Letters

A personal plea to help save the oceans of The Bahamas before it is too late

Dear Editor,

I write this as a Bahamian with the deep conviction that “once you know something is wrong, you have an obligation to try to at least do something about it, even if that something is small”.

What I know is wrong is how we all in some way abuse and how we allow others to openly abuse our greatest natural resource, our oceans. I propose that as a matter of the greatest urgency, we examine and restructure the way our waters are used, how that usage can be regulated, monetized and, most importantly, preserved. Overall, preservation must be the priority. The following suggestions have economic and employment implications. They also give us the opportunity to move the knee off our ocean. Like any living organism, the ocean needs to breathe.

What happens in the 100,000 square miles of open ocean in the most beautiful waters in the world must stop and it is up to all of us to make that happen. It begins with a conversation and can easily be brought to fruition with legislation and cooperation. But first we have to care to the point at saying, no more; we will all pay if not done.

Commercial vessels and tankers. At more than 500 miles in length, The Bahamas is ideally situated as a transshipment avenue for large commercial vessels and tankers that traverse the shipping lanes going between South America, Latin America and North America. The companies that operate such vessels base their business models on costs to operate, inclusive of shipping lane fees, weather conditions and timing. The Bahamas earns very little for our shipping lanes (we are not a data-driven country). The nation should be maximizing its position vis-à-vis major markets by charging fees at competing industry rates. 

Yacht sales. We will never know how many deals have been made in Bahamian waters, nor how much money we might have made had the yacht brokerage industry been regulated. We will never know how many high-paying jobs Bahamians could have filled on charter boats or on those sailed into Bahamian waters to show off the life of luxury aboard a yacht, before being sold or leased. But we do know that many of the world’s most extreme yachts are “bought” in The Bahamas, where they are being shown by foreign brokers who earn a commission, while The Bahamas serves as the backdrop and we earn the cost of a $300 annual cruise permit.

Yacht charters. Similar to the benefits that accrue to foreign rather than Bahamian brokers, crew, suppliers, stevedores and general service providers, charter boats pay a nominal four percent fee, lower than the total of the bed and head tax that a hotel with millions of dollars of investment in the ground would pay. And there seems to be little in the way of enforcement for accuracy. In addition to the luxury yachts and megayachts that charter for $100,000 and up a week, plus food and liquor and other expenses, there are more than 100 sailboats, many of them formerly operating out of Abaco prior to Hurricane Dorian and now based in Nassau. These boats are foreign-owned, using Bahamian waters to earn their revenue and what do we get? A few jobs at marinas and a whole lot of crumbs. That is not to say that there have not been good people who first discovered The Bahamas by private sailboat, fell in love with the country because of its waters and our people and returned later as serious investors. But the industry as a whole benefits those who are not Bahamian far more than it benefits Bahamians and it takes a huge toll on our waters. 

The following ideas are submitted for consideration.

Improve fee structure. Create expanded, equitable fee structures for cruising, inclusive of work permits. Cruise permit fees must be higher, affixed to specific timelines and assessed for mileage charges. Anyone who enters The Bahamas to work on a vessel in Bahamian waters must have a valid temporary work permit. Yachts may request group or bulk work permits for crew with all paperwork and documentation submitted and fee paid prior to entering Bahamian waters.

Regulate yacht sales. Establish a legislated yacht broker sales licensing act bringing the highly lucrative business conducted under our noses with no benefits to Bahamians in line with all other professional bodies in the Bahamas. One can use The Bahamas Real Estate (Brokers and Salesmen) Act as a guide. Zero-tolerance enforcement resulting in imprisonment, confiscation of yachts and or heavy fines imposed for any sale or sales process taking place in the Bahamas without following proper regulation. Charge VAT on all sales, legal fees and commissions.

Demand safe anchoring to preserve coral reefs. A single anchor thrown carelessly or left to drag can destroy a coral that took hundreds or thousands of years to form. A buoy tie-up system needs to be created with a zero-tolerance throw-anchor policy. This buoy system must be used throughout the Bahamas by all commercial vessels – that is, any vessel through which revenue is earned whether for fishing, charter or other excursion – and for all personal recreational vessels over 25’ LOA. Creating and monitoring buoys can provide a source of revenue for an NGO or can be an entrepreneurial opportunity for persons on various islands.

Stop foreign fishing depleting Bahamian waters. The entire subject of who is allowed to fish in Bahamian waters, the limit on the catch and the cost of fishing permits must be addressed as a matter of extreme urgency. Stocks are being depleted faster than they can be replenished. What remains requires fishermen to go further and further from shore and deeper and deeper in their search. Today, a foreign boat can pay $20 for a fishing permit per trip or $150 a year for unlimited trips — $20! If they carry more than six reels as the typical charter fishing boat does, the fee escalates up to $10,000 – and who does that impact? Bahamians! Properly-priced fishing permits must be instituted, sold and policed.

We must get serious about catch limits, catch and release, size limits, the amount and type of fishing equipment; and we must implement strict policing practices.

Create fishing zones to allow defined areas to be fished in. For example, if there were eight zones, two or three would be open for fishing activity at a given time to allow others to “rest”, just as farmers allow land to lie fallow following a harvest.

Strict preservation of conch. Only Bahamians or residents can touch a conch. A supply system via an app for persons wanting conch will allow them to order it and have it delivered. Every conch caught must be recorded and reported, which can be achieved through an app on any phone or smart device. In the Florida Keys, no one is allowed to touch a conch. It has been decades of hard work for them to get populations back. Decades. We will all pay for this if nothing is done.

Addressing raw sewage. Every vessel with a head (bathroom), foreign or local, must prove it has the ability to use a pump-out station or facility. Raw sewage disposal policies must be established with no dumping of sewage in inland waters, up to three miles from the nearest shoreline. Gauges can easily be read. All yachts must be inspected before departing, similar to filing a flight plan – a 24-hour notice to depart, full-boat inspection and permission granted. Every licensed marina must be required to have a working pump-out facility with adequate final disposal provisions.

Toy distancing. The usage of toys inclusive of personal watercraft must be 500 feet offshore and not around shoals or used within areas designated as marine or recreational parks, inclusive of parks like Montagu Beach and Arawak Cay in New Providence.

Step up strict sailboat or other liveaboard monitoring; while many sailors are eco-conscious and natural environmental stewards using wind to power their sails rather than fossil fuels to drive large engines, others “camp out” in The Bahamas, feeling they have a right to live inexpensively off the fish in the sea and anchor at will where they want, for as long as they want (it’s all over social media). They are not paying rent as a visitor would, who stays in a hotel, resort or Airbnb. They may be damaging the seabed, consuming more than their land-based counterpart, without paying anything. And it is time that we establish policies for boaters who “reside” in Bahamian waters for any length of time. Any such vessel that violates fishing limits, size of conch or crawfish or is caught fishing during a closed season should be heavily fined and taken before the courts, risking the possibility of jail time or their boat being confiscated. Florida and many other states have zero-tolerance laws. Why can’t we?

Enforcement. The benefit of introducing the suggested measures in this paper at this time, is that the technology exists today to permit enforcement. With the Royal Bahamas Defence Force adding high-powered drones and organizations like the Bahamas National Trust, Save The Bays, Bahamas Reef Environment Education Foundation (BREEF) and others engaging volunteers, sea wardens can be deputized and become the guards of our future – a future that depends on the preservation of our seas. No foreign vessel can go out for the day and return directly to the USA; they must be boarded and catch inspected. If they return to the dock from a day of fishing, a warden must meet them and inspect their catch.

Benefits. The green and blue economies are the economies projected to have the highest rate of growth in the next decade. International maritime laws, stakeholders, conservationists and a growing maritime sector mandate that we change the way we have been looking at our oceans and waters since the beginning of time – believing there will always be plenty for everyone – an endless supply of fish, conch and crawfish, endless tropical fish and magnificent brain coral and sea fans.

 

– Mario Carey

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