast, you’re looking at a $500 flight to Nassau (double it if you live in the West), another $200 for the flight to the Family Island of your choice and probably close to $750 for lodging if you do it on the cheap. Throw in a $300 car rental if you want move around the island, another $500 for food and booze if you’re thrifty, and you’re talking about a small fortune that would have ended up in the pockets of Bahamians.
Convert that cash to pesos, and say hello to the Mayan Riviera instead.