Abaco Fly Fishing Guides Association blasts new Bahamas Flats Fishing Regulations

1/12/2017 UPDATE: Revised regulations and the application for fly/flat fishing license can now be accessed via links on this link: http://www.bahamas.com/things-do/fishing.

Anglers from the United States and around the world have been following proposed regulations since mid-2015 that many feared would essentially shut down DIY fishing, require all anglers who desire to fish the Bahamas to hire a certified Bahamian Guide, including second-homeowners who have imported duty-paid-Bahamian-registered boats.

Proposed regulations have undergone several revisions and the latest revision, announced by The Bahamas Minister of Fisheries yesterday in a press conference, goes into effect January 9, 2017.

The Abaco Fly Fishing Guides Association, organized with the mission to promote a sustainable tourism product for Bahamian Guides by promoting conservation of bonefish and the bonefishing flats while preserving Bahamian jobs, issued today, the statement below blasting the new regulations.

The Minister has also said that Bahamians will no longer be allowed to flats fish in their own country without a guide.  Second-homeowners who have imported duty-paid-Bahamian-registered boats will not be allowed to flats fish without a guide.  The countries’ recreational boating/yachting visitors who utilize the many Bahamian owned marinas will not be allowed to flats fish without a guide.  Visitors who rent a boat from the many Bahamian boat rental companies will not be allowed to flats fish without a guide.  Bahamians who own vacation properties and provide a two person kayak or little skiff can no longer market to bonefishermen because it will be illegal for the visitors to use the boats to access the flats to wade fish without a guide according to the regulation.

With the winter season now here and the new regulations scheduled to begin in just four days, how will the proposed regulations impact The Bahamas 2017 flats fishing season? The impact of the new regulations on the Bahamas $235 million recreational flats fishing industry remain to be seen.

abaco-fly-fishing-guides-associationMost Bahamians are unaware of new government regulations that will be effective on January 9, 2017.  The Abaco Fly Fishing Guides Association would like to share our thoughts with the public regarding the flats fishing regulation.

How the fly fishing regulation will directly affect Bahamians

  • Only Bahamian Citizens will qualify for a Guide License
  • Bahamians must purchase a personal angler license to fish for bonefish
  • Only one bonefish may be kept for personal consumption
  • Bahamians must hire a guide to fish from a boat on the flats

A recent economic study puts a value of $527 million on the Bahamas recreational fishery.

More specifically, flats fishing is credited for $235 million dollars of that total value.

According to the same study, 90% of angler’s only chose to visit The Bahamas in order to fish and would not visit or invest in this country if they could not fish.

Rather than welcome all fishing visitors parts of this regulation restrict anglers from practicing sustainable fishing that does no harm to the fishery thus greatly reducing the economic benefits of flats fishing for The Bahamas economy.

There are two things we all agree on.  A flats fishing license should be required for anglers and Motherships (floating foreign fishing lodges) should be banned from The Bahamas.

Most of the regulation is unnecessary and does nothing for sustainable development of the fly fishing sector.  The three major threats to the fishery are habitat loss, degradation of the water and illegal netting.  This regulation does nothing to address two of these threats.  Netting bonefish has been illegal for many years but the law is rarely enforced.  The guides already practice ‘Catch & Release’ fishing and also utilize ‘Best Practices’ for fish handling to ensure the best chance of survival for the fish.  Only Bahamians eat bonefish and this regulation still allows them to take one fish.  Every other fishery in The Bahamas is a kill fishery and yet are minimally regulated and require no personal licensing or guide licensing. Because of the Bahamas Fly Fishing Industry Association’s skewed input the flats fishing sector is being unfairly targeted with these draconian regulations and penalties.

Half of the licensing fee is to go to a Conservation Fund that remains a vague concept.  This is the most important part of the regulation and must be used for flats conservation to further protect the fishery.

A license can only be obtained after an application is submitted and payment is made whether online or in person at the Administrators office.  This should be sufficient for licensing.  The added burden, required by regulation, of having the license stamped at a port of entry is a bureaucratic overlay this is unwelcoming and unnecessary.

The new regulations are not even posted on the government web-site yet so most stakeholders remain unaware of the pending legislation that is to come into effect with only 4 days’ notice.  Enacting the personal license requirement before the electronic licensing mechanism is ready is disappointing and leads to yet more confusion and difficulty in implementing this new scheme.  Springing this on the public without warning feels much like the back-room preparation of the 1st draft that was thrust onto stakeholders with disastrous economic consequences and harm to the reputation of the Bahamas as a fish-friendly tourist destination.

Fishing is the main force that encourages this economic benefit to our country and yet the Minister has written regulation that will be harmful to the economy and the Bahamian people by promulgating the objectives of the Bahamas Fly Fishing Industry Association to limit our visitors’ ability to flats fish unless they hire a certified Bahamian guide.

In a recent meeting, Minister Gray said, we need to “give the Bahamians a chance to economically breathe.”  Unfortunately, these poorly crafted regulations will have the exact opposite effect.

The 2016 economic study claims that 83% of anglers fish from a boat.  According to a 2010 report 313 bonefish guides had been identified in The Bahamas.  It is impossible for this small amount of guides to fulfill the 1:2 guide/angler requirement for all boating anglers as now required by regulation.

The Minister has also said that Bahamians will no longer be allowed to flats fish in their own country without a guide.  Second-homeowners who have imported duty-paid-Bahamian-registered boats will not be allowed to flats fish without a guide.  The countries’ recreational boating/yachting visitors who utilize the many Bahamian owned marinas will not be allowed to flats fish without a guide.  Visitors who rent a boat from the many Bahamian boat rental companies will not be allowed to flats fish without a guide.  Bahamians who own vacation properties and provide a two person kayak or little skiff can no longer market to bonefishermen because it will be illegal for the visitors to use the boats to access the flats to wade fish without a guide according to the regulation.   And yet, Minister Gray thinks that this is good for the country and that only guides should profit from the flats fishing sector at the expense of many other Bahamians that benefit from our fishing visitors.

In a December meeting Minister Gray said, “Second-homeowners are using their homes in The Bahamas to run a business and we can’t sell our birthright.”

The Bahamas has a foreign investment board that approves foreign home purchases, and there are regulations and taxing mechanisms regarding foreign rental property as well as immigration laws that regulate the right to work.  There are many second-homeowners who do not rent their homes at all.  And yet, the Minister of Fisheries is enacting regulation that punishes law abiding Bahamians, investors and visitors in this country and effectively prohibits them from flats fishing in The Bahamas.

Ironically, the 2010 economic study attributes the estimated value to the economy of guided anglers at ¼ of the value of expenditures made by non-guided anglers.  In other words, guided fishing was valued at $60 million while non-guided anglers spent $176 million dollars.  That is money that trickles through the islands to taxi drivers, rental cars, boat rentals, fuel, hotels, resorts, guest houses, beds and breakfasts, local airfare, groceries, food, liquor, restaurants, bars, carryouts, gift shops, souvenir vendors, dock fees, donations, charitable gifts, real estate, vehicles purchased, boat maintenance, home maintenance, personal items, and other forms of entertainment so that many Bahamians are making a living from our fishing visitors.  In a misguided attempt to improve the economic outlook of guides, fueled by BFFIA, the minister will irreparably harm other vital components of the fly fishing industry.

Perhaps more shocking is that the Ministry of Tourism and the Prime Minister have not put a stop to the flats fishing regulation in its present form.  Hundreds of letters have been written to these (and other) government officials by stakeholders offering input and feedback while the legislation was being drafted and yet it has all been ignored.

In a Tribune article of November 25th, 2016 Prime Minister Christie pointed out the painful realities facing today’s Bahamas as we struggle to cope with a globalized world and he went on to lament how the twin pillars of our economy – tourism and financial services are struggling to adjust to increased completion and global trends.  Since the ill-advised backroom first draft of the flats fishing regulation was rolled out, outraged anglers have been avoiding the Bahamas for the friendlier fishing destinations of Belize, Cuba and Mexico.  Mr. Christie claims the Bahamas has suffered ‘setbacks’ and our nation struggles to cope and yet, he has allowed his Minister of Fisheries to institute draconian flats fishing regulation. Prime Minister Christie further claimed that ‘our advantage has eroded and that we operate with the reality that intra-regional competition has increased dramatically and rival destinations are doing it better,’ but he still allowed his Minister of Fisheries, in cooperation with the Ministry of Tourism, to allow our visiting anglers to feel unwelcomed in The Bahamas thus taking their tourist dollars elsewhere.

The Abaco Fly Fishing Guides Association believes that The Bahamas must be the #1 flats fishing destination in the Caribbean and our country must be welcoming to our much-valued anglers.

Pleas to have the 1:2 guide/angler regulation removed by second-homeowner foreign investors, who have invested untold millions purchasing real estate in this country, primarily for the purpose of flats fishing, have been ignored by the government.  These same homeowners pump another $70K each, on average, into the local island economies each year.  Many of them are leaving.  Already, condos, homes and boats have been put up for sale.   Ironically, Prime Minister Christie assured a Chinese interviewer at the China-CELAC Cooperation Forum how safe it is to invest in The Bahamas and how ‘we’ protect investors.  And yet he has allowed this flats fishing regulation to retrospectively affect foreigners’ substantial investments in this country.  One must wonder who will buy these fire-sale properties now.

Minister Gray also claims that the 1:2 guide/angler, BFFIA promulgated, regulation is intended to stop Motherships from fishing in our waters.  We all agree that Motherships must be stopped. But again, Minister Gray is punishing an entire industry instead of a specific culprit.

Specific regulations – i.e. not issuing sportfishing permits to yachts with more than one flats boat could easily be done via Customs and Immigrations at ports of entry with the appropriate Fisheries and Port Department regulation.  There is no need to punish the 83% of anglers who fish from boats when they visit The Bahamas because of the dozen Motherships that have been fishing here for the past 40 years.  The Minister should stop the Motherships that do not contribute anything to our country, not the visiting angler and second-homeowners that contribute hundreds of millions of dollars each year to our economy.

The one-sided input into the development of these regulations has left stakeholders angry.  There are many successful fishing lodges in this country that contribute approximately a million dollars each per year into the economy and yet when the managers corresponded with the ministry regarding the draft legislation emails were never acknowledged nor responded to.  Phone calls were not taken.  Messages were not returned.  For 18 months, this regulation process has dramatically affected Bahamian businesses financially and by reputation and will continue to do so into the future and yet stakeholders were ignored.

Fishing lodges have in-house guide training.  Most of the guides in The Bahamas have been successfully guiding for 10 to 30 years.  Keep in mind, these unregulated guides have already built a quarter of a billion dollar industry, but BFFIA has proposed, and the Minister is now regulating, that every single guide in The Bahamas must be trained and certified by a non-governmental organization in order to qualify for a guide license that will be issued by the Minister.  All guides; a guide with one year experience or a guide with 25 years’ experience, must do this within one year if they want to continue guiding according to the regulation and yet there is no training program ready, in fact, no mechanism at all in place to do this.  There is no grandfather clause either because, according to Permanent Secretary Glinton, “Guides don’t know how to dress and they don’t know how to talk to people” so everybody has to be trained.  There is no regulation for renewal (yet) so guides just have to wait and see what hoops they will have to jump through to continue working.  The Minister has no idea what this will cost or who will pay for it.  (AFFGA suspects that guides better start saving as all of these new course fees and certificates will be coming out of their pockets along with the new $100 yearly license fee to be a guide.)

This is a slap in the face of all of the professional guides working today.  Many of these guides have previous Ministry of Tourism Bahamas Bonefish Certification and some are also Orvis Certified Guides.

The biggest complaint from anglers about guides in The Bahamas is regarding their shoddy equipment; inadequate boats, poorly maintained engines, and beat up vehicles used to transport anglers.  The one thing that the Minister could have done that would have actually made a difference for guides and their high-dollar anglers in this regulation is the allowance of duty-free concessions for vehicles, boat trailers, fishing equipment, and engine parts. In fact, those perks were in the first draft, but by the 5th draft, that is now regulation, they have fallen by the wayside.

The government is now requiring guides to spend a lot of money to continue to participate in the very guiding profession they have already successfully built and yet there is no incentive offered for them to participate in this BFFIA promulgated scheme.

The Abaco Fly Fishing Guides Association believes that the flats fishing industry is well developed already and because of the recent creation of several marine parks and protected areas throughout the country, along with ‘Best Practices’ for bonefish handling and the world-wide industry standard of ‘Catch and Release’ fishing, the flats fishing tourism product is already sustainable in The Bahamas and to remain sustainable illegal netting of bonefish must stop and destructive coastal development must not be permitted.  Much of this flats fishing regulation is unnecessary and counterproductive to our fly fishing sector remaining successful.

The Bahamas reputation as a superior angling destination that welcomes anglers is the message we should be sending to the world at large in order to remain economically successful and to become the #1 flats fishing destination in the Caribbean.

The Abaco Fly Fishing Guides Association represents many dozen experienced professional fishing guides from Abaco, as well as several guides from other islands throughout the Bahamas and many of the leading fishing lodges in this country, in addition to several hundred associate-member stakeholders from around the world.

Our members do not recognize the Bahamas Fly Fishing Industry Association as a legitimate representative or voice of the fly fishing industry.

For more information on The Abaco Fly Fishing Guides Association and further discussions on the new regulations, visit http://www.affga.org/ or the AFFGA Facebook page.

Feel free to weigh in or add your comments regarding the regulations on our Facebook Page here:  https://www.facebook.com/CoastalAnglerMagazineTreasureCoast/posts/1235254503224118.