Ladies and gentlemen,
It is my pleasure to welcome you to the 76th Gulf and Caribbean Fisheries Institute conference, held here in Nassau under the theme, “Linking science and society towards a vision for sustainable fisheries.”
If this is your first time in The Bahamas, I trust your stay is off to a marvellous start. Soon enough, it is my hope that you will see why we are so fond of saying, “It’s Better in The Bahamas.”
To those Bahamians here today, whether in the capacity of conservationist, scientist, researcher, or fisherman, I wish you a very warm welcome. This forum will be filled with fruitful dialogue that, through sustained and considered collaboration, will lead to a range of auspicious, actionable outcomes for the region.
The Bahamas, like the rest of the Caribbean, has a profound relationship with its waters. Since the first Lucayans stepped foot on our sandy cays, the sea and its bounties have played a fundamental role in the livelihoods of this archipelago’s inhabitants.
In the twenty-first century, Bahamian fisheries remain just as vital as they were over six centuries ago, and not just in economic terms. Our fisheries represent our heritage, our culture, and our way of life.
Our foodways are undeniably tied to our maritime inheritance. Boiled fish, our national dish, and conch salad, a longstanding staple, both come from the sea. Don’t even get me started on fried snapper, steamed crawfish, and stew conch! So much of what we eat in The Bahamas comes from our waters, and, when harvested responsibly, these products represent a constant, renewable resource.
For generations, our fisheries have sustained us. And we recognise that now, more than ever, it is up to us to intervene to sustain them.
In my Government’s Blueprint for Change, which is our strategic roadmap for national development, we pledged to modernise the fishing industry, create opportunities in ocean sciences, and protect our sea and marine life. We also pledge to safely and sustainably develop industries around marine biotechnology, aquaculture, and deep-sea exploration.
From day one, developing sustainable fisheries and expanding our Blue Economy has been a major priority.
Our goals are fully aligned with the objectives of Sustainable Development Goal 14, which is appropriately dubbed “Life Below Water.” It entreats us to “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas, and marine resources for sustainable development”. This means not only maximising the economic returns of our fisheries – an industry which employs tens of thousands of Bahamians, underpins our tourism product, and bolsters local food security – it also means enacting sustainable policy measures, expanding protected areas, and rolling out educational campaigns to support the preservation of what is, in effect, the world’s largest ecosystem.
For a country such as ours, which developed import dependencies in the process of decolonisation to fill in the gaps left by non-sustainable and exploitative colonial governments, fishery exports represent a profoundly encouraging anomaly.
In 2015, the exports of fish and fisheries products accounted for 31% of Bahamian exports, generating some 80 million dollars annually. Exports in the sector are a valuable source of foreign currency and, even more significantly, they have produced a positive trade balance.
This, my friends, is the anomaly. And we want more anomalies like this for our import-dependent economy. With fishery imports coming to roughly a third of the profits of corresponding exports, the fisheries sector serves as a promising contributor to reducing our trade deficit. This idea was made especially clear in a 2016 report released by the Food and Agricultural Organisation in conjunction with The Bahamas Department of Marine Resources.
In light of this, we might begin to see how all the UN’s SDGs are interconnected. Safeguarding life below water is certainly fundamental to achieving goal 15, which is concerned with preserving life on land. Just as it has a lot to do with Goal 1 (eradicating poverty), Goal 2 (eliminating hunger), Goal 8 (decent work and economic growth), Goal 12 (responsible consumption), and several others.
Sustainable development, it follows, cannot be achieved by gazing through a magnifying glass. We must maintain a big-picture view of the many parts; we must consider not just the cog, but the entire system; and we must act in one arena with a view to advancing others in turn.
The key to such nuanced, multi-dimensional endeavours, as this conference’s theme rightly reminds us, will be bringing science and society together to realise sustainable visions. Science, in particular research and data collection, will be crucial to our continued efforts to address the many threats our fisheries face.
Fisheries in The Bahamas, like many other Caribbean nations, grapple with the devastating effects of climate change, habitat degradation, and unsustainable fishing practices, including poaching.
In tackling these issues, we stand to gain vital insights by mobilising research and technologies, especially up-to-date data collection methods.
The tools and techniques of the natural sciences can empower members of our society to play a more active and informed part in preserving life below water. Data collection will give governments a better grasp of what’s happening on the ground (or in this case, on the water), which will lead to more effective policy interventions.
I am certainly not the first to suggest that governance of fisheries has been hampered by the limited availability of data, be it regarding local catch, levels of poaching, the status of ecosystems, or even the degree of oxygen in our waters. Insufficient data is an issue which plagues states across the developing world, not just us in Latin America and the Caribbean.
The Bahamas’ archipelagic geography poses unique challenges to data collection, as there are so many areas where fish are being landed, and so many square kilometres of water to consider. The Bahamas, for instance, occupies roughly the same area as the entirety of the Lesser Antilles, at around 100,000 square kilometres.
Despite these difficult realities, we stand to gain a lot from keeping better track of our fisheries given that, as one publication by The Nature Conservancy observed, “The Path to Sustainable Fisheries is paved with Data.” In other words, as the saying goes, if it doesn’t get measured, it doesn’t get managed.
Fisheries that are not sufficiently studied and measured, referred to as data-limited fisheries, are at risk of succumbing to unanticipated or simply unperceived shocks.
Researchers at the Perry Institute of Marine Science, as well as the Cape Eleuthera Institute here in The Bahamas, have been instrumental in sounding the alarm on ongoing coral bleaching events and the continued advance of Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease. Without their sustained data collection and scientific observations, the plight of coral reefs in our waters would go largely unnoticed, and unaddressed.
Research and data collection is also critical to our efforts to archive the oral histories of fishers, as well as their extensive knowledge of ‘native’ techniques, species, and topographies.
By bringing the research methods of science to the agents of society so intimately involved in our fisheries, we stand to gain not only historical insights, but a valuable awareness of what is happening each day on the water. This awareness is not simply descriptive, it can also be instructive – particularly as we seek to implement more sustainable, science-backed practices, such as novel methods for stone crab claw extraction.
Data collection has also proven to be a fundamental step in exporting our fisheries to the globe in a sustainable manner. The Spiny Lobster Fishery Improvement Project, for example, mobilised data on Bahamian spiny lobsters, which we colloquially refer to as crawfish, to achieve a certification from the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), the foremost environmental standard for fisheries.
This joint initiative was undertaken by the WWF, the Department of Marine Resources, the Bahamas Marine Exporters Association, and The Nature Conservancy, and has resulted in one of our primary exports gaining a competitive edge in international markets.
Bahamian spiny lobster was the first Caribbean fishery to achieve this renowned certification, which verifies that the fishery has sustainable stocks, enjoys a healthy ecosystem and habitat, and is being responsibly managed.
With the MSC certification, The Bahamas has not just ramped up demand for an increasingly attractive aquatic commodity. We have also shown ourselves to be a sustainable fisheries leader. And for 700 small islands, that is no small feat!
By and large, we Bahamians love our waters. From the Androsian bonefisher, to the big game angler in Bimini, to the Spanish Wells crawfish catcher, to the conch vendor at Potter’s Cay, and the BNT conservationist – even to the conch snack consumer – the sea means so much. For us, and the entire Caribbean, Walcott said it best. The sea is history. But, it is also the future.
As we strive toward a more eco-friendly, and economically prosperous future, the sea, and how we sustain it, will be central. Data-driven management, in particular, will be critical if we hope to link “science and society towards a vision for sustainable fisheries.”
Thank you, and may you all enjoy a dynamic and productive conference!