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ATFA president Junior Quashie

Fishermen from both east and west Tobago are calling on the authorities to arbitrate on their behalf, after experiencing thousands of dollars worth of losses during the first week of a geoscientific survey being done by BHP Billiton off the coast of Tobago.

The fishermen say they were informed that the survey would be done on the southern coast of the island. But they claim the BHP Billiton fleet passed on the northern coast, causing several fishermen to flee to safety after finding themselves directly in the path of the exercise.

Company officials yesterday said damage claims are being investigated.

During a media conference yesterday, All Tobago Fisherfolk Association vice president Junior Quashie said they felt the company was being disingenuous.

“They sent out a navigational warning stating that the rig was supposed to leave Dragon Mouth in Port-of-Spain and pass south of Tobago and go up to east of Tobago. It did not, it came west and created a lot of damages to fishermen’s equipment, three boats in the fleet and a chase boat and we saw them.”

Several fishermen came forward to give personal accounts of their losses. One of them, Kemba Lawrence, said he has been a fisherman for 15 years and fishing is his only means of earning an income.

“I’ve lost at least eight fish pots and three fads (specially-designed submerged traps used to attract fish) and exactly where my fad was anchored, the ship passed in that direction. They are no longer there, I checked yesterday after seeing the ship pass in the areas earlier this week and I never had that problem before.”

Nigel Nichols, of the Crown Point area, said he lost seven fishing pots after the BHP Billiton fleet passed through the waters off the Caribbean Sea. He said the pots, which cost approximately $1,000 to construct, usually earn him $3,000 when he gets a complete haul.

“Day before yesterday when the rig passed up, I didn’t go to sea that day, so most of us sit down on the beach watch the boat pass up. Today I went out, I didn’t see any from the seven.”

Culloden fisherman Sheldon Cooper said he was devasted, as he lost 16 fishing pots. He said he saw the notice but he didn’t see the need to remove his equipment, as the survey was scheduled for another area and the notice made no mention of fishermen retrieving their equipment.

“This thing is crazy. Imagine being out in sea with a regular 25-foot fishing boat and then seeing this big 300-foot boat heading in your direction. All of my pots are gone and that is how I made a living – who do I complain to now? We begging, we crying, Lord, please help us.”

Guardian Media contacted Principal – Media Relations of BHP Billiton Judy Dane for a comment on the claims made by fishermen.

In a statement, Dane said, “On Wednesday, July 21, BHP received reports from fisherfolk about the possible loss of equipment involving a BHP contracted drillship and its supporting vessels offshore Trinidad and Tobago. The vessels were en route in preparation for an appraisal drilling campaign at the Bongos 3 and 4 deep-water wells. BHP is in the process of investigating the reports and will communicate with regulators and the fisherfolk about any necessary actions when the investigation is complete.”

Dane said BHP is committed to safe operations and the safety of people and the communities in which the company operates “always comes first.”