SHOOTOUT AT SEA: Dominican ‘poachers’ held after exchanging fire with RBDF vessel

DOMINICAN poachers engaged the Royal Bahamas Defence Force in a shoot-out on the high seas before more than 100 of them were arrested after escaping into Cuban waters.

According to a press release from the RBDF, no Bahamians were hurt during the shoot-out, however 124 Dominican crew members are in custody and three “motherships” have been seized.

The arrests capped off a dramatic three-day joint operation between the RBDF, the United States’ Coast Guard and the Cuban Border Patrol.

On Wednesday, a US Coast Guard cutter, with a RBDF ship-rider on board, reported sighting a fishing vessel from the Dominican Republic north of Haiti.

The Dominicans aboard the vessel indicated that they were heading to The Bahamas, the RBDF said.

After being notified, the RBDF was directed to intercept the Dominican vessel in the event it entered Bahamian waters. HMBS Madeira later spotted the three vessels at daybreak on Saturday with skiffs in the water near Cay Lobos – a small cay on the southern edge of the Great Bahama Bank, 12 nautical miles north of central Cuba.

“Madeira deployed its sea boat with a boarding team to apprehend the motherships before they entered Cuban waters,” the RBDF said. “The Dominican vessels opened fire on the approaching boarding team while fleeing into Cuban waters. Madeira’s boarding party returned fire in self-defence.

“One of the three steel-hulled vessels ran aground in Cuban waters while trying to escape. None of the defence force boarding team members was injured during the incident. The defence force immediately alerted the Cuban Border Patrol of the incident and informed the Bahamas Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which sought the assistance of the Cuban government in apprehending the vessels.”

Cuba’s Border Patrol apprehended the three vessels with 124 crew members on Saturday and turned them over to HMBS Durward Knowles, which was on patrol in the southeastern Bahamas investigating a separate report of a suspicious vessel in the area.

This is the second Dominican poaching apprehension for the year involving HMBS Madeira. On July 8, the ship apprehended a Dominican fishing vessel attempting to flee into Cuban waters. The captain and 46 crew members from that boat were subsequently caught, charged and fined $53,000 each totaling more than $2.3 million dollars.

Additionally, the captain of the Dominican vessel, Radhames Hernandez, was convicted and sentenced to 18 months in prison.

In November 2016, HMBS Madeira also apprehended two Dominican vessels in adverse weather conditions in the Old Bahama Channel. During the incident, one of the vessels attempted to escape by ramming the RBDF’s vessel, which incurred structural damage, and one crew member was injured.

The vessel completed repairs in February at a cost of approximately $250,000. The two foreign captains and 50 crew members involved were arrested and each fined $50,000 for the captains and $20,000 each for the crew, for an approximate total of $1.4 million in fines.

The first offenders were sentenced to six months in prison and second offenders were sentenced to one year. The captain of the vessel that rammed Madeira was sentenced to16 months in prison, the RBDF said.

RBDF Commodore Tellis Bethel expressed appreciation for the assistance provided by the Cuban Border Patrol and the prompt response of the Cuban Embassy in Nassau in coordinating the recent apprehension and handing over of the Dominican poachers. He also commended the brave men and women who are a part of the RBDF, who risk their lives daily to defend their country.

The RBDF also said in May of this year, the agency and Cuban Border Patrol officials met in Cuba and discussed how their units could enhance their collaborative law enforcement efforts during the 5th Round of Talks on Migration between The Bahamas and Cuba.