Chris Serju, Guest Columnist
Last Wednesday's announcement by Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries Roger Clarke about cutting the number of fishers operating on the Pedro Cays to 380, as part of the overall effort to crack down on illegal fishing activities and halt environmental degradation, would have been laudable, if it was workable.
"We will be intensifying enforcement activities ... to ensure that only people in possession of a licence will be allowed to remain there," Minister Clarke said. "We are, therefore, urging all fishermen and all the relevant stakeholders to cooperate as we step up out enforcement activities in the ensuing days," he told Parliament.
He said further that two fisheries officers will shortly be deployed to live on the cays, with a mandate to work with the marine police, Jamaica Defence Force (JDF) Coastguard and the Fisheries Division on enforcement actions.
There can be no denying the need for urgent and comprehensive action to halt the environmental decline of the Pedro Cays, with parallel actions to reverse the ills of overfishing, dynamiting and other negative activities. However, my question for Minister Clarke is, how is he going to carry out the enforcement action of which he speaks?
The continued exploitation of the country's marine resources and flouting of related laws by local and foreign poachers is rooted in the fact that the Fisheries Act of 1976 has very little teeth and is no way a deterrent. Former Agriculture Minister Christopher Tufon made this painful admission in June 2011, noting that not only are Jamaica's fisheries laws the least stringent, but also the least enforced.
"This makes the Jamaican waters open season for poachers and illegal activities on the high seas," Tufton told the Gillings Gully Fishermen's Co-operative Society annual general meeting in Whitehouse, Westmoreland.
On the one hand, he explained, fines imposed by Jamaica's regional neighbours are several times higher than those allowed for under our legislation. He cited the case of two Jamaican registered vessels that were seized by Nicaraguan authorities, for which the owners of each vessel had to pay approximately US$35,000 per boat in fines to retrieve their vessels. If such a breach had taken place in Jamaican waters by Nicaraguan vessels, the maximum penalty chargeable would have been US$2.30 per vessel.
This is because of the ridiculously low fines allowed under the relevant 26-year-old Fisheries Act, which allows for a maximum fine of all of $20 or one month imprisonment for registered fisherman caught fishing in a unlicensed fishing boat. For fishing in a fish sanctuary or during a closed season, the fine jumps to $500 or a prison term of six months.
Landing and selling illegally caught fish also attracts a $500 fine or the same prison term, while the highest fine, for stealing someone's fish pots, or fishing without a licence, climbs to a mega fine of $1,000 or all of 12 months in prison.
The fishermen, as well as Minister Clarke, know all too well the relevant laws that govern all aspects of their activities, so with all Minister Clarke's huffing and puffing, I see them having the last laugh.
ALL BEEN SAID BEFORE
If I were an unlicensed fisherman whose craft did not meet the legal requirements for operating in Jamaican waters, instead of rushing to get my act together, here's what I would do. Immediately deposit $10,000 with the clerk of courts in the area I am likely to be tried, and each time I make a good catch, for every 20 snapper sold would say, "That for me" and then throw a Welshman or handful of Macka Back (read: trash fish) one side and say, "That for Minister Clarke."
Why should I be worried by the latest pronouncement from the ministry, having heard it all before?
The new Fisheries Act has been in the making since 1995. Eighteen years later, none of the persons in the know have any idea what is happening with it. Andre Kong, chief executive officer of the Fisheries Division, told The Gleaner last December: "The last word we got from the chief parliamentary counsel was that the final draft would have been with us at the end of May, but we are yet to receive it. We have written to ask for a further update of the bill."
His pronouncement was more than a year after Donovan Stanberry, permanent secretary in the agriculture ministry, gave a commitment that the long-overdue legislation would be given the priority attention it deserves.
Then there was this statement from chief technical director in the agriculture ministry, Dr Marc Panton, who told The Gleaner last November that legislative consummation was imminent. "You can almost reach out and touch it. We are still battling with it, but it's getting closer and closer."
Until the new act is passed into law, what will the JDF Coastguard and Marine Police be enforcing? What tangible action can be taken against those who continue to flout our laws?
Unlike the first two piglets of fairy tale fame who ran to shelter in their brother's brick house when the big, bad wolf came calling a third time, our fishermen don't even have to move a muscle to avoid the promised greater enforcement.
It's bad enough to go fishing without the requisite fishing gear or equipment, but to do so in a pond without any fish at all is an altogether different level of idiocy!
Christopher Serju is a rural affairs and agriculture reporter. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.