By Joseph Ierna Jr. / Ocean CREST Alliance
Today a global struggle effecting the health of our communities, our economy, and the very life-sustaining health of our oceans is the ugly reality of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing activities or, as called in the Bahamas, poaching. Since our encounter with hundreds of poachers on Cay Sal Island Bahamas on July 2nd, crawfish season opened August 1st and the legal Bahamian fishermen are just returning from their first month of trips. The numbers of poachers they are seeing are astounding, while the numbers of crawfish they are catching are the worst in a decade. Our oceans are dying.
“If tings don’t change soon Joe, I’ll be changing my occupation,” says Scott Harding, a 35-year veteran craw fisherman based on Long Island, Bahamas.
Between August 1st and August 13th Cameron and Emile Knowles – owners of the F/V Captain Ryan and Summer Seafood II – spotted four IUU poaching vessels between 100 and 150 feet in length with hundreds of dive teams working the Grand Bahama Banks 40 miles east of Cay Lobos. “This is [the poachers’] area, and we also saw the ‘Defense Force’ so they have to see the poachers,” said Cameron in a sarcastic manner.
Jessie Knowles, owner of the F/V Summer Crab II, had an encounter that shows the political and economic problems we are facing with IUUs. He shared his story with us – a story of high energy and human compassion. Luckily this time no violence erupted, as things are getting out of hand out on the sea!
On August 8th Jessie and his operator Edsel Knowles encountered seven to eight small 12-foot poaching dinghies in Bahamian waters. The mother ship for these dinghies was off to the south by the edge of the ocean hiding in the Old Bahama Channel separating Cuba and the Bahamas. At this point, ten days into their first trip of the open season, Jessie and Edsel were experiencing very poor catches and their frustration level was high. They decided to take action against these poachers. They began to circle the poachers’ small hot tub-sized dinghies to scare them out of the territory. This gesture caused a good bit of wave action and the small poaching vessels began running scared. One poaching vessel ran into another, causing one to take on water. Jessie and Edsel circled one more time causing even greater waves and causing the poaching vessel that got bumped to take on so much water that its operator pulled the plug to let some water escape. Jessie maneuvered in front of the crippled poaching vessel, causing the poachers to stop. Water began rushing into their vessel through the open drain plughole and they were sinking quickly!
In a desperate action the poachers inserted their plug back into the through-hull and began to manually bail their sinking vessel. While frantically bailing, the poachers and the legal Bahamian fishermen began to communicate. The poachers’ English was very poor – they were from the Dominican Republic – but they did know some broken English. One of the poachers, an elderly diver in the bow of the poaching vessel, began to cry and apologize to the Bahamian fishermen. Jessie and Edsel, showing great compassion, offered the poachers a better boat bailer to help keep the poaching vessel from sinking. In the end the poachers successfully rescued their vessel and again in their broken English apologized for being in Bahamian waters. With the vessel seaworthy, they returned the bailer. Jessie and Edsel offered the poachers some fresh water to take with them, the poachers headed off and nobody got hurt.
With the poachers motoring over the horizon the fishermen asked themselves, “If we see all these large poaching vessels with all these dinghies and we also see the Defense Force vessel in the same area, why is it that the Defense Force cannot or will not apprehend these IUU vessels?” This is a real question the Bahamian community and especially the Bahamian commercial fishermen and their families need answers to now!
Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing activities are leading to the death of the first and third largest economies in the Bahamas – tourism and fisheries – both of which rely on healthy marine resources. These poaching activities have been going on for far too long and now with bigger poaching fleets and such depleted resources, everyone is feeling the pressure – the people, the economy, the oceans, and the planet.
As Sylvia Earle stated about the Bahamas at the 2014 Bahamas Natural History Conference, “You are not an island nation, you are an ocean nation… No ocean, no life; No ocean, no us.”
Solutions to this ugly IUU problem are not easy and not everyone will be happy with any plan, but solutions are necessary. Ocean CREST Alliance has a short- and long-term action plan that, if administered properly, will help save Bahamian waters from being raided year after year by illegal, unreported and unregulated activities. These actions require strong leadership, good vision, the appropriate funding, cooperation between governments and NGOs, and good communication and cooperation with the Bahamian commercial fishing sectors. They will require the use of drones and various ocean vessels along with some good old-fashioned hard work. These elite enforcement teams would patrol the edge of the ocean like it was a border running from Cay Sal to Cay Lobos to Great Inagua to Mayaguana, enforcing the territory and arresting poachers.
At the Ocean CREST Alliance, we believe in E2=MC, meaning Education + Enforcement = Marine Conservation = a healthy ocean for generations!
Let us know you ideas. It will take us all joining together to make a difference! For more information about Ocean CREST Alliance and how YOU can help with our conservation efforts, please visit www.oceancrestalliance.org.