The Belle Garden Fish Market building now stands as a "white elephant" in Tobago.Local fishermen have witnessed construction of the Belle Garden Fishing Bay in Tobago up until its completion in 2008. However, eight years after, the building is yet to be officially opened.
Speaking in an interview, president of the Belle Garden Fisherfolk Association, Frederick Roberts, 56, said since the completion of the building they have changed several air conditioning units and have also done ceiling repairs and other infrastructural repairs."The building already cost maybe one million dollars or more to build, and now they are only doing repairs and not even opening it for the fishermen to use. The costs keep going up," he said.
A cheaper brand of ice machine was placed at the facility and that too, he said, was in dire need of repair."You could imagine if the facility was up and running. It ain't even open yet for us to use but so many things going wrong already. There is no proper storage and locker facilities. No proper vending area. The floors are also built on one level so that there would be a run-off to wash down the area, have it sanitised, nothing..."He added that the facility also lacked a preparation room for the fish before sale.
There is also low voltage in the building. "There is no proper lighting in and around the building and it poses a serious security threat. Men are losing their brand new boat engines. It had a street light once upon a time here but they removed that. So at night the place is pitch black and of course, it welcomes the way for all sorts of illicit activities."So, therefore, it had no plan for the construction of this building. We had a plan for it but our plans as never used."
Roberts explained that the Tobago House of Assembly was supposed to work along with the association on the construction of the building however, he claimed thatthe THA took over completely. He said he was also barred from coming near the premises. "I don't know exactly why they didn't want me around, but I know I am a person that would not stand for any nonsense."
Roberts said he has been in the fishing industry for over 40 years but it seemed the industry was dying and there are no signs of reviving and developing the industry. Roberts is now forced to take up a second trade, carpentry.Fishermen in Tobago are fed up of having to operate in dilapidated facilities and are weary of lodging complaints to the relevant authorities.
At Courland Bay, fisherman Roland Adams, 55, said he was hoping to see the day when their cries for help fall in the right ears. He explained that in Plymouth, the entire place is in dire need of repairs, "They promised us 15 years ago to fix the building. Then they promised to lease it to us for us to fix for ourself, but nothing yet. We still waiting and while we wait, the place is worsening."
Adams disclosed that for the past ten years they have no jetty to operate from and no slip way. "This makes it even more hard for us to work under. The jetty falling apart, it's very unsafe for us. No place for us to bring up our boats for repairs or otherwise. Men losing boats when there are rough seas also."
Adams explained the hardship fishermen face to get what they are entitled to: "We are entitled to two boat engines but now they fighting us down saying we could only have one. There are no subsidies for us to purchase our engines. We cannot afford a good engine."Even to purchase a transport vehicle for our fish we must own three fishing boats all at once for us to get the Value Added Tax (VAT) off, which is unfair. There should be a VAT-free system for us."
Another fisherman Elia Edwards, 66, said they have been promised about 75 new boats equipped with fish finders and about 150 GPS ready but still nothing. "Too much promises."
Scarborough fisherman, Ternel Woods, 44, owns a mother boat, which is a fishing boat used to go out into the ocean for days. He explained that one of the major problems he and others like him are faced with is a limitation of gas for the boats. "Our boats take about 300 litres and more because we have to stock up, also given the fact that we are out there for sometimes a week or two. Now they telling us we could only get 100 litres. That is totally unfair for us."
Woods also spoke of the deplorable conditions at the bay, highlighting no proper slip way and cranes to lift the boats out to dry dock. "If our boats need to be repaired we have to go all the way to Trinidad. Why not have the proper facilities here. Tobago is a major fishing island and for us to be suffering like this really not worth it? We find pride in our work, why can't the relevant authorities find pride in us and make us comfortable?"
This afternoon (Sunday) at 4.30 pm, thousands of fishermen will gather at the Canaan Community Centre to vent their frustrations and work on a strategy on a way forward.