The popular Store Bay beach in Tobago was again empty as citizens stayed away due to the COVID-19 restrictions. The island’s tourism sector is taking a major hit due to the measures put in place for the virus.

Fisherfolk across Tobago are being assured that it is legal to ply their trade, after the Division of Food Production, Forestry and Fishing reiterated that commercial fishing, vending of catch and fishing-related activities are legal despite the COVID-19 rollback measures.

A release from the division dated September 1 stated that such activities are not restricted at this time, as commercial fishing does not violate “Regulation (4) (a) which makes it an offence for any person to be found in or at any beach, bay, river, pond of spring.”

The need for clarification arose after a fisherman was arrested in late August for breaching the public health ordinance in Tobago.

All Tobago Fisherfolk Association (ATFA) vice president Curtis Douglas had said the individual in question was performing part of his job as a fisherman at the time.

“The fisherman would have observed that his vessel had taken in a significant amount of water due to the heavy rain and bad weather. In order to prevent the vessel from sinking, he had to go out to sea and bail the vessel, and we understand that it was while swimming back to land he was arrested.”

The fisherman has since appeared in virtual court, pleaded not guilty to the charge and was granted bail in the sum of $5,000.

Commenting on the latest information from the THA, Douglas the latest news had put many fisherfolk at ease.

“This is what should have been done in the first place and the authorities need to be mindful because the things they take for granted affect homes and families. It seems to me like they didn’t understand the role and function of fishermen, especially in Tobago.”

He said following the incident, they tried to reach out to the authorities for clarification as they see themselves as part of the list of “essential service providers and it would be impossible to fish without getting into the water.”

He add that it appears that fisherfolk in Tobago were placed at a disadvantage when compared to their colleagues in Trinidad, since fishermen in Trinidad have never had to “be fearful earning a living” while since the incident had happened on the island, Tobago’s fishermen have had to be cautious.

“They took their sweet time to respond to the livelihoods of fishermen, more than the sweet time to respond to the livelihoods of the fishermen in Tobago. Even the Chief Secretary took more than his sweet time—no one stood up for us, not him or the two representatives, and this is what we speak of when we say no representation.”

The THA release clarifying the regulations for fisherfolk also went on to state that it is also an offence for any vessel being operated in the waters of Trinidad and Tobago to be rafted up or roped together to form a raft-like structure “without reasonable excuse.”

But Douglas said he still thinks the release could be more specific.

“This is where the problem lies, sometimes I think they don’t consult with fishermen when they develop these laws because to me, this means if I see another fisherman in problems at sea and give him a tow to land, again this is subject to police interpretation and understanding.”

According to Douglas, generally, fishermen are happy to be finally given full clearance and they will continue to operate with the COVID-19 guidelines of wearing masks and going out to sea in small numbers.