Thousands of lobster tails are legally imported into the U.S. from the Dominican Republic each year — although no commercially viable stocks of spiny lobster exist in Dominican waters. Are poachers to blame? A report from Mission Blue.

The Bahamian Reefs Hope Spot, so dubbed by ocean scientist Sylvia Earle (TED Talk: My wish: Protect our oceans), is part of one of the vastest shallow-water ecosystems in the world. The expansive and productive fishing grounds known as the Great Bahama Bank and the Little Bahama Bank comprise 180,000 square miles. This rich biodiversity directly supports the country’s third-largest economy, fisheries that bring in about $100 million annually. Unfortunately, Bahamian waters are being pillaged daily by illegal, unauthorized and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

Globally, IUUs are stealing billions of dollars in revenue from local communities and from the ocean itself. IUU fishing undermines the sustainable practices of legitimate fishing operations, including those in the Bahamas. Their actions — including the use of harmful fishing gear and practices — can devastate local fish stocks and destroy sensitive, productive marine habitats, threatening food security and socio-economic stability in many parts of the world.

Recently during a cruise to the Cay Sal Bank and Key West, we had an unsettling encounter at sea with hundreds of IUU fishing vessels from the Dominican Republic.

Photo courtesy of the President of the Bahamas Fishery Union

Photo courtesy of the President of the Bahamas Fishery Union

In the early evening of July 1, we approached Anguilla Cays, an island chain off the southeast end of Cay Sal Bank, uninhabited Bahamian territory lying between Key West and Cuba. As we anchored for the evening, we could see a large vessel (150 to 175 feet long) moored with many small boats scattered to its south. At first we thought it was a military vessel, but as we got closer, we noticed it was a white-hulled commercial fishing vessel, and that there were 20 or more smaller vessels working the area.

As we got closer, we noticed it was a white-hulled commercial fishing vessel, and that there were 20+ smaller vessels working the area.

We were aware of the danger associated with poachers in the Bahamas, so we decided to steer around the dinghies in the area and give the mother ship a wide berth. As we steamed by, we saw a second dark-hulled vessel (100 to 125 feetlong) coming from the west end of Anguilla with about 20 dinghies in tow and dozens of men onboard. We decided to change our plan and keep motoring until we reached the lee of Cay Sal Island, where we anchored for the night.

Map courtesy of Ocean CREST Alliance

The next morning, we moved around to the east side of Cay Sal. We saw a dozen or so dinghies scattered around the south end of the island, apparently fishing the area, but we saw no support vessel. We anchored and launched our dinghy so we could circle the island, during which we confirmed that there was no mother ship nearby. We were alarmed to discover that the poachers had actually set up camp on the west side of uninhabited Cay Sal Island. By the number of fishing boats, we estimated that the camp supported 30 to 40 people.

We were both curious and a bit fearful for our safety when one of their dinghies passed close to our anchored vessel, but we waved them over to confirm what they were doing and who they were. The fishermen told us they were from the Dominican Republic and were camping on the cay. We asked them what they were catching and they held up lobster, and we could see lobster and fish of many varieties (including grouper, parrot fish and mutton snappers) scattered on the floor of the dinghy, as well as a large burlap bag full of fish. The fishermen smiled and tried to sell us some catch, which wasn’t appetizing, especially since the small fishing boats had no ice and the fish were already stiff from lying in the sun.

Photo by John McMahon

Photo by John McMahon

We left at nightfall for Key West. We would have stayed longer but were uncomfortable with the poachers in the area. The presence of these IUU fishermen in Bahamian waters is not only destroying fisheries and marine habitat, but it’s also a deterrent to cruising vessels of the Bahamas, affecting the largest economy in the islands — tourism. We’ve heard reports that other cruisers have also altered their plans to stay out of the path of poachers.

It’s apparent that these illegal fishing vessels are operating without concern for being caught. They feel free to anchor in Bahamian waters and leave men to camp on the uninhabited islands without a support boat closer than fifty miles away. We estimated each mini-fleet included a mother ship, 100 dinghies and 200 men, literally stripping the area clean of fish.

We estimated each mini-fleet included a mother ship, 100 dinghies and 200 men, literally stripping the area clean of fish.

The scale of the problem is well documented with credible evidence from legitimate Bahamian fishermen. A typical foreign poaching vessel is 65 to 100 feet long, each supported by 20 to 30 small dinghies, and in the past few years we are seeing even larger vessels approaching 200 feet with 50 or more dinghies. Divers operate from the dinghies using hookah rigs and spears, with many going below 90 feet, harvesting deep-water resources not legally fished by Bahamians.

According to a scientific report by the Bahamas Lobster Fisheries Improvement Project, poaching by commercial fishers from the Dominican Republic is the greatest threat to Bahamian seafood resources. The number of lobsters removed illegally from Bahamian waters by poachers was estimated at a staggering 35 percent (or 4.3 million) of the known export of 12.5 million lobsters from the Bahamas.

The report acknowledged as many as 65 foreign fishing vessels could be operating from northern Dominican ports, and lobsters are not the only species caught; conch, grouper, snapper and other fin fish are also taken, and each vessel can land more than 70,000 pounds of seafood per trip. In fact, tens of thousands of lobster tails are legally imported into the US from the Dominican Republic each year, although no commercially viable stocks of spiny lobster exist in Dominican waters. It seems clear where the lobsters are coming from — the waters of the Bahamian Reefs Hope Spot.

Joseph Ierna Jr. is the executive director of the Ocean CREST Alliance. To learn more about hope spots, read the Mission Blue blog. The upcoming documentary film Mission Blue premieres August 15 on Netflix.

Featured image via iStock. 

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About Joseph Ierna Jr.

Joseph Ierna Jr. is the executive director of the Ocean Crest Alliance.

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