I hope you like reading… this is a long one.
It has been a while since there has been much news on this front. If you haven’t read this piece from Gink & Gasoline, I’d urge you to.
If your curious about my own biases, I’d direct you here for my own disclosures.
I thought I’d try to wrap it all up in one big go here, tell you what has happened thus far, where they stand now and where I think we are going. I also share a few alternative ideas that are probably horrible, but I’m putting them out there anyway.
Where we stand now
On June 19th I got an email with a copy of proposals to regulate the flats fishing industry in the Bahamas. Reading through the proposals my eyes took on a look of shock, then horror. It seemed really bad and I said as much. At the same time the same email was being opened and read by others who also arrived at the same conclusion… this was going to be a disaster for the Bahamas. Blog posts started going up, letters started being sent in as part of the “consultation process,” the Bahamian Fly Fishing Industry Association had a meeting and a vote on leadership, a meeting of stakeholders occurred, followed by a second stakeholder meeting.
To my knowledge there is not a second draft version at this time. Many of the items we think will be in the proposed legislation have been discussed by persons in positions of power and authority, but have not been written down or passed around widely. Some of those items might not make it into the proposed legislation, as the Attorney General’s office is tasked with actually writing the legislation.
The proposed legislation will be brought into the Cabinet where it will be discussed and debated. If it emerges from the Cabinet it will go to the House of Assembly where MPs vote after the “Third Reading” of the bill. Then it goes to the Senate and again is voted on (they can delay, but not kill a bill) at the “Third Reading.” That is how I understand the process to work.
There is still a long way for the proposed legislation to go. It has to be written into a coherent bill (this may be difficult to do as many of the terms are vague and other existing laws have to be considered), it has to make it out of the Cabinet (which it very well might fail to do) and it has to be voted on by the Members of Parliament.
A press release by the Ministry of Tourism seemed to say no tourist unfriendly proposal would go through, but it isn’t their proposal, so they wouldn’t be in a position to official kill this thing off. Still, it is hopeful.
What the bill lacks in economic sense it makes up for in nationalism and xenophobia. Such forces cannot be underestimated. Remember, Argentina went to war with the UK over the Falklands.
The most cited Bahamian complaints
The move to regulate flats fishing has many sides and the push comes from a number of commonly cited complaints from Bahamians, as far as I understand them.
- Foreign Guides – It is claimed a number of foreigners have set up shop to guide in the Bahamas. Certainly, there are a few. I know of one Canadian guide out of Eluthera and one lodge (Bahamian owned) on the West Side of Andros. Maybe there are others. That I don’t know them doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
- Foreign Mother Ship operations – Many guides have said they’ve seen mother ships with four or five skiffs in tow on pirate fishing excursions, not only not employing Bahamian Guides, but instead employing American guides. It is entirely possible such things exist. I don’t see them marketed or talked about, but it could be these are a real issue. They are certainly perceived as an issue.
- Foreign Illegal Lodges – I have seen claims of lodges being set up in private homes with foreign guides, skirting laws about hotel taxes and other regulations. No one has been able to show me one of these and they certainly don’t have booking agents sending them business or websites to book clients. This is perceived as an issue, although this one feels like more perception than reality, given the complexities in making a lodge actually run and be successful. It could be there are “pop up” lodges with fly shops bringing in their own clients for a week or two at a time. I’m not sure exactly what shape this takes, if it has any shape.
- DIY anglers – Many guides really, really don’t like the DIY movement. The argument goes that the waters are Bahamian and if you go fishing by yourself you are stealing money from the pockets and food from the mouths of a Bahamian. DIYers bring too much pressure. DIYers ruin the fishery by killing too many of the fish. DIYers get to use the resource for too little money. There are a long list of complaints, and as I’ll discuss a little bit further on, some of them we have brought about ourselves.
- Bahamian Guides lack respect – No certification, no training program, no piece of paper saying you are a guide means there are none of the solid benefits of being a guide that might come with a more established white-collar profession. Things like bank loans and customs duty exceptions might come if they have that piece of paper.
- Second home owners – Many of these second home owners bring over boats (wouldn’t you?). The boats give the angler much more access and they start bumping up against guides trying to make a living. The guides see this as a Bahamian waters for Bahamian people issue.
What is in either the draft proposal or has been discussed in one form or another.
First, let’s talk about what is not in the proposals. These are not proposals designed with conservation in mind. There is some light, undefined talk of preserving the resource, but those words are not about the fishery, unless you mean relieving DIY pressure from the flats. There are a number of important issues confronting the flats fisheries… illegal netting, dredging and over-development spring to mind. There are certainly more serious issues facing Bahamian fisheries in general too, such as illegal poaching (placed at the feet of the Dominican Republic for the most part) and illegal poaching from Americans coming over from Florida. An arrest was just made of a couple of American poachers with turtle meat, undersized conch and illegally harvested lobster all seized. This proposal does nothing to address any of these more serious issues. It is not about conservation. These proposals are about the industry and the resource, who can use it and who can profit from it.
Here are the elements I gather as being either in or discussed:
- A fishing license – This was one of the first red flags, as the original language implied you had to get the permit from a guide or lodge who could arbitrarily deny it to you. It’s easy enough to set up an on-line licensing system, so setting up a system dependent on the guide or lodge seemed to be done intentionally to make it more difficult and to give the guide veto power. It seems we are moving toward a more reasonable fishing permit system, easily accessible and more-or-less affordable. The original proposal was very high, where a second home owner staying for a month might have to pay $2,000. A day, week and annual license, topping out at $250 seems likely, but, again, this hasn’t been put in writing. Probably 95% of the people I’ve talked to have no issue buying a permit to fish as long as it is reasonable and if the money goes to help preserve the resource and not into some political slush fund.
- DIY restrictions – This has not been written down but I’ve heard the lines have already been drawn in some cases. DIY will be allowed, but only in certain areas. Those areas would be set in consultation with the local guides and lodges. You would be able to DIY, but only where you were told you could. Everything else would be off limits, except to guides, and the fines if you are caught out of bounds could be as much as $3,000. Most of us think this is a non-starter. Restricting DIY to certain areas defined by guides (who have no motivation to give you anything worth fishing) would likely prevent many anglers from making the trip. To be told exactly where we were able to fish and threatened with severe fines if we didn’t comply would end the free spirit and easy going feeling of the Bahamas for many of us. The guides seek, and Fisheries Minister Alfred Gray has vowed to give them “exclusivity on the flats.” So, you can go DIY the Bahamas if this passes, but you’ll be fishing the sloppy seconds in every sense of the phrase.
- Mother Ships – Those would be finished, unless employing Bahamian guides. Haven’t met anyone who has a problem with that. If those mother ships with foreign guides and a string a skiffs really were invading Bahamian waters, there seem few things that would be a greater insult to Bahamian guides. So, good riddance to that.
- Foreign Owned Lodges – The original proposals took aim at foreign owned lodges, the language was explicit, although there are some legal complexities here making this part of the legislation more bark than bite. To start a lodge in the Bahamas you need a local partner and you need to make a large investment. There are elaborate regulations for this process. The language certainly is threatening to foreign lodge owners (who operate some of the best known and sought after lodges in the Bahamas), but it is doubtful such massive changes to foreign investment could come from this bill.
- Certification and Training – There would be a training program and licensing program, for both lodges and guides. This process would be run by the Bahamas Fly Fishing Industry Association, run by Prescott Smith, the main driver of these proposals. The issue here is the political nature of the BFFIA and, in particular, of Prescott. There is opposition to Prescott from many in the Bahamian fly fishing community (there are also those that love the guy and would follow him anywhere) and if this passes it appears Prescott would be given the power to grant or withhold his blessing on a lodge or guide. The lodges and guides who oppose the BFFIA and Prescott would have to pay Prescott for his services as well. The whole thing reeks of politics of the worst sort. It might be a good idea to train guides on handling bonefish, on conservation, on how to be a guide… there certainly is a wide variation in skill, ability levels and levels of professionalism. An official certificate might also come with a duty exemption for fly fishing related gear like boats, trucks, rods, reels and more. So, there is some good in here for guides and lodges, but the “how” remains a huge question mark as Prescott has lost almost all his international credibility and has divided the Bahamian guide and lodge community by his tactics.
- Second Home Owners – Forget taking your own boat out. You would need a guide, even if you are a permanent resident married to a Bahamian. So says Minister Gray. If you hate flats fishing, there will probably be some properties hitting the market in the next year if this passes all the way through.
How we got here
I’ve been thinking about how we got here. I don’t know all the nuances, but I have been paying attention and here are my thoughts.
- DIY got too easy. I remember, painfully, the first time I wandered into a forum and asked for a DIY spot in the Bahamas. I was naïve. People didn’t give that stuff away. You had to earn it. You had to go to the place yourself and develop that knowledge which was paid for with hours of fishless flats walking and sunburn. Now, thanks to blogs (like mine) and Google Earth and detailed books you don’t have to work for it. You can just look it up, like Yelping a place to get dinner. In the age of GoPro and Instagram and Vimeo, there are no secrets… not really. So, we all headed for the flats, en masse, and wrote about it and filmed it and took a billion pictures and that inspired others to go and do the same thing. I’m partly to blame and I’m part of the story. One of the first stories that captured my imagination was in This is Fly about a guy who got dropped off on an uninhabited cay in the Bahamas for a week to fish. It was everything I wanted in a trip and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
- The Business of being a guide has changed. Today it isn’t enough to have a boat, a pair of good eyes and a family name. There’s marketing to be done. Americans (and I’m guessing we are the majority of anglers going out with guides in the Bahamas) are used to being inundated with marketing messages from the brands we follow. Think about where the flats fishing content is for us to follow. It isn’t coming from the guides in the Bahamas. It is coming from the bloggers and clothing brands and DIY guys who go there, film it, photograph it and share it with the world. They are selling the image of the DIY guy largely against the absence of any kind of native Bahamian marketing effort. Bahamian guides are guides, concerned about the cold front that might come in, the cost of gas and the day-to-day of living and working on an island. They aren’t thinking about the cost of customer acquisition and customer loyalty. It used to be loyalty came with a good trip. Now, loyalty has to be constantly sought after and reaffirmed. Ever have a hard time getting a trip confirmed from a Bahamian guide over the phone? Ever had a guide take down your phone number or email address? Yeah… me either. This overly marketed to American consumer is probably different from the American Client of 20 years ago. The business has changed, is changing and will changes some more. The Bahamian guides need some real help in better marketing what they bring to the table or they will continue to lose the marketing battle they may not even be aware they are fighting.
I’m open to new ideas
Now, I’m just going to throw some stuff up on the walls… I won’t claim any of this is really well thought out. I also doubt that those pushing the regulations will be interested in doing anything other than what they are planning on doing already. Still… here are a few ideas to address the main gripe, the DIY angler.
- We could adopt an informal code-of-conduct in the absence of official regulation. How about avoiding a DIY trip in the heart of the best guiding season? How about not posting which island you visit? How about committing to one day of guided fishing per trip? How about promising to stay in a Bahamian run motel, if you aren’t at a lodge? We could police ourselves a bit better and maybe that would help.
- In the US we have ways of managing our most impacted and sensitive environments. I’m thinking of things like deer tags and Grand Canyon river permits. There may be some places where there just aren’t enough flats to go around. In that case, how about a lottery system? You apply for a tag for Acklins and see if you get it. Other islands with more flats might be tag-free. If you get the tag you can choose to go through an outfitter for assisted DIY or you could go full DIY. Guides would not need a permit and you could fish at any time with those guides. This might enable these more sensitive areas to be better managed by limiting angler pressure (or at least even figuring out how anglers are even using the resource) and dispersing the impact over time. I’m sure there are problems with this idea, but I’m intrigued by it.
- The idea of “DIY” areas sucks the spirit out of the trip. However, flipped around and modified a bit, a Guide Only area(s) might not be such a horrible idea. Set aside some areas for the guides to use, manage and profit from exclusively, while still leaving the DIY angler the ability to explore a bit, to find their own water, to spread out. Guide Only areas could be a little bit further away, more boat-accessible. Guides could guide anywhere they want to, but could make special use of the Guide Only areas when pressure becomes too great in other areas.