Saturday, June 23, 2012

Dear Prime Minister Baldwin Spencer, you must take simple action to save our reefs!

netted parrotfish by the thousands taken from the reefs
In the past five days 1400 people have signed a petition to the Prime Minister of Antigua & Barbuda. The petition has been organized by The Antigua Conservation Society and asks for the PM's help in getting the 2004 Fisheries Act signed by the Fisheries Minister who for one reason or another has not done so for years. While the Act sits languishing on his desk, the marine eco systems of Antigua and Barbuda have suffered tremendously. We are still working with legislation from the early 80s. This 2004 Fisheries Act was carefully drawn up after consultations and input with the major stakeholders including but not limited to The Fishermen's Cooperative, The Sports Fishing Association, and The Environmental Awareness Group.
There are way too many areas of our coastal environment that are being neglected simply because there are no laws that can help them. The Chief Fisheries Officer is quoted time and time again as saying that her hands are tied until the regulations are signed. The person who need to sign it told me and others who were meeting him one day when he was Junior Minister of Tourism that he can't swim and has no interest at all going out on the water on any boat. This doesn't mean he isn't capable of understanding the issues here, but I can't help feel that he doesn't. Article after article is published like this one today featured in The Daily Observer: St. John’s Antigua- Having almost ravaged the fishing stock off Antigua, Barbuda-based marine biologist John Mussington says fishermen are now looking to employ their harmful practices on the sister isle. Their primary target: the parrot fish, which Mussington revealed, fishers are going at great lengths to capture. “That particular category of fishermen they cleaned out all the reefs in Antigua.” “The guys, not Antiguans, come and they set their gill nets and camp out on the shores over here. They target the parrot fish alone and there have been reports that they are using bleach to hunt them,” the marine biologist said. According to Mussington, when the foreign fishermen catch fish that is not the parrot fish, they dispose of them on the beaches of Barbuda. The fishermen try their best to avoid local fishers, Mussington told OBSERVER Media, plying their harmful trade when local fishermen have retired for the day. He said several attempts including calling the Coast Guard for assistance have been employed to try to stop the fish invasion off Barbuda. “People in Barbuda have tried to confiscate the nets, but it’s a losing battle. They apparently have official blessings for what they are going.” The problem has persisted for about two years, but Mussington disclosed that efforts to use bad fishing practices off the island have intensified in recent months. “Just yesterday, I received a report from a fisherman who is frustrated over here,” Mussington said adding that several reports have been made to the police. The concerns by the marine biologist comes on the heels of a Fisheries Division study which found that urgent action is needed to save the parrot fish from the gill-netting and spare fishing practices. In response to the anxiety over the local fisheries stock, the Antigua Conservation Association commissioned an online petition to force government to sign off on fisheries regulations that would aid in the protection of the marine eco-systems. Despite articles like these being written, despite desperate calls from The Fishermens Cooperative, which is the biggest association of fishermen, despite calls from all the Environmental Groups, his own Chief Fisheries Officer, and many others, Hilson Babtiste still doesn't sign it. 8000 lbs of parrotfish, almost as many reef snappers and reef groupers are being exported through the Fisheries Department to the French islands. Remember that parrotfish are the key species keeping our reefs healthy by cleaning the coral damaging algae with each fish producing about 180 lbs of sand a year. Healthy parrotfish populations mean healthy reefs and plenty of sand production. Also with healthy reefs there is less wave action and currents getting to our shores and causing beach erosion. More on parrotfish by clicking this link. As you have just read the Daily Observer article, you can see that The Fisheries Ministry knows that the parrotfish are in trouble, but for some reason they still are permitting them to be decimated through the use of huge gill nets which fishermen put along the east coast of our shores just outside the reef. We are at a tipping point, a tipping point that the cod fishermen of the North Atlantic went beyond and destroyed their own industry and way of live. Many species here including parrotfish are in danger of being wiped out due to the lack of fisheries management and stronger regulations. The 2004 Fisheries Act needs to be signed. You can help. You have spent longer reading this blog than it takes to sign the petition. The Prime Minister of our nation will see your signature and will see your comment if you leave one. Please take a moment to sign it, and as important as signing it is sharing it with your email and facebook contacts. There are a few key points which come to mind that make the new fisheries act way better than the old outdated one. The new regulations will change quite a few things which include: Stricter measures for conservation of key species: Lobster – now introduces regulations against removing "tar spot" …something that is now practiced because of EU requirements that lobsters with tar shouldn’t be shipped but for which there is no regulation under the current Fisheries regs. Also introduces closed season for lobster Conch – introduces closed season and stronger penalties for fishermen who harvest undersized conch. Turtles – hawksbills and leatherbacks would be fully protected. Greens may be allowed for capture (if an open season is declared) but with a maximum size limit as opposed to minimum size limit (as per WIDECAST recommendation) Also specifically prohibits harassment of nesting females and take of hatchlings and allows for declaration of protected turtle nesting beaches. Permitting requirements for other species that are not currently managed. e.g. Whelks, cockle and urchins.. Fishers would also need to request permits to harvest certain species. So it is not automatic that once you are a fisher you can harvest anything. It's quite possible that there could be permits for parrotfish (chub fish). Now regulates fishing inland (in ponds and dams). Better controls over gear Nets – the old act only sets regulations on seines…nothing for gill nets. With the new regs there are size restrictions on mesh, prohibition of multi-panel nets and restriction on soak time. The use of any gear not specifically regulated under the Act would need the permission of the CFO. Sets controls for sport fishing The most significant change with the new regulations is that we move to license fishers…not just the boats. And it sets requirements that anyone who wishes to be licensed must undergo some sort of training (to include sessions on conservation). In doing this the regulations also allows for licenses of fishers who break the laws to be suspended from fishing (penalties get progressively higher for repeat offenses). It also allows the Chief Fisheries Officer to refuse a license if there are grounds. New entrants to the fishery would be subject to a probationary period. This will hopefully allow us to catch under the net the people who swim out or use jet skis etc. Other things are: -providing way stiffer penalties for people who break the law as right now the penalties are not worth pursuing in the legal system. -giving the fisheries department more control of fisheries issues instead of having most of the control sitting in the hands of the minister. We have to get this thing signed by the Fisheries Minister as it's the first step on a road to a better marine environment and a better shot at having our fishing industry managed in a sustainable way so that generations of fishers to come may find something to fish for. Please sign the petition to Hon. Baldwin Spencer: