A limit drastically curtailing lobster fishing licences just weeks before the season resumes has taken the community by surprise.
“It’s like a secret edict,” said longstanding fisherman Ted Gauntlett, about restrictions that would bar hundreds from a popular sport featured in the island’s online tourism guide.
Calling lobster fishing an “end-of-summer tradition”, Mr Gauntlett added: “Many will be incensed at the Government’s arbitrary removal of what we consider almost a rite of passage.”
To the consternation of amateur fishermen, a limit of 150 licences has been imposed on a sport normally granted more than 600 permits annually.
Licences cost $130 according to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources — meaning the new policy stands to put the Government around $60,000 out of pocket.
Fishermen expressed concern that an abrupt cutback with no rationale could encourage people to flout the law.
“I’m not aware of any concerns over the state of the lobster fishery,” Mr Gauntlett said. “Normally around 30,000 per annum are caught but sometimes it’s as high as 36,000.”
The great majority of the shellfish are taken by commercial fishermen, he added.
Like others, Mr Gauntlett got a rude awakening this month when fishermen headed to the department to pay their dues.
“We’re just going on rumour at the moment, but we believe it’s correct,” he said. “The cap is 150. That’s a huge 75 per cent reduction.”
An online petition has been started and Mr Gauntlett, who co-founded the Bermuda Amateur Lobster Catchers Association against past regulations, said the group might reform in protest.
Regulations are set by the marine resources board, while the department itself is now under the purview of Home Affairs.
In response to inquiries, a spokeswoman told The Royal Gazette that the ministry was “looking into the various factors that influence the licensing/relicensing of recreational lobster fishers, and will come to a decision once all aspects have been reviewed. The public will be informed once the decision is made.”
Stuart Joblin, who has had a licence to dive for spiny lobsters for 30 years, called it “frustrating to have this decision for something that is so loved”.
The owner of Makin’ Waves said he had already ordered stock for the season, having “no idea the goalposts had been completely repositioned”.
Mr Joblin discovered he was ineligible on the first business day of this month, when he went to restore his sports diving permit for the season starting on September 1.
Licence holders normally declare their takings — but this year’s requirements include a stipulation that holders submit their “returns” before the end of April.
On the Facebook site, BDA Lobster Divers Licence Petition, Mr Joblin said only the first 150 licence renewals were approved. Those who had never held a licence, or who failed to renew last season, would be declined.
“If there’s a reason, it’s nothing they have shared,” Mr Joblin said. “We ought to have been consulted on some level. It’s not like we have not fulfilled our obligations.”
He added: “We’re the guys who first noticed lionfish, who rescue turtles — it’s not a job; we’re out there because it’s something we love.”
The decision was “probably made under the previous administration”, Mr Joblin said.
Lobster season is keenly anticipated and lasts until March 31. Once little-regulated, it has been subject to a variety of rules, some of which proved unpopular. The Bermuda Amateur Lobster Catchers Association was formed in 1984 after commercial operations lobbied the Government to deny recreational fishing.
Mr Gauntlett said there had also been calls to limit fishing to Bermudians, which BALCA opposed.
Calling the latest move incomprehensible, he said: “If they are only now looking into the various factors, why have they already created a cap of 150?
“It sounds to me that BALCA should most urgently reawaken.”