IMPATIENT with the process to have the new fisheries legislation passed, environmentalists have come out against the authorities who they insist must ramp up their efforts to dispense with the existing law.
It is going on two decades since the move to have the new legislation in place was announced and more than three years since the bill was drafted.
"It is not in any way a conservation act; it is an act to promote fishing," said Diana McCaulay, chief executive officer for the Jamaica Environment Trust (JET), referencing the Fishing Industry Act of 1976, which the proposed new legislation is to repeal. "What we need is the new law; they must pass the new law [which] we have been waiting for since the mid-1990s."
"I could not begin to describe to you how many consultations have been done [on the proposed new legislation]. There have been overseas money that was used. I think it has been at bill stage for at least a year or two. It just can't pass. I want to know why not," McCaulay told Environment Watch.
Peter Espeut, former executive director of the Caribbean Coastal Area Management Foundation, is himself annoyed with the length of time it has taken to get the new legislation passed.
"Some laws are passed with Gun Court speed while others take decades. Anything to do with the Ministry of Finance, the laws are passed swiftly, but anything to do with the environment, the environment is the Cinderella of government action," he said.
Meanwhile, Espeut said, the fisheries sector continues to struggle with a range of challenges, including over fishing.
"Jamaica has the most overfished waters in the Caribbean as determined by the Caricom Fisheries Unit. There is no world ranking of overfishing, [but] if there was, we would be world-class in that regard. We are overfished because of a lack of fisheries management legislation," he said, agreeing with McCaulay that the existing law has less to do with conservation and more to do with the promotion of fishing.
The new legislation, according to a draft of the bill, dated January 2009, has as its objectives:
* to make new provisions for the conservation management, planning and development of fisheries and aquaculture in Jamaica; as well as
* to provide for the registration and licensing of fishing vessels and aquaculture facilities and the licensing of fishers and fish farmers in relation to specific fisheries, fishing areas and aquaculture activities; and for connected matters.
Andre Kong, acting chief executive officer of the Fisheries Division, admits that the new legislation has been some time in coming. However, he insisted that significant progress has been made.
"We are moving towards it; it is not like it is sitting there gathering dust or cobwebs. It is being looked at now. It is a very complicated act; it is a couple hundred pages and we have been going through a whole series of consultations and discussions," Kong told Environment Watch. "The process is that you have the drafters and the technical people [who] have to go through it and explain to the drafters [so] that in many instances there has to be changes because it is not saying what we want it to say."
At the same time, he said allowances for time have to be given since "the drafters from the Chief Parliamentary Council are few and there is an awful lot of work". Also, Kong said, "The thing is what is priority is not dictated by them. There are times when they have to be focusing on other legislation."
And so they apparently have.
Over the 2009/11 legislative years, some 69 pieces of legislation have been passed, according to Jamaica's Houses of Parliament website (http://www.japarliament.gov.jm). They include the Income Tax (Validation and Amendment) Act, 2009; the Betting Gaming and Lotteries (Amendment) Act, 2010; the Financial Investigations Division Act, 2010; and the Financial Administration and Audit (Amendment) Act, 2011.
The Fisheries Division boss has, in the interim, defended the recent move to have new fisheries regulations passed, providing for, among other things, fines of up to $1,000.
"There are many comprehensive things that we want to put in place, but the existing act does not make provision for that. We know that we have to make those necessary changes when the new act comes into place, but what we wanted to do was to at least put in place some basic legal standards that would stop some dangerous activities that is happening in the fisheries sector," Kong said.
"I do not know what the timetable will be to promulgate the new act. As many have said, it has taken a long time and the problem is that we have some issues that are occurring as we speak and I do not think we have the luxury to sit down and wait," he added.
Those issues, Kong insisted, must be addressed in the best interest of fish sanctuaries for which the regulations were passed.
"The fish sanctuaries is something that is critical for the survival of the fisheries sector in this country. Right now, we are in a serious state. We believe that if we don't do something and do it now, the fisheries sector is going to collapse and we are going to have thousands of people out of work," he said. "We do not have the luxury to sit down and wait for this new act to come about. Even if it is going to come about next month, next month is too long. I needed something right now and the mechanism is there and I didn't think it was imprudent. The honourable minister of agriculture and fisheries agreed that it was prudent for us to take action now to fix it," Kong added.
The new regulations, among other things, declare the Pedro Banks as a special fishery conservation area, and according to Kong "allows fishing to take place within the boundaries of the protected area".
"The other one [regulation] was to allow the harvesting of species from these protected areas for the purposes of culling, that is, for invasive alien species, such as the lionfish and also for the purposes of scientific research and education," he said. "What this allows is for us to go into these protected areas and to remove lionfish from there as well as to remove fish and other organisms for the purposes of scientific research."
"In many instances, when you want to understand what is happening in your protected areas, you need to go in there, look at the fish and sometimes you have to capture them and measure them and weigh them. Of course, if you have species in there that you don't want, you have to take them out and destroy them... These new regulations allows that to happen," Kong added.
Environmentalists are not impressed.
Espeut has maintained that their energies ought to have focused on the new legislation, which, among other things, comes with stiffer penalties for breaches.
"The new regulations are just a stop gap. I think the effort put into passing the new regulations should rather have been put into getting the new act passed. I will not celebrate the new fisheries regulations because they have come as a substitute for the new fisheries act for which we have been waiting for decades," he said.
McCaulay was inclined to agree.
"What we need is a new law; they must pass the new law," she said, adding that enforcement would also be critical.
Kong said the Fisheries Division would do what they can to expedite the process.
"What we will do when we see it [the final draft of the bill] is go through it as quick as possible and make our comments. If there is need for final touches, then there is need for final touches. [But] what we want to do is to bring it to a quick conclusion as fast as possible," he said.