Editorial: Take the fight to fisheries thieves
The legislature has turned its attention to the fishing industry by introducing a bill that seeks to impose massive fines and longer prison terms for persons convicted of illegal fishing activities that are deemed inimical to the livelihoods of fisherfolk.
The bill proposes to move the maximum fine for illegally obtaining fish from the present $1,000 to $3 million and prison term of two years in a bid to protect fishers who are being preyed on by thieves. Raising the fine to this level should serve as a deterrent to any would-be poacher or pirate.
Knowingly obtaining illegal fish, removing boats, fish pots and other equipment, as well as destroying or displacing these items would also attract hefty fines in resident magistrate's and circuit courts.
Stiffer penalties and tighter regulations for fishing breaches and piracy have been in the works since 1996 when the first draft of the new Fishing Industry Act was considered. Since then, successive governments talked continuously about tackling thieves who prey on the agricultural and fisheries sector. As far as fish piracy is concerned, fingers have been pointed at the Hondurans, Colombians and Nicaraguans, who are accused of poaching in local waters, particularly in the Pedro Cays area. Here, the fishermen estimate that their loss is in the region of US$70 million annually.
Theft of livestock and produce has taken a heavy toll on the agricultural sector, resulting in annual loss of millions of dollars of farmer's revenues. The truth is that rampant theft and limited apprehension and or arrests have left many farmers frustrated and on the brink of ruin. And there is also the matter of overfishing and dangerous practices such as dynamiting and spearfishing, which are all negatives for an industry that creates a living for many thousands.
So we applaud this move to harshly punish fisheries predators and protect stakeholders because the theft of agricultural and fisheries produce continues to undermine the ability of the country to feed itself. And in recent times, the Caribbean Community has been placing greater emphasis on raising the profile and importance of agriculture to the people of the region.
However, a point that we have made repeatedly is that regulations can only be effective when they are enforced. It's near impossible to police an industry that is so loosely organised and one which the authorities are not even sure how many persons directly earn their livelihoods from fishing or even how many boats are engaged in this activity.
Given the fact that there are more than 180 fishing beaches in Jamaica, how will Jamaica's undermanned and underequipped marine forces effectively police these sites to ensure that the regulations are not breached? Will there be a move to strengthen their capabilities so they can effectively and efficiently police our waters and be equipped to deal with complaints? How will wardens be greater empowered to detect and deter poaching in local waters?
The security forces must now develop a master plan to monitor fishing activities so that the act of introducing more stringent fines will have some effect in dulling the efforts of would-be poachers and other thieves, including the well-organised ring of non-Jamaican thieves who have been preying on local fishers for far too long.