If we are going to restructure the Barbadian economy successfully, a radical change in attitudes and government policy in the areas of agriculture and fisheries is required.
The objective of this article is to educate readers to the point where we can agree on the origin and nature of our fisheries problem. The next step will be to focus on a solution.
Since the abolition of slavery, the peoples of Barbados, Trinidad & Tobago (T&T), and Guyana, for the most part descendants of slaves and indentured servants, have enjoyed a close and peaceful relationship. The functional co-operation among these three CARICOM states reached its height in the mid-1970’s under Prime Ministers Errol Barrow, Dr. Eric Williams, and Forbes Burnham.
However, considerations related to fish, oil, and natural gas began to creep into Barbados – T&T economic and political relations, and by 1976, the two countries started to engage each other in a series of meetings to deal with these and other matters.
Around this time, Barbados gained a technological foothold in the area of long-range fishing through the introduction of ice boats which provided Barbadian fishermen with the ability to fish in waters ranging from about 60 to 150 nautical miles off Barbados. Naturally, Barbadian ice boats started to pursue the migratory flying fish to the ‘high seas’, as they were called back then, off Tobago.
In February 1978, the Tom Adams administration passed the Marine Boundaries & Jurisdiction Act. This Act gave Barbados the right, as a coastal state, to an economic Exclusive Zone (EEZ) of 200 miles, and an extended continental shelf of up to 350 nautical miles.
On April 30, 1979 the Tom Adams administration signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the government of T&T on matters of co-operation including fish, oil, and natural gas exploration.
In 1982, a constitution for the world’s seas and oceans – the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) was adopted into existence. Barbados and T&T became signatories. However, it would not be until 1994 that UNCLOS would become functional.
Based on these chronological developments, the government of T&T recognized that it had some legal and regulatory catching up to do. In 1986, it responded with the Archipelagic Waters & Exclusive Economic Zone Act. As an archipelagic state, T&T had a right to also claim its 12-mile territorial waters, its 200 mile EEZ, and its extended continental shelf of up to 350 nautical miles.
T&T’s response in 1986 to the 1978 maritime legislation of Barbados instantly created a situation where the waters off Tobago could no longer be viewed as the ‘high seas’, since they were now part of the EEZ of T&T. The less than 200 miles of overlapping waters between Barbados and T&T would now have to be divided based on fairness and common sense.
1986 and the years immediately thereafter presented an excellent opportunity for Barbados and T&T, two important players in the Caribbean regional integration movement, and both signatories to UNCLOS, to demonstrate political and economic maturity by agreeing on two basic principles:
The equidistant (median) line between the two countries should act as the limit of their respective EEZ.
Since the migratory stock of flying fish occurs within the EEZ of both countries, both of them should quickly seek to agree upon the measures necessary to ensure the conservation and development of flying fish. In short, they should come up with a mutually beneficial fishing agreement.
Barbados agreed to the median line principle. Tragically, T&T did not. T&T in essence stated that it reserved the right to use special considerations and circumstances to get more marine territory than Barbados if they could find a way to do so.
Typical for small island states, a situation that cried out for functional co-operation soon degenerated into senseless conflict. As quickly as 1988, the T&T coastguard started arresting Barbadian fishermen for illegally fishing in T&T’s EEZ. With the arrests and detention of Barbadian fishermen becoming a domestic political issue, and, with the 1991 General Elections just around the corner, the Sandiford Administration had to find a way to diffuse the tension. It reacted out of narrow political self-interest and negotiated a fishing agreement with the government of T&T on November 23, 1990.
From a Barbadian perspective, the 1990 Fishing agreement with T&T was simply a bad one. Thankfully, since it was merely intended to assist Sandiford in getting past the 1991 General Elections, it was effective for the 1991 calendar year only. Basically, it allowed a maximum of only 40 Barbadian boats at a fee of US$ 800 per boat, to each make a maximum of 5 trips per fishing season. Not surprisingly, the T&T government used the agreement to get the Barbados government to authorize the potential importation of up to 300 metric tonnes of fish from T&T. Like most cases involving trade and business between these two countries, the Trinidadians used the agreement to set up Barbados as an export market for their fish, whilst giving Barbados very little in return.
The economic uselessness of this agreement to Barbadian fishermen was manifested by the fact that, at the end of 1991, only 5 Barbadian boats had taken up the offer. In November 1991, the Sandiford administration approached the T&T government with proposals for a new fishing agreement. Rather than consider any new proposals, the T&T government gleefully informed the Sandiford administration that it was willing to renew the 1990 agreement for another year. This time, PM Sandiford, having been returned to power by Barbadian voters, rejected a renewal of the 1990 agreement out of hand. It had already served its purpose, for him.
In March 2002, after an extended pause in their discussions, fishing negotiations between Barbados and T&T resumed. In 2003, the Owen Arthur administration dismissed the T&T proposals for a new fishing agreement as “simply unacceptable”. Throughout the negotiations, though, Barbados’ attitude and stance had assumed a noticeably strident posture. Thinly veiled threats of retaliatory measures in the area of trade were aimed at T&T to induce them to sign a fishing agreement that was favorable to Barbados. There was a reason for this.
By the end of 2003, PM Arthur, Attorney General Mottley, and the Minister responsible for fisheries, had a sacred responsibility to make Barbadians and Barbadian fisher folk aware of the following facts:
Under UNCLOS, Barbados and T&T had their respective EEZs as defined by the median line. Barbados had agreed to the median line concept.
The T&T government, similarly to the Barbadian government, had the exclusive right to the fish and other resources within its EEZ.
There was no existing fishing agreement between Barbados and T&T. Consequently, it was the responsibility of every Barbadian fishing vessel to refrain from fishing in the EEZ of T&T until an agreement had been signed between the two countries.
Not one of these government officials adopted such a judicious approach to solving the problem. Rather than responsibly advising Barbadian fishermen to respect the exclusive right of T&T over its EEZ, Mia Mottley urged them to break T&T’s laws by continuing to fish where they had fished before.
Behind the scenes, the Arthur administration had already concluded that T&T had compromised and prejudiced the maritime claims and interests of Barbados and Guyana when it signed a delimitation treaty with Venezuela back in 1990. If this accusation could be supported by a tribunal ruling under UNCLOS, then, at T&T’s expense, Barbados could gain ownership rights to some additional maritime sea beds on its continental shelf. Here, there was a high probability of finding oil and natural gas.
From here on, the real strategy behind Barbados’ discussions with T&T would be focused, not on fishing, but on oil and natural gas. As Mia Mottley quipped, the dispute had now gone “farther than where flying fish swim.”
The 1990 delimitation treaty that T&T signed with Venezuela had nothing to do with the overlapping waters between Barbados and T&T where the flying fish roam. Remember, as far as these waters were concerned, Barbados had already accepted T&T’s EEZ based on the median line.
With their gaze now fixed on the possibility of ultimately acquiring oil and natural gas, and unbeknownst to the Barbadian populace, PM Arthur, Attorney General Mottley, and the minister responsible for fisheries, along with others, concocted a scheme which involved the use of Barbadian fishermen as pawns in a political game that had nothing to do with fishing. Our fishermen were now being used as bait in a charade aimed at demonstrating that their ‘traditional’ rights to fish off Tobago were being hampered by repeated arrests at the hands of the T&T coastguard. “Why was this tactic important?” you might ask.
The answer is, that in addition to being blessed with flying fish, the overlapping waters between Barbados and T&T have oil and a proven supply of 73.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Alas, mostly all of whatever is valuable seems to lie within the EEZ of T&T.
With the Barbadian economy sputtering in the background, the Arthur administration decided to manufacture a case for special considerations and rights which they wanted the UNCLOS arbitral tribunal to consider. The case was built upon the following feeble and false claims:
Barbadian fishermen had fished in the waters off Tobago for centuries and this practice had established a traditional right for them to continue to access these waters.
Because of the importance of flying fish to the Barbadian diet, a lack of access to the waters off Tobago would be catastrophic to Barbadians and the Barbadian economy.
To safeguard these traditional rights forever, the median line should be shifted so that the EEZ of Barbados would be extended outwards to the waters just off Tobago.
Despite the talks, negotiations, and threats, the T&T coastguard arrested two Barbadian fishermen on February 6, 2004. T&T had now arrested 18 Barbadian fishermen since UNCLOS became functional in 1994, so, as far as the Owen Arthur administration was concerned, the trap had now been sprung. Ten days later, in a move that shocked the government of T&T, Barbados took the flying fishing issue, along with the delimitation issue related to the 1990 T&T -Venezuela treaty, to an arbitral tribunal under UNCLOS.
On April 11, 2006, the tribunal handed down its decision. With respect to fishing:
The tribunal observed that Barbados could not produce a boat or fisherman that had fished in the waters off Tobago before ice boats came on the scene in the late 1970’s. In dismissing claim #1, the tribunal reminded Barbados that a period of time ranging from the 1970’s to 2004 does not add up to centuries.
In dismissing claim #2, the tribunal noted that Barbadian fishermen had not been legally able to fish in Tobago’s waters since 1991, and neither the Barbadian people nor the economy had experienced a catastrophe.
In dismissing claim #3, the tribunal argued that even if the Barbadian fishermen had a traditional right, such a right would be subordinate to T&T’s exclusive and sovereign right. Thus, there was no need to shift the median line.
Finally, stressing that it had no authority to make an award establishing the right of Barbadian fishermen to access the flying fish in T&T’s EEZ, the tribunal urged the two CARICOM neighbours to use common sense and produce a bi-lateral agreement. Yet, it cautioned T&T that it had an obligation to negotiate a good faith agreement with Barbados so that Barbadian fishermen can access fish within T&T’s EEZ. After 2006, the Owen Arthur administration concentrated its attention on oil and natural gas.
Emerging triumphantly from the 2008 general elections, David Thompson spitefully banished Dennis Kellman from his cabinet. As part of his ‘punishment’, Kellman was ‘burdened’ with the ambassadorial responsibility of negotiating a fishing agreement with the government of T&T, on behalf of Barbados.
In 2009, when asked about what progress he had made, a defiant Kellman told Barbadians that he had no interest whatsoever in producing a fishing agreement. By the time his banishment was lifted and he was invited into the cabinet by PM Stuart, Kellman had kept his promise not to pursue the delivery of a fishing agreement. At the same time, his strategy had played right into the hands of the Trinidadians who were quite contented to let time pass aimlessly by without having to produce an agreement.
In July 2013, when asked about what progress had been made with the T&T fishing agreement, Prime Minister Freundel Stuart betrayed very little emotion and energy on the issue. He simply told Barbadians that the negotiations are still going on.
Although the UNCLOS arbitral tribunal had threatened T&T with possible consequences if a fishing agreement was not concluded expeditiously, today, almost eight years later, no agreement has emerged. Evidently, on both sides, the needs of Barbadian fishermen are not viewed with any sense of empathy, urgency or seriousness. Simply put, our fishermen have been used and discarded, whilst the politicians have opened up a new game of chasing the money related to the oil bidding process.