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Monday, February 20, 2017

Twenty five years ago the Bahamas banned longliner fishing vessels—a prime cause of the unintentional by-catch of sharks—and took stewardship over its fisheries. In 2011 a shark sanctuary was declared when commercial shark fishing and all trade in shark meat and products prohibited. The reward is that after a quarter century of conservation and management, the Bahamas now has the largest shark dive industry in the world.

A new study in the journal Biological Conservation “The contemporary economic value of elasmobranchs in The Bahamas: Reaping the rewards of 25 years of stewardship and conservation” found that sharks and rays contribute US$114 million per year to the Bahamian economy through recreational shark diving.

Trinidad & Tobago chose a different path. Around the time that the Bahamas banned longlining in the 1990s, T&T sold the bankrupt National Fisheries Company to Taiwanese interests. The National Fisheries wharf in Sea Lots became a free zone for a fleet of Asian owned longliners which would eventually make Trinidad & Tobago the world’s sixth largest transshipment hub for shark fin to Hong Kong.

Industrial trawlers received subsidies that encouraged the destruction of the seabeds. Eventually T&T was prohibited from exporting shrimp to the United States because of the trawler owners’ refusal to use turtle-saving Turtle Exclusion Devices (TEDs). Artisanal fishers subsidised with cheap fuel and tax-free outboard engines, were left to fend for themselves in a largely unregulated fishing industry, epitomised by the tragedy of the commons.

In T&T tourists and locals don’t do much shark diving, but sharks are a mainstay of a faltering tourism product in the form of bake & shark. The sharks are no longer from T&T’s depleted fishery. The island’s largest seafood distributor, Trinidad Seafood Limited, can no longer supply demand from local fisheries so nearly everything it sells is imported, including the shark it supplies to the vendors at Maracas. Trinidad’s national seafood dish isn’t locally sourced, nor has it been for a long time. Each bite of a bake and shark means that the country loses the foreign exchange that is needed to import the shark from as far away as Fiji or South Africa.

Trinidad & Tobago can be the ecotourism destination of the Caribbean. Nowhere else in the Caribbean is so much biodiversity concentrated in such a small area. We also speak English, which gives us an advantage over Spanish speaking competitors such as Costa Rica. But we never pointed our nose towards conservation or tourism, so that is not the direction we took. Today we are one of the filthiest and most violent countries on earth. Tourism arrivals mirror all that is wrong and are the lowest they have been in a decade. It’s a result of the choices we made.

The great thing about choices, is that we can make new choices when the old ones no longer work. Sticking with marine conservation, Trinidad and Tobago boasts of great success with turtle conservation. Community based turtle protection NGOs in Grande Riviere, Matura, Fishing Pond and Las Cuevas have turned the tide on turtle extinction. From hunting turtles, communities now make a living protecting them. Nature Seekers in Matura attracts at least 14,000 visitors a year. Most of them are local.

How can we now take this type of conservation success and make it into a tourism dollar earner? We must brand T&T an ecotourism destination.

A brand is about commitment. It has to be convincing. Like the Bahamas decided a quarter of a century ago that it would protect its marine ecosystem and then made it real by becoming a shark sanctuary, that’s an effort tourists can believe in. Make T&T the greenest, guilt-free destination in the world. Guilt-free because nobody should have to worry about participating in tourism that damages nature or communities. No more endangered species on the menu. Make all new hotels, guesthouses and tourist facilities carbon neutral and plastic free —no disposable plastic bottles or bags allowed. Naturally they must all recycle. Legislate that all new taxis and buses be electric, and rental cars too—zero tailpipe emissions. Visitors are willing to pay for destinations that offer responsible tourism. Let’s offer green and guilt-free as our brand, but realise it will only work if we commit, and that means that we will must be the greenest, most guilt-free country on earth. You choice starts now.


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