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House passes tough new penalties to protect Island’s endangered species

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Increased fines of up to $25,000 have been brought in to better protect Bermuda’s endangered species.

The move comes as the Protected Species Amendment Act was passed by the House of Assembly although the Opposition complained the new rules could be circumvented by Government without public consultation.

While all MPs agreed on the need to protect endangered species, the One Bermuda Alliance tried, and failed, to introduce an amendment to make the new law more “transparent”.

The new legislation means that instead of just one category, there are now three different categories of plants and animals that need special help to survive.

It amends an eight-year-old law which already protects Bermuda’s most threatened plants and animals, including the national bird the Cahow, the Bermuda Skink and the Spotted Eagle Ray.

Parks and Conservation Services Minister Michael Weeks said: “The amendment to the principle act allows Bermuda to better protect its endangered plants and animals while increasing the chances of successful recovery by including the public in the process.”

He noted that many rare species are under threat from habitat loss, competition from invasive species, climate change and pollution. He said the definition of what constitutes an offence under the current act is “very prohibitive” as “it restricts having in one’s possession a protected species, parts of one, their transportation and actions that would constitute maintenance”.

This, he said, “effectively stops positive interaction with certain species, for example endangered plants which would greatly benefit from the assistance of the wider public in their recovery.”

The original act also had the unintended consequence of restricting the number of species that can be added to the protected list. And, said the Minister, the existing penalties are too low and have done “little to halt” unnecessary killing or destruction of protected species.

As an example, he said, there has been an “aggressive public relations campaign” about a ban on fishing Eagle Rays at Flatts Bridge but the Department of Conservation continues to find the remains of the Rays in the area. The new bill adopts three new categories of protection, according to the level of threat faced by each species.

Category one is the most protective category. Species under it are at such low population levels that only scientific or expert intervention can be used to ensure their survival, explained the Minister. Examples include the Cahow, Spotted Eagle Ray, Bermuda Skink and Green Turtle. The penalty for harming species under category one is a $25,000 fine and / or two years in prison.

Category two species are less vulnerable than category one but still need expert assistance to survive. The category allows licensed researchers to work towards their recovery in specific habitats, said Mr Weeks. The Diamond Back Terrapin, Yellowwood Tree and Bermuda Killifish come under this category, which has a fine of $15,000 and/or a year in prison as the punishment.

Category three is the least restrictive and provides “practical but effective protection” of species that are an integral part of everyday living, without subjecting members of the public to prosecution for performing actions that fall under the blanket prohibition of the existing act, said the Minister. “This helps promote public interaction on an Island-wide scale,” he explained. The ownership and local transportation of category three species, which include the Bermuda Cedar and Bermuda Snowberry will be allowed.

The penalty for breaching the rules on category three species will remain at the same level allowed by the current act, a $5,000 fine and/or six months’ imprisonment. The Minister said species will be added using the best scientific data available and using international criteria to establish whether they are critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable on a global scale.

In cases where a species has to be removed for health and safety reasons, for essential services such as the installation of utilities, the erection of fences or walls or “other needs deemed important by the Minister” a permit may be issued. Examples include transplanting a tree or moving a nest.

This prompted

Shadow Public Works Minister Mark Pettingill to table an amendment to the bill which would require any application for such a permit to be advertised in the Official Gazette. The Minister would also have to deposit a copy of the application with the Director of Conservation Services for public inspection.

Members of the public and affected landowners would be able to make representations before the application is decided.

Mr Pettingill said that he backed the legislation in general coupled with education of the public. However, he expressed concern that it allows the Minister to issue a permit for activities that would allow the holder to engage in activities that would otherwise be prohibited. “We have other Acts that call for checks and balances on Ministers. That’s what the public wants. They want to see transparency,” he argued.

Shadow Attorney General Trevor Moniz agreed, saying the legislation as it stands does not seem to go along with the Government’s campaign for good governance. “There is a huge loophole that the Minister can go around it and disregard the public who they serve without any publicity,” Mr Moniz said. “It doesn’t meet the requirement of good governance.”

Mr Weeks said the Ministry would take the changes under advisement, but Mr Pettingill tabled the amendments for debate and was defeated when it was put to the vote.

During the debate,

Minister of Government Estates Michael Scott said Mr Weeks was correct to take the changes under advisement because the modifications proposed by Mr Pettingill would add an additional layer of bureaucracy.

Government backbencher Walter Lister defended the original amendments, saying that they were developed based on advice by the public service.

“We respect the efforts of the Opposition, but we are going with what we have got.”

Health Minister Zane DeSilva said the same, arguing that Government’s professional and technical officers got it right with the legislation as it stands.

Speaking earlier in the debate,

Progressive Labour Party backbencher Terry Lister spoke of the need for educating the public on protected species.

He admitted that when he was a young boy, he once brought a seahorse home from a swimming hole with him “because I could” but it died within hours. As an adult, he said, he is aware of how many species like seahorses have become rare or non-existent in Bermuda since he was a boy.

“I don’t think Bermudians will feel they have to ignore the law,” he said of the amendment act, while acknowledging there will be “scoundrels” who do so.

He said although the maximum fine is high, he supports it in order to bring home the importance of the issues.

Species such as Cahows and turtles, he noted, are “what makes Bermuda Bermudian” and “every time a species disappears, the specialness of a place disappears too”.

Shadow Government Estates and Information Minister Cole Simons said the law does not go far enough to protect sensitive habitats such as caves, coral reefs and marshes.

He said: “They need to be respected by the Ministers of the day and by our planning laws.”

Mr Simons referred to the recent controversy over the Special Development Order at Tucker’s Point as an example and described the new law as “a piecemeal and inadequate piece of legislation”.

Mr Simons also called for an island-wide ban on balloons, saying turtles can choke on them, and urged members of the public not to release unwanted animals such as cats, turtles and parakeets because they can do “untold damage” to the environment.

Minister of Community –Development Michael Weeks
Mark Pettingill

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Published November 29, 2011 at 10:41 am (Updated November 29, 2011 at 10:41 am)

House passes tough new penalties to protect Island’s endangered species

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