New fines and prison time for those caught poaching in Bahamian waters will make what’s now on the books “pale in comparison”, pledged Minister of Agriculture and Marine Resources Michael Pintard yesterday.
Pintard was watching as more than 120 suspected Dominican poachers were brought to the Royal Bahamas Defence Force (RBDF) Coral Harbour Base by the HMBS Durward Knowles.
Those alleged poachers were accompanied by the three Dominican “poaching motherships”, stuffed with what authorities said was illegally obtained crawfish and other marine life.
Those ships and their crews were seized at sea after a chase that involved Dominican fishermen and Bahamian, U.S. and Cuban law enforcement; and RBDF officers returning fire after being shot at by poachers.
The chase and arrest highlighted the persistent problem of poaching that has plagued the local fishing community for decades.
It also highlighted how the new RBDF fleet has been able to more effectively patrol Bahamian waters.
RBDF Commodore Tellis Bethel, who was also at the base yesterday, said it’s the largest arrest of Dominican poachers by the defense force this year.
“This is the fifth arrest of a Dominican vessel for the year,” he said.
Beaming as he recounted how his marines took down the poaching operation, Bethel said he was especially proud of the crew of the HMBS Madeira, captained by Senior Lieutenant William Sturrup.
Bethel said that crew has been responsible for four of the five major arrests this year, about 200 Dominicans in total.
Each Dominican vessel reportedly housed about 40 men, who slept in tightly packed makeshift bunks in filthy sections of the hull.
What appeared to thousand of pounds of neatly packaged seafood sat frozen in other sections.
Keith Carrol, who’s been fishing in Bahamian water for nearly 40 years, was also at the base.
He said that unless there are stiffer penalties for poachers, the problem will persist.
“These amount of men that they bring in here, we can’t facilitate all of them in our prisons,” he said.
“But if we could give the captain, the engineer and the mate, probably a 20-year term and send the rest of them back home, then that’s what we need to do, because none of these boats will leave Santo Domingo if they don’t have a captain on it.
“And if you being a captain knowing you could leave home and get 20 years hard labor in this country, you wouldn’t come.”
Pintard said legislation to address stiffer penalties for poachers is coming soon.
“In November, the Fisheries Act, which will be amended, will go to the Cabinet of The Bahamas, which calls for far stiffer penalties for those persons who are captaining these vessels, as well as those persons who are working on those vessels in tremendously bad conditions. And so you can expect that we’re going to continue to be aggressive and we’re going to continue to produce results.
When asked how much further the penalties would go, he referenced the August decision of a local magistrate, who handed down a collective fine of $3 million to a group of 46 Dominican poachers apprehended by the RBDF in July with over 30,000 pounds of illegal seafood.
“You would recall just recently approximately $3 million would have been levied,” Pintard said.
“Well, that would pale in comparison to what will come in the future, as well as the time spent incarcerated.”
Kendal Guerra, who’s been fishing in Bahamian waters for over 30 years, said he often encounters poachers, and his life has been threatened before.
In fact, he said, he had a run-in with one of the three motherships captured over the weekend.
However, he doesn’t believe arming fishermen to confront poachers, as some have suggested, would make much sense.
“Me with a gun, what [can I] do with at least 45 of these, or 50 of these [poachers]?” he asked.
“I might shoot one or two, but they’re going to end up getting us.
“That’s why I don’t carry a gun; ‘cause I [will] use it, and it [will] cause more harm than good.
“If they firing at the defense force, the law, what you think about us?”
The Dominicans are expected to be arraigned in the coming days.
There’s been no official word on what will be the fate of the captured seafood.