Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

BERMUDA: The Changing Tides of Fishing

Ira Philip

HAMILTON, Mar 25 1996 (IPS) - Thirty-three year old Derick Wellman remembers all too well the good old days when fishing was a matter of pulling up fish pots laid hours before and taking the catch to the vendors.

Today, when Wellman goes out to fish with his father Wilbert he spends up to 12 hours a day on the banks catching fish one at a time through handline or a limited longline.

It is slow, hard work and the only way fishermen can legally ply their trade in Bermuda.

Six years ago, confronted by a vocal “Friends of Fish” lobby and worried about a decrease in the reef fish stock the then Environmental Minister Ann Cartwright Decouto slapped a ban on the use of fishpots in and round local waters.

At that time there were approximtely 100 licensed fishermen with 1,400 licensed pots. But it was no secret that many set two and three times the number of pots for which they had a legal permit. An estimated 800,000 pounds of fish was landed annually.

The ban all but devastated the local fishing industry, which has now lost much of its domestic market to foreign imports.

According to 63 year old Danny Farias, one of the biggest fishermen then, commercial fishermen are in serious trouble. They are living from hand to mouth, functioning like school children using a baited hook and lead at the end of a line, he says.

“It is frustrating. My family has been suffering. I tried to do what government has required, but it is more than I can cope with. I have seen eight to ten fishermen die one after the other and that speaks for itself. The mental stress and other pain was too much for me.”

Farias complained that the Fisheries Advisory Committee which influenced the government’s decision to ban fish pots was top- heavy with amateur environmentalists, divers and businessmen who were either major food importers or restaurateurs.

Restaurateurs had often complained of the high cost of local fish and the duty imposed on imported seafoods and Farias says he is convinced that the ban was imposed for more mercenary than ecological reasons.

Farias and a group of rebel fishermen had tried to fight the ban, taking their case all the way to the Privy Council in London. They lost.

Farias’ boat was confiscated and he did not receive any of the ex gratia payments ranging up to 75,000 dollars offered by the government for each fisherman who turned in his pots within ten weeks of the deadline set by Decouto.

In the end Farias, like many other oldtimers, turned his fishing business over to his son. But he is bitter about the whole episode and convinced now that the only way commercial fishing can be restored to its former glory is to change the government.

Decouto’s edict not only restricted the method of catching fish, but the quantity as well. For example grouper catches were limited to two per day per boat, red hind catch to 10 per day between May and September and the number of longline hooks were set at 15 without a permit.

She also promised at the time to assist fishermen to develop alternative fisheries.

“(That’s) a sick joke,” says Allan Bean, one of the few operators of an ocean-going boat who has been experimenting with longline fishing.

Since the ban, he says, fishermen have had to go beyond the reefs to make a livelihood but there has been no government support with respect to the expensive gear needed to equip their boats.

He cited too his own inability to get “a decent” fuel rebate which he says puts him at a disadvantage to foreign fishing boats which put into Bermuda to refuel.

The foreign boats pay 92 cent per gallon for fuel whil Bean pays 3.50 dollars per gallon.

A Commission of Enquiry that looked into the pot ban had made recommendations to help the fishermen affected by the embargo. But according to Ottiwell Simmons president of the Bermuda Industrial Union (BIU) the government has made no attempt to implement any of the recommendations favourable to fishermen.

These include, training the fishermen in longline fishing, counseling those who have been hardest hit by the ban and helping the fishermen to establish cooperatives for those remaining in the industry.

The current Environment Minister Pamela Gordon said during the recent reading of the Budget that 50,000 dollars would be set aside for rebates of diesel fuel to help off-shore fishermen.

But, she noted, fishermen were entrepreneurs to themselves and as government did not have the practice of subsidising other businesses in the community, the industry would have to stand on its own feet.

Meanwhile, the fishermen’s loss is the restaurateurs gain. The local industry has lost a large share of the domestic market which is being met by foreign imports worth three million dollars a year.

The foreign fish is imported at a duty of 10 percent down from 22 percent which provided some protection for the local fishing industry up to the time when the ban was introduced six years ago.

And there appears to be no end in sight to the ban. No study has been done to ascertain the current fish stock on the reefs although fishermen like young Wellman says he has seen evidence of a revitalised supply.

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