Not all of us are in agreement with the fishermen
The opinion piece in your paper on January 12, 2023 by fisherman and charter boat captain Matthew Jones (“Final plea to be equal partners over future of our waters”) makes for interesting reading. It highlights the grievances of fishermen over the proposals of the Bermuda Ocean Prosperity Programme — funded, as we are reminded five times in the piece, by a charitable non-governmental organisation interested in saving our oceans.
The article rails against “the plan to take away 20 per cent of our only natural resource without coming to the fishermen”. First, and most importantly, Bermuda already restricts fishing in approximately 10 per cent of its waters and the plan seeks to raise that to 20 per cent, an increase of ten percentage points. The British Government is looking to us to protect 30 per cent, alongside all other responsible jurisdictions, so we are already responding weakly to that suggested benchmark. And, sure, push the protected areas way offshore, deep into our exclusive economic zone, where they will be ineffective and a bother to no one. And more difficult to patrol ...
Second, fishermen have a misplaced sense of entitlement. In a recent public meeting, one stated “we fishermen are the biggest shareholders of the ocean, so we should get a bigger vote in how it’s handled”. True, fishermen get some or all of their income from the sea, but that does not mean they own it, or that their self-interest comes before the interests of others today, or of generations to come. That tunnel vision drives the opinion writer to state that the ocean is our only natural resource, when it is part of an intricate web of natural resources with which it interacts and with which it should thrive — the sunlight we depend on, the air we breathe, our rainfall, our mangrove forests and rocky foreshores, our beaches, our farmland and green spaces.
He says that “Government has forgotten who they work for, who hired them in the first place. Us!”
“Us?” Fishermen? The Government works for all of us, not just fishermen. We all collectively “hired” them. And not all of us are in agreement with the fishing community’s modus operandi, and we expect our government to listen to all of us.
Third, fishermen have been consulted for decades. There have been fishing representatives on the Marine Resources Board for the past 20 years.
Let’s face it, it all boils down to the grouper sites because, for fishermen, that’s where the real money is. But our once-thriving Nassau grouper population is now functionally extinct, with no viable spawning occurring. There may be still a chance to save our black grouper population, but with every wasted day, that fish’s long-term chances are disappearing.
The experience in Little Cayman is worth noting. The Cayman Islands used to have four known Nassau grouper spawning sites, but by the late 1990s, all four of these sites were effectively fished out. Then in 2001, a fifth spawning site was discovered off Little Cayman. It is estimated that there were approximately 7,000 grouper aggregating there during spawning season. The fishermen pounced, and in two years had caught approximately 4,000 of that population before the government stepped in and banned fishing in all spawning sites during the season.
Scientists studied the grouper population in Little Cayman: their numbers, points of origin, where the juveniles go for safety while they grow — shallow waters close to shore, not miles off in the EEZ — and made recommendations that have resulted in the banning of Nassau grouper fishing in national waters from December 1 to April 30, and a year-round ban on fishing at spawning sites. These restrictions have also resulted in a tripling of the grouper numbers at the Little Cayman site.
The suggestion that fishermen in Bermuda be allowed to hover at the borders of our spawning sites and, in the days after the spawning period, fill their boats with exhausted and ravenous grouper, is exactly the type of practice that would lead to rapid exhaustion of already depleted stocks. Instead, precisely as has been proved in Little Cayman and elsewhere, greater restrictions are needed, banning all grouper fishing for several months around the spawning period.
Everyone, fishermen included, is in total agreement on one thing: enforcement of existing fishing restrictions is lax or at times non-existent — for example, inadequate fuel budgets mean fisheries vessels are sometimes moored at the dock, unable to travel. This allows many fishermen to break the law with little fear of consequences. Matthew Jones is well aware that suggestions of putting drones in the sky or GPS trackers or cameras on fishing boats will die a death in budget committee unless the Government begins to take seriously the depletion of our fish stocks and allocates the funding and manpower required.
The courts do not seem to view infractions of fishing laws as serious matters. Perhaps our judges need to be brought into the loop to understand what fish extinction means to Bermuda, and how they can help in the battle we are facing. Our politicians need to develop spines and stand up to this group of 300 people who, left to their own devices as they effectively are at present, will drive our groupers, barracuda, hogfish and anything else worth having — even our baitfish — into extinction. As reported in today’s Gazette (January 13), Walter Roban’s insistence on following the process is the right way forward, and shame on the One Bermuda Alliance for turning this matter into a political football, mouthing platitudes from the fences to curry favour, without showing where it stands on this issue.
The Government also needs to focus its sights on recreational fishermen, including the spearfishing community, which collectively far outnumbers the commercial fishermen, and which also does tremendous damage to our fish numbers.
Once our large predator fish are gone, the prospects for our marine ecosystem are gloomy.