September 10, 2014

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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.

Illegal bait tube. Image courtesy Joseph Ierna Jr.

A “bait tube” found by the Bahamian fishermen inside their crawfish traps, or “condos.” These PVC tubes, weighted with concrete at one end and stuffed with cowhide, are set inside traps. Baiting condo traps is not a method practiced by the legal Bahamian fishermen. The writing on the tube suggests that the illegal fishermen who placed these baited tubes in the traps are from or have links to the Dominican Republic, and the manufacture date of 14/03/14 shows that these tubes were recently placed in the traps. Image courtesy Joseph Ierna Jr.

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.

From left: Edsel Knowles, Daniel Cartwright and Jesse Knowles. Image courtesy Joseph Ierna Jr.

From left: Edsel Knowles, Daniel Cartwright and Jesse Knowles. Image courtesy Joseph Ierna Jr.

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.

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7 Comments

  • Jane Arkell says:

    A great number of my friends travel often in a year and a lot go to the Bahamas. I have just gotten off the phone with a couple of them and each couple is changing their plans to go to the Bahamas. I am going out to a few travel agents this afternoon to give them this information and hopefully they will be on board for trying to send people elsewhere.This is becoming really scary – our oceans are already circling the drain – the Great Barrier Reef is starting to die and the great unwashed out there are puzzling over weather changes DUH – check out the condition of the North Atlantic Current – check out the condition of the ice packs that will eventually spew methane all over us….time to wake up everyone and put our grown up clothes on and fight the REAL fight.

  • mary palko says:

    your efforts are so important! Thank you for what you do on all our behaves.

  • Rob says:

    The Coast Guard Flies over the entire area of Cay Sal every day. It is not OUR responsibility to provide drones for the Bahamas, it is theirs. Obviously the Defense Force is looking the other way $$$. That’s the way it’s always been. They need to govern themselves and enforce their own laws, the US cannot enforce their laws.

  • Stephen says:

    The Bahamian government doesn’t care because they don’t see the immediate effects. Until Bahamian citizens start demanding change, nothing will happen. I listen to the political radio shows in the Bahamas, and all the people seem to be concerned about, is how to get more money from white folks (their words, not mine). With unemployment around 25% in the Bahamas, everyone is just looking for a handout, and turning a blind eye to how these activities are wrecking their economy. Ocean life is essentially the ONLY natural resource the Bahamas has, and they are letting it be stolen from them without even batting an eye.

  • Michael T Braynen says:

    The caption of this article includes the word corruption, the text does not. The problem is quite serious, but there is no need to misrepresent.

  • Faye Baglin says:

    Encouraging to see the hard work going on in this Hope Spot. Everyone on the planet needs to see Sylvia Earle’s Mission Blue documentary, streaming on Netflix. Depressing, with notes of hope and promise for a better future, if we all are aboard in the effort. Awareness = action. No ocean, no life.

  • Jim Steyaart says:

    I’m with you 100%. If you do not get this poaching under control quickly, your waters (and many peoples livelihood) will be decimated!! You’ve a similar problem with illegal netting (by Bahamians) of bonefish for use as bait. Somebody needs to put a foot in Law Enforcement’s backside and make them do their job!!

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