Bahamian Waters Safe from Chinese Trawlers… For Now

When you have empty pockets, the thought of someone pressing a wad of cash firmly into your sweaty palm can be intoxicating. Want also can do that to a country and its leadership.

It nearly happened to the Bahamas. For the discount price of $2.1 billion, China wanted to buy fishing, timber and farming rights for the next 10 years from the Bahamas.

Reports from the Bahamian capital of Nassau suggest the proposed deal is dead in the water. For now, future fishing and diving trips to the islands will continue to be fruitful and productive.

Following two weeks of outcry from Bahamian citizens, environmental groups, tourism officials, fishing organizations, recreational anglers and even the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, it appeared in late November the deal was a no-go. Bahamian Prime Minister Perry Christie said any such deal would have been “rejected outright.”
This is a classic case of Bahamian officials trying to monetize what limited natural resources the country has. Once the arrangement became public, however, it was realized how lopsided and short-sighted it was. The deal would have far-reaching ramifications ecologically, economically and internationally.

Let’s start with the ecological. Chinese corporations are in the business of feeding a nation of more than 1 billion consumers. To them, the Bahamas must look like a gold mine. Thousands of square miles of tropical reefs are inhabited by creatures great and small, all of which taste good dipped in soy sauce. More than anything, what Chinese interests were paying for was exemption from regulation and enforcement. The cash-strapped Bahamian government already struggles to enforce laws against illegal fishing, human trafficking and drug smuggling. Can anyone envision the Royal Defence Force boarding a factory fishing ship hailing from Shanghai to bust it for undersized lobsters?

Additionally, according to the Marine Conservation Institute, these fishing businesses often use indiscriminate and destructive harvesting equipment and methods. They kill non-targeted species and marine habitat. Entire schools of migrating yellowfin and bluefin tuna would be at risk. Dolphin, wahoo, snapper and grouper also would be taken in great quantities. And does anyone think for a second that Chinese ships would obey the Exclusive Economic Zone of U.S. Federal waters?

The second part of this foolish concept is the economic damage wrought to the Bahamas—and Southeast Florida. The Bahamas chief form of income is tourism. Year-round sunshine and beautiful beaches are the main draw, but right behind those two are recreational fishing, boating and diving. According to an economic study by the World Travel and Tourism Council, tourism represented 43.6 percent of the nation’s GDP in 2014. Some 98,000 jobs in the Bahamas are based on tourism.

The deal would impact the Treasure Coast marine economy, too. Thousands of boaters use marinas in the three-county area as well as Palm Beach to provision for trips to the Bahamas. They spend money here getting ready to go there. No fish in the Bahamas would mean a sharp decrease in our boat traffic.

Yet, earlier this year, Bahamian minister of agriculture and marine resources V. Alfred Gray authorized ambassador to China Paul Andy Gomez to pursue a deal he initially called a “progressive initiative.” Gray, Gomez and others were willing to mortgage a 10-year projected $38 billion in tourist revenue in exchange for $2.1 billion in fishing rights.

For now, it seems Bahamian officials have reached a conclusion that is best for their country’s future. But there will be more offers to come. Not all of them will be brought to light before they are agreed upon.

Ed Killer is the outdoors columnist for Treasure Coast Newspapers and TCPalm.com, and this column reflects his opinion. Friend him on Facebook at Ed Killer, follow him on Twitter @tcpalmekiller, email him at [email protected] or call him at 772-221-4201.

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