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Bahamas flats in turmoil

Mark Bowler discusses emerging legislation from the Bahamian government that could see unguided bonefishing become a thing of the past

DIY bonefishing in the Bahamas – will it become an outlawed pleasure?
DIY bonefishing in the Bahamas – will it become an outlawed pleasure?

So, you get the news that you've one day left on this earth. What are you going to do? For me, give me a bonefish flat that I can wade, searching the shallow sea bed with my polaroids, scanning for any sign of a shadow that might be a fish. No, I wouldn't want a guide – part of the pleasure is working this out for yourself. That's it, really; I die a happy man.

Chances were that the flat would have been on a Bahamian Out Island, and I would be staying in the local village, trying to suss out where I could wade and meet bonefish with any likelihood.

I say 'were' because new legislation is currently making its way through Bahamian government that portends to outlaw the kind of DIY bonefishing I've described through a collection of new laws which include: fishing only under licence; lodges to be owned only by Bahamians; guides to be Bahamian only; and allowing fishing to take place only with a guide.

There is large political drive in the Bahamas to make everything 'Bahamian' at present, and the locals like the sound of it. The Americans, who live just 48 miles away, however, are in uproar. Whilst there's justification in laws to protect the bonefish, the flats, and the Bahamian rights to profit from them, this new law sounds like it’s using a sledgehammer to crack a very small oyster shell. Worryingly, the hammer may well smash the pearl inside.

Many Americans travel to the Bahamas to fish; others have second homes. From what I can see on the internet, they approach their fishing in a similar way to me: they would usually employ a local guide for a day or two during a week's fishing; they wouldn't want to 'poach' on the guide's fishing areas when fishing on their own, they always fish catch-and-release (that is the law), they tend to fish 'fringe' flats rather than the more important ones – but then they don't have access to skiffs, which make much of the vast Bahamian flats inaccessible to anyone but the guides (hence the reason the DIY fisher will also employ a guide during their week's stay). From all the comments I've seen, not one person would begrudge paying a daily licence fee for the privilege of wading a flat and fishing for a bonefish or two, especially as all this has transpired ostensibly to benefit the conservation of the bonefish themselves.

I can see the Bahamian argument: ultimately some control will be required over access to flats. I'd hate to see the Bahamas develop into an extension of Florida, for instance, which can sometimes resemble a hot day at Wicksteed Park, but is the fishing pressure really so great at present? Especially on the Out Islands? More importantly, is the fishing there of sufficient quality and consistency to warrant guided fishing? A daily/weekly licence issued to fishing visitors in most other countries worldwide appears to control fishing pressure, especially where catch-and-release rates are high.

OK, one does see the occasional, unfamiliar boat heading to more distant flats, and again I can understand guides from established, local lodges tearing their hair out when they see that; could a daily/weekly boat licence allocation be part of the deal too? Or allocating designated flats where (licensed?) DIY fishers are welcome? Then, at least, guides would be aware of the possibility of boats or waders appearing on their watch. The major sticking-point in this argument is about having the freedom to fish alone, without a guide, just as there is guided trout fishing and unguided trout fishing. A guide is generally employed for his local knowledge of the flats and navigation of them, up-to-the-moment fishing information, understanding of the local tides, and his knowledge of the best flats to fish at certain stages of a tide, poling and boat-handling skills, spotting fish, and fast transport to and from those flats to provide consistent sport during a day. The DIY fisher possesses neither the experience, detailed knowledge, nor the equipment to be able to do this. The DIY fisher on the Out Islands brings in income in many ways: accommodation, fuel, equipment hire, food, restaurants, travel, etc. If the new legislation goes through, then the poorer Out Islands could become poorer still, as no angler with aspirations to fish would visit, leaving a fantastic DIY fishing resource untended and unused.

If I am forced to fish with a guide every day for $600 per day, as is being mooted, then I would go to Cuba or Mexico first. For me, the attraction of the Bahamas and its bonefish is the freedom it offers on the flats – some of the islands could have been purpose-designed for this type of fishing – but it doesn't offer the variety of the other two destinations (or the fishery protection). I'd be prepared to pay for that privilege of freedom, but, please, please, please, not always with a guide at my side.

I believe most Americans think the same, and with Cuba and USA becoming more friendly by the day, I can see Cuba (for guided fishing) – along with Mexico and Belize (for DIY fishing) – soon becoming the default settings for the bonefisher, rather than the Bahamas, should this law go through.

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