Bahamas Regs: Whatever Happens Now, Damage Has Been Done

August 3rd, 2015| No Comments

Andros IslandInformation continues to dribble out of the Bahamas regarding these proposed flats-fishing regulations. We’ve seen Version 2 of the plan, but it’s hard to know what the outcome will be. For all the robust rhetoric, apparently it all comes down to what the cabinet decide. Or something. I simply don’t know enough about the workings of the Bahamian government to predict how that will go, but I can tell you one thing for certain: wherever we go from here, something has changed for good. Not for everyone perhaps, but it has for me.

The hostile and xenophobic tone of that original proposal sticks in my mind. Much of the detail was muddy, but the message between the lines was clear enough: “We’re fed up with you people coming down here and doing what you like. It’s our party and you’re no longer invited. Not unless you pay our fees and play by our rules.”

Or, in other words (and to borrow from a certain film): “Fuck you, pay me.”

It was hugely disappointing and damaging. That damage will last.

Anglers who have been visiting the Bahamas for many years have been left scratching their heads, wondering what they did to suddenly feel so unwelcome.

The proposals make it sound like a stream of American mothership operations have been endlessly crossing the sea from Florida, skiffs in tow, systematically cheating the Bahamas out of its vital tourist income. Or that US and European mercenaries have been flooding the Out Islands, looking to steal Bahamian guiding jobs from under the locals’ very noses. Has the problem really reached such epidemic proportions that a law must be passed in order to safeguard guiding jobs for Bahamians?

Maybe more of these motherships operate than we’re all aware of, but I can’t believe that anything other than the vast majority arrive by conventional means and abide by the rules.

Using an aggressive approach to deal with a comparatively small problem has created an atmosphere of negativity where previously there was so much goodwill.

So many phrases and clichés come to mind – cutting off one’s nose to spite the face, shooting one’s self in the foot, cracking a walnut with a sledgehammer, the solution in search of a problem. And the ultimate one: if it ain’t broke…

There’s always truth in clichés; that’s why people use them. The fact that so many can be applied here just goes to show how determinedly this plan flies in the face of rational thought.

Elsewhere, stories I had previously been unaware of have come to the fore – DIY anglers encountering hostility from local guides while fishing, returning from the flats to find their tyres slashed and in one instance having their car set alight.

I found this particularly unsettling when I considered my last trip to the Bahamas, when I spent a week at Mount Pleasant Lodge on Andros Island, doing the DIY thing. I had a couple of guided days, but the rest I spent alone. And by alone, I mean alone. I was the only guest at the lodge for the entire week. It was one of the most memorable weeks of my life, but I had no idea that, a few twists and turns aside, I could have encountered similar treatment.

In truth, we do have some soul-searching of our own to do. After all, resentment and animosity doesn’t just grow in a vacuum. There has to be a catalyst and we, as the travelling anglers, have to be cognizant of that.

Everyone (me included) has been quick to point out of how we contribute to the local economy when we fly into the Bahamas, whether we’re on a DIY trip or not. But do we do enough? Perhaps we should all be looking to pay for at least one guided day on a DIY trip. I’m not sure what the answer is here – it’d be great to hear some ideas from people in the Bahamas. What could we do differently? What have we previously got wrong?

If, however, there’s a perception among Bahamian fishing guides that every time they see a DIY angler on the flats they’re looking at someone who could/would otherwise have been handing $600 over to be guided… well, that’s wrong. It’s not an either/or argument. If you tell people they can’t fish unless they pay a guide, they won’t pay a guide, they’ll just go somewhere else. And if you think buzzing them with your flats skiff is going to help, you’re basically a moron.

Make no mistake, fly-fishermen from the US and beyond have been instrumental in developing the Bahamas fishery. They have brought with them valuable dollars for local businesses; they have worked alongside local guides to develop the knowledge bank that fuels this sport; they’ve provided the demand (eager fishermen) that has underpinned the supply (local guides, hotels, restaurants etc.) that keeps the tourist economy ticking over. On top of this, American organisations such as BTT have instituted research programmes to help better understand the Bahamian flats and their inhabitants.

These proposed fishing regulations seem to have responded to that history of collaborative interest with a metaphorical two fingers.

And guess what? People have already started cancelling trips. That’s not just supposition either – Ian Davis of Yellow Dog Flyfishing Adventures has already noted that people are backing away from or cancelling planned trips. Why take the risk? Why go somewhere I’m not welcome? Why not just go to Florida, Belize, Mexico or Cuba?

Somewhere in the middle of all this, Prescott Smith (president of the Bahamas Fly Fishing Industry Association and lead proponent of these new regulations) has emerged as the villain of the piece. I have to say at this point that I don’t completely buy into that narrative. I disagree with his standpoint, yes, but I don’t think it’s wise to assume his motivations are sinister.

When I initially set up this website, I contacted many lodge owners and independent guides, asking if they’d like to be listed. Some replied, some didn’t. Prescott was one who did – we spoke on Skype on a number of occasions and emailed regularly.

This was fours years ago or so. There was no talk of regulations back then (not with me at least). He was forthright in his opinions, but the impression I had was of a conservation-minded man passionate about his country’s resource and determined to protect it.

It became clear that he spent a lot of time travelling to meetings throughout the Bahamas, in an attempt to persuade his countrymen of the importance of safeguarding their precious fishery. His intentions seemed honourable.

However, as I say, I resolutely do not agree with his proposals to regulate the Bahamas fishery, and I’m happy for him to know that.

I’m pretty sure his determination to drive this issue is fuelled by a desire to ensure Bahamians are the primary beneficiaries when it comes to the country’s flats fishery. I don’t suppose anyone has a problem with that. However, this is not the way to achieve it and I suspect that a long, uncomfortable road lies between now and the dawning of that realisation.

In the meantime, plenty of Bahamians will be hit hard. What about people who run DIY lodges (Long Island Bonefishing Lodge for example), and those places that rely on a stream of casual fishermen?

And how about people holidaying with family who just want to spend an hour or two here and there on the flats? Do these people represent such a burden on the ecosystem that they need regulating? Are the livelihoods of the those whose businesses they patronise any less valuable than those of the select lodges that stand to gain from this new policy?

Attempting to force people into hiring a guide is a dangerous business. 

When I consider my last Bahamas trip, I have to say that the days I spent alone were easily the most enjoyable. One of the guides I fished with openly admitted to me that he didn’t really like fishing. He quickly backtracked when he saw my face, but it was too late. I spent the rest of the day (out at 9, back in on the dot of 4) knowing that regardless of how much fun I was having, he was pretty much going through the motions.

That’s fine. It’s a job, I get that. But consider this: in Ireland I fish for bass (the salty kind) with guides who get up at 5am because they can’t wait to get out on the water, and will keep you out past midnight if the tide is right. The guide I fish with in the Keys starts early and finishes late, and fishes for fun on his days off. Because he loves it. I’m not saying everyone has to do that, but I definitely don’t want to be put in a position where I have to fish with a guide, especially if my own experience tells me that going it alone is more fun.

When I visit those places I pay good money to fish with those guides because I want to. Not because I have to. I fish unguided too and I spend plenty of money in restaurants and bars, not to mention the local tackle shops.

Put me in a position where my fun must be regulated or overseen by some official and… well, no thanks. I can only speak personally, but my personal standpoint is this – I will not go to the Bahamas if these regulations or anything like them become law. I’m lucky in that I love all forms of fishing – lure fishing for bass on the Irish coast or exploring Mexico’s beaches in search of roosterfish pushes my buttons in the same way as stalking bonefish with a fly rod on the flats. If the Bahamas is off the table, there are other options. There always are.

Rory Batho, Editor

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