Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries Michael Pintard said yesterday that he has not provided any compressor permits to non-Bahamian fishermen in the last two years and does not intend to so in the future, unless a court orders otherwise.
He was responding to legal action filed against the government over the
Fisheries Act, 2020, which bars non-Bahamians from engaging in commercial fishing.
“As long as I am in the chair, I do not intend to sign another work permit for a non-Bahamian diver to get a compressor permit to dive in Bahamian waters,” he said outside Cabinet.
“Certainly the prime minister can exercise his right to put whoever is prepared to do that, but I certainly won’t – not a compressor permit for a non-Bahamian. Now, we will adhere to the law if the court makes a determination.”
He noted that, “We give out 1,000 compressor permits to Bahamians every year.
“I have never seen an application for more than 60 compressor permits for non-Bahamians – never.
“Now, in previous years, I understand it may have gone as high as 80, but since I have been in the chair, since Mr. [Renward] Wells was in the chair, think about it, 1,000 versus 60. And out of the 60, less than half of them are persons with spousal permits or permanent residents.”
On Friday, a group of foreign-born fishermen, their Bahamian spouses and commercial fishing enterprises took legal action against the government, claiming that the new law is unconstitutional and discriminatory.
In a December 22, 2020 letter to Pintard, the group asserted that, “Commercial fishing by the diving method is the most sustainable method of fishing, with no by catch, escape of traps and pots and dragging on ocean floor during bad weather and no whale entanglements.”
This method utilizes a compressor for diving, particularly for lobster and conch.
The originating summons lists Pintard; Minister of Financial Services, Trade and Industry and Immigration Elsworth Johnson; and Attorney General Carl Bethel as respondents.
The applicants are seeking a permanent injunction to prevent the enforcement of the provisions of the new law, as well as damages.
They are also seeking an injunction pending the outcome of the legal action, so that the applicants can continue to work in the interim, as well as a stay of the implementation of the Fisheries Act until a determination is made.
The Fisheries Act, 2020, which passed late last year, provides that only Bahamian citizens may engage in commercial fishing in The Bahamas, with the exception of sportsfishing.
It was met with criticism, with some claiming it is discriminatory because it disproportionately affects Bahamian women married to foreign men.
Former Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham and East Grand Bahama MP Peter Turnquest were among the critics.
Pintard said yesterday that his priority is protecting The Bahamas’ marine resources for future generations.
“Most of the countries, including the one from which these fishers hail, have fished out their waters to a substantial degree,” he said.
“So, am I to pursue office in order to defend others’ right to fish in waters when their historical waters are fished out? That’s not why I signed up.”
He continued, “When you ask me as a policymaker ‘what is my priority being in the House of Assembly?’, it is to protect those iconic species and others that would allow future generations of Bahamians to benefit from the resources of The Bahamas.
“So, this Fisheries Bill, in referencing the immigration component, seeks to do that.
“How do we protect resources that are constrained and at risk? So, what I don’t want to happen is for it to be lost in this discussion that parliamentarians are in place to protect the patrimony of The Bahamas for future generations of Bahamians.
“And that is essentially what this bill is about.”
Pintard said marine resources should be reserved for Bahamians in the constitution to ensure there are no discrepancies.
“I think some persons have a legitimate concern and they want to make sure that whatever we do in law that it synchronizes with the constitution, which is why I believe the ultimate step is to ensure in the constitution that we carve out our marine resources,” he said.
He added that the Fisheries Act should not be “hijacked” for an immigration debate.
“If discrimination is the ultimate issue, then let’s have an immigration debate,” he said.
“I would gladly join that because I do believe we need to move faster to ensure that those persons who qualify for citizenship, that that happens. And I think Mr. Johnson is doing a wonderful job speeding up that process, but let’s have that debate.
“But to hijack a Fisheries Bill on the basis of one component, that’s unfortunate.”
He added, “Anyone who wishes to become a Bahamian, I will work with them. I’ll fight on their behalf for us to speed up the process to make sure that they have citizenship.”
Pintard also took a shot at some of the opponents of the new law.
“You should ask the interesting question of former members of Parliament how many of them have an investment in the fisheries sector,” he charged.
“It would be an interesting question and you should pose it to all political sides…”
The Fisheries Act, 2020, reads: “No person shall engage in fishing, or be employed on a commercial fishing vessel for fishing other than sportsfishing in the fisheries waters; and use or be employed on a commercial fishing vessel licensed under this act for fishing other than charter sportsfishing, unless that person is a citizen of The Bahamas.”
It says that no operator of a commercial fishing vessel shall allow a person who is not a citizen of The Bahamas to engage in fishing in Bahamian waters or use a vessel other than for charter sportsfishing.
Commercial fishing operators are also prohibited from employing non-Bahamians on board their vessel.
A person who contravenes this section is liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding $250,000 or imprisonment for a term not exceeding four years or both.
The Immigration (Amendment) Act, 2020, states: “The right to engage in gainful occupation or gainful employment granted by any permit issued under this Act does not include a right to engage in commercial fishing; and shall be in every case, subject to the Fisheries Act or any other law to the contrary.”