NEWS FROM THE BAHAMAS
For the Bahamas, the past two years have brought a good deal of negative press regarding new and proposed fishing regulations and rules in the Bahamas. And while it appeared that calmer heads were prevailing after many months of controversy, we regret that the most recent draft — albeit much more scaled-down than the original proposal — has passed. While this will have implications for certain anglers fishing in the Bahamas, the purpose of this article is to outline how these regulations will affect everyone.
Let’s begin with the good news. Guests traveling to fishing lodges, resorts, or guesthouses (a majority of anglers fall into this category) will not be affected by the new regulations. If you hire a guide or go out wade fishing on your own, new laws will not affect you at all. Anglers may fish freely on foot, from a kayak, utilizing a stand-up paddleboard (SUP), by canoe, or by car. Unlike the original proposals, which prohibited most DIY fishing except in certain “zones”, the final regulations don’t suggest any consequences for DIY fishing anywhere. Yellow Dog is grateful to everyone who spoke up to the Bahamian Government on that particular issue during the early draft processes.
One piece of the new legislation requires all fishing vessels on the flats to be registered in the Bahamas and forbids foreigners from guiding in the Bahamas. This means that passengers aboard yachts that come into the Bahamas will be required to hire Bahamian guides and no person on any yacht will be permitted to guide passengers unless they are Bahamian. This provision was put in place as a way to strengthen the rural economies of the numerous out-island settlements throughout the Bahamas. In the past, yachts could enter Bahamian waters, unload skiffs with foreign captains, and therefore take opportunities away from the locals.
The new regulations also clearly state that there will be no commercial fishing on the flats for bonefish, permit, tarpon or cobia. While Belize was the first country in the Caribbean to institute this level of protection, we applaud the Bahamas for the following suit. This represents an unprecedented victory for conservation in the Bahamas, and will ensure that these flats species are protected for many years to come. This will, in turn, safeguard the future of fly fishing all throughout the Bahamas.
While there are several positive effects of the new regulations, there are also a number of unfortunate, negative aspects. The worst of these is the fact that two or more people in a flats skiff can no longer fish on the flats without a guide, by law. This stipulation applies to both Bahamians and foreigners. This means that two young Bahamians looking to go fishing on the flats – in any type of motorized boat – can no longer fish legally without a guide. While the intent of this law is to prevent second homeowners in the Bahamas (who may own their own skiff) from fishing without a guide, the collateral damage to local populations and Bahamians will have significant implications for the future of guided fly fishing in the Bahamas. By targeting foreigners with this ill-conceived rule, the Bahamian government will instead negatively impact its own people. If young Bahamians are stripped of their right to be out on the water, learning the sport of fly fishing, and developing safe boat handling techniques, what kind of future is there for aspiring young guides?
It is our hope that these second homeowners will fight back and hire savvy lawyers who will strive to reverse this most unreasonable law.
The new regulations also state that reasonably-priced fishing licenses will now be required to fish the Bahamas. In a perfect world these licenses will be easy to obtain, which was a major sticking point with the first draft. If you have already booked your Bahamas vacation for 2017, you need not worry. The partner Yellow Dog lodge, resort, or guide that you are booked with (or will be booking) will have licenses on hand. You will simply fill out the license “form” upon arrival and pay the lodge or guide to finalize the license. Furthermore, the initial requirement of having to get your pre-purchased fishing license stamped by a customs official at a port-of-entry has supposedly been omitted from the regulations. The cost for a fishing license is USD $5 per day, USD $20 per month or USD $60 for an annual license. We anticipate (and hope) that there will be a functioning, easy online license system in the future, which will certainly help to streamline this process for anglers, guides and lodges. If you would like to print the form and fill it out prior to your arrival, simply go to http://www.bahamas.gov.bs or http://www.bahamas.com to download and print the license “form”.
The aforementioned requirement for fishing licenses unfortunately does not come without controversy. In the original draft of the regulations, it was clearly stated that the profits from license sales would be put towards guide training, loans for guides, conservation, and the Bahamas Fly Fishing Guide Association. (Note: No matter where you buy a fishing license in the world, you can always find out where the money will be distributed). In this case, however, this information is strangely absent from the newly passed regulations in the Bahamas, which justifiably has a lot of guides concerned. Their livelihood depends on improved boat ramps, marketing dollars, and financial assistance for purchasing new equipment, yet none of these vital issues (or any others) are addressed in the fine print of the regulations. This, of course, has a lot of people fearing that the license money is going to benefit a few select individuals and not the people who make up the majority of the fly fishing industry in the Bahamas. Only time will tell.
Another interesting and troubling aspect is that the new fishing license requirement is only for fly anglers. This is the first license we know of that only applies to a specific type of fishing. Deep water and bluewater fishing are far more popular forms of fishing in the Bahamas than is fly fishing on the flats, so it is not clear why those types of anglers (along with offshore boats, foreign commercial fishing vessels and party boats) are not also subject to the same new license requirements as fly anglers. In our opinion, this “targeting” of fly anglers is a completely misguided economic directive by the Bahamian Ministry of Tourism, the Ministry of Marine Resources and the Bahamas Fly Fishing Guides Association. By not requiring a license for all anglers fishing in the Bahamas (commercial or otherwise) the country is missing an opportunity to generate more money that could then be used to improve the country and the lives of its people. In any case, there is something inherently wrong with the idea that fly anglers (who almost exclusively practice catch-and-release, thus preserving the fishing resources of the Bahamas) should have to pay when other types of anglers who are actually keeping their catch (thus impacting the fishing resources) do not have to pay.
Another aspect of the regulations that has caused a bit of a stir is the fact that the guide certification process will be handled by an “approved” group of arbitrarily selected individuals who are not recognized as authorities by the entire Bahamian angling community. Theoretically speaking, this could allow a specific lodge or outfitter (one that has been “approved” for certification authority) to legally shut down a competing lodge by not certifying the guides that work for the competing lodge. This arbitrary and autocratic clause in the regulations is a threat to both foreign-owned lodges and local independent guides who offer competitive services in the fly fishing industry. Let’s hope the “approved” individuals will exercise their authority with integrity and justice, keeping the best interests of guides, lodges and anglers at the forefront of the certification process.
The new regulations also make no mention of conservation programs to protect the flats. Neither the sand on the flats or the mangroves that protect the fish are protected from mining, development or dredging. There is no mention of protecting bonefish in the channels or in deep water where bonefish are known to spawn. If we allow the beaches and flats to be mined for silica, if large resorts like Baja Mar tear out the mangroves to create more room for development, and if channels are dredged for use by mega cruise ships, there is no doubt that the bonefish populations will be adversely affected. Historically, this was the single most important issue for one particular individual who spearheaded the original draft of these regulations. Ironically, not one aspect of this has made its way into the final draft that was recently passed.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy here is the consequences that these regulations might have for the people of the Bahamas. The fact is that many Bahamian lodge owners and guides have already noticed a significant decrease in bookings. Local shop owners who sell goods to second homeowners will feel the decline in business since these tourists can no longer fish from their boats and will likely make fewer trips to the islands as a result of the new limitations placed on their recreational interests. While most of the foreign-owned lodges are still going strong, as they have robust marketing efforts and a loyal clientele, locally-owned lodges are already experiencing a decrease in bookings because they have been automatically associated with the xenophobic entity that started this entire process. It’s unlikely that a foreign angler would knowingly elect to fish with anyone associated with the people who pushed these regulations through, even though not all of the lodges and guides are supporters of those people.
To add insult to injury, no outside entities were involved in the drafting process of these regulations. The Abaco Fly Fishing Guides Association, which is the longest-standing organized fly fishing group in the Bahamas, was never consulted at any point to contribute their perspectives. Additionally, groups such as the Eleuthera Cape Research Institute, Bonefish & Tarpon Trust, The Nature Conservancy, and several of the largest fly fishing travel agencies (all of whom care about the future of fly fishing in the Bahamas) were not contacted for their input. If the Bahamian Government and the Bahamas Fly Fishing Guides Association had been more thorough in this process, they could have used these new regulations to in fact increase and strengthen fly fishing tourism. Instead, they have single-handedly pushed through new regulations that seek – in many ways – to discourage growth in this highly-profitable industry by threatening both foreigners and locals.
While some of this information is troubling, these regulations are unlikely to affect the Bahamian fishing experience for those who are staying at and fishing with lodges or with professional guides. The 30-plus lodges and operations that Yellow Dog Flyfishing Adventures works with and represents all throughout The Bahamas will continue to welcome anglers and guests with open arms. And as an entity that does a large volume of business throughout the Bahamas, we feel it is our responsibility to discuss and report on these issues as they develop. We’ll continue to share accurate and meaningful information about issues that matter to our sport, our industry, and most importantly to our clients. After all, the Bahamas is a destination that we have supported and cherished for decades. We stand behind many aspects of the new regulations, while at the same time calling on the Bahamian Government to correct and improve those aspects that still need work or clarification.
Saltwater Program Director, Yellow Dog Flyfishing Adventures