Fisheries Act 'hijacked' by discrimination row

* Minister suggests constitution change to hit Gov't objective

By YOURI KEMP

Tribune Business Reporter

ykemp@tribunemedia.net

A Cabinet minister yesterday hinted at constitutional changes to achieve the Government's goal with the Fisheries Act, which he said is being “hijacked” by the dispute over whether it is discriminatory.

Michael Pintard, minister for agriculture and marine resources, said it was “unfortunate” that persons have focused on just one portion of the newly-passed Act after top fisheries wholesalers teamed with boat owners and foreign fishermen to block its enforcement via legal challenge in the Supreme Court.

"The [Act] addresses governance, making sure that stakeholders participate in how their sector is run," Mr Pintard said of the legislation's other qualities. "Secondly, it addresses the issue of managing the blue economy in general; how different ministries ought to co-operate with each other in terms of making sure that we have spatial planning.”

He added that the Ministry of Tourism, Ministry of Transport and the Ministry for Agriculture and Marine Resources were “working in tandem” to oversee the fisheries sector, and said: "The Act also looks at how do we manage each fisheries resource so that they are managed in a sustainable way.”

Pointing to the three main resources in the fisheries sector of conch, lobster and grouper, Mr Pintard said two of those species are under “threat of extinction”. As a result, policymakers must prioritise resources and protect it for future generations at this time.

Mr Pintard added: “So this Fisheries Bill, in referencing the Immigration component, seeks to do that. How do we protect resources that are constrained and at risk? So what I don't want to happen is for it to be lost in this discussion.”

Paradise Fisheries and Percy Roberts, Geneva Brass Seafood's principal, are among 10 plaintiffs named in a January 8, 2021, summons that urges the Supreme Court to declare the ban on foreign fishermen contained in the Fisheries Act 2020 and Immigration Act amendments as unconstitutional and discriminatory.

The wholesalers, who are joined by various fishing boat-owning corporate entities, two Dominican fishermen working legally in this nation and their Bahamian wives, are ultimately seeking a "permanent injunction" from the court to prevent the Government from implementing the provisions in the new Acts that they deem offensive.

The summons, filed by Sears & Company, the law firm of ex-attorney general Alfred Sears, is focused on two parts of the Fisheries Act - sections 31 and 32 - that bar foreign fishermen - even those in The Bahamas legally with work and spousal permits, or permanent residency, from working on Bahamian-owned fishing vessels.

It argues that these create "arbitrary and discriminatory treatment" for the two wives, Maria Jackson and Raquel Anthonya Major-Perez, as the reforms deprive them of support by their husbands in violation of numerous parts of the Bahamian constitution. The summons also alleges that the legislative changes have robbed their husbands of their "unrestricted right to work".

The summons, in particular, targets the constitution's article 26, which prohibits discrimination on race or ethnic grounds. Other articles cited include those related to the individual's freedom; protection from inhumane treatment; and protection for the privacy of the home and other property.

The legal papers argue that the Fisheries Act and Immigration Act also violate treaties that The Bahamas has signed on to, and result in "arbitrary and unlawful interference with family life" by introducing treatment "inconsistent with principles prevailing in democratic societies".

Other arguments allege that the bar will undermine the operations of the named wholesalers and fishing boat vessels, depriving them of the ability to hire expatriate labour that is present in The Bahamas legally while rival operators "have a pool of abundant and available professional commercial fishing divers in their islands".

Adding that the plaintiffs "had a reasonable expectation that they would have been consulted" before the legal reforms were made, the summons said the wholesalers and boat owners had agreed to work with the Government to support the creation of a national dive programme at the National Training Agency and offer apprenticeship initiatives to help The Bahamas solve its labour shortages.

Mr Pintard said yesterday of the legal action. “I think some persons have a legitimate concern, and they want to make sure that whatever we do in law that it jives well, or is synchronised with, the constitution, which is why I believe the ultimate step is ensure in the constitution we carve out our marine resources.

"But to hijack the Fisheries Act on the basis of one component is unfortunate, and I don't think it will happen, but if the court makes a decision, again, I believe we should go to the next level. That is enshrine it in the constitution.”

Turning to the number of dive and compressor permits he gives per year, Mr Pintard said that out of the 1,000 granted less than 60 go to non-Bahamians. This, he added, was why he was surprised by the backlash against the Act because relatively few foreign fishermen and local boat owners are impacted.

He added: “Now, in previous years, I may have gone as high as 80. But since I've been in the chair... I think it’s about 1,000 versus 60, and out of the 60 less than half of them are persons with spousal permits or permanent residents.

“How is it that this has managed to have so much traction? If discrimination is the ultimate issue, then let's have an immigration debate and I would gladly join in that because I do believe we need to move faster to ensure that those persons who qualify for permanent residence or citizenship, that that happens. I think Mr Johnson (minister for financial services, trade and industry and Immigration) is doing a wonderful job speeding up that process. But let's have that debate."