March 7 ,2021
-TNM says process should have been transparent, calls for probe
Declaring the approval last year of two new trawler licences in the seabob operation as an “act of corruption” under the Ministry of Agriculture, Chairman of A New and United Guyana (ANUG), Timothy Jonas says every effort should have already been made to correct the transgression given its implications for the trade.
“It is only possible that this is an act of corruption. Whether it is on a personal level where someone got a kickback or at a party level where a member was rewarded for their support, no one knows,” Jonas said as he added his party’s voice to the controversy over the secret issuance of the trawler licences which is still to be resolved.
According to Jonas, the PPP/C government has been circling the wagons but has failed to provide a clear rationale for the approval the licences. He stated that from this position, it is obvious that the government has no intention of correcting the matter.
The Ministry of Agriculture and Minister Zulfikar Mustapha have come under intense pressure over what has been seen as an opaque process that only came to light when exposed by the Guyana Association of Trawler Owners and Seafood Processors (GATOSP) in November last year. The licences were issued to a remigrant Guyanese, Rampersaud Sookdheo, who claims to have been in the fishing industry for the past 20 years and having worked in the Trinidadian fisheries sector.
Emphasising the fact that an earlier decision had been taken to reduce the number of trawler licences and trawlers operating in the trade to make it sustainable and prevent overfishing, Jonas told Sunday Stabroek that the approval of new licences “can’t be good for the industry” as it breaches the sustainable policy agreement.
He went on to state that questions still remain over the identity and credibility of the licences holder.
“It doesn’t help that no one knows this person in the fishing industry and we haven’t even seen the trawlers owned by this man to justify that he had operations in Trinidad,” Jonas added.
Meanwhile, the leader of another opposition party, The New Movement (TNM), Dr Asha Kissoon told Sunday Stabroek that the approval of the licences should have been done in transparent manner. She said that it has always been the position of her party that every deal signed, licence issued, tender awarded among other matters should be made public and done with transparency.
“There should be some investigation [to justify what was done]. It should have never been a secret deal. It is on this same basis the PPP failed (in the past) and it seems as if it is the same practices they are returning with. We urge them to fix it,” she declared.
She pointed out that while her party has not objected in writing towards the approval of the licences, it has been its position in public forums to speak out against not only this secret deal but others.
Kissoon added that the party will at some point seek to engage Minister Mustapha and register its concern over the breaches in the issuance of the licences.
The parties of Jonas and Kissoon along with the Liberty and Justice Party (LJP) hold one list joinder seat in parliament and will take turns at sharing the seat. LJP presently holds the seat and is represented by its leader Lenox Shuman. He is also the Deputy Speaker of the House having been voted into that position by PPP/C MPs.
When approached for a comment on Thursday on the trawler licences, Shuman told Sunday Stabroek that he could not comment as he hadn’t been following the matter. He said he will be available to comment after the budget estimates and after he takes some time to review and study the information that is available in the public.
Meanwhile, Director General at the Ministry of Agriculture Madanlall Ramraj on Thursday told the Sunday Stabroek that the committee set up to review matters surrounding the licences is still to meet. The committee also includes representation from GATOSP. He explained that due to the budget deliberations, they were busy and unable to meet. He has, nonetheless, committed to meeting shortly.
In its November, 2020 letter to the Minister, GATOSP had said that the addition of any vessel to the current licensing agreements is in contravention of the pact that it and the Fisheries Department of the ministry had agreed to.
Given the implications, the WWF Guianas’ local office had also written to Mustapha seeking clarification on the context in which the licences were granted.
“…We would be grateful if you can provide any information you may have in relation to this matter,” Aiesha Williams, Guyana Country Manager for the WWF Guianas, wrote in the December 11 letter, saying there was need to better understand the context in which the licences were issued.
Williams also expressed concern over the reported issuance of the new licences in a manner that could have “deep implications” for the country’s ability to maintain its Maritime Stewardship Council (MSC) certification over the seabob trade.
Guyana holds the position as the number one exporter of seabob shrimp. In 2019, almost 21,000 metric tonnes were exported, versus 2018 when 22,000 metric tonnes were exported.
Mustapha during an interview with this newspaper had stated that that approval of the new licences does not breach the quota of vessels that can operate nor does it threaten the international certification of the trade.
He justified the approval by stating that several licences are inactive and the current number of trawlers operating does not exceed 80, while emphasising that it does not go against the agreement in place with GATOSP and international partners. He has however not explained the process by which Sookhdeo was able to acquire the two licences.
According to the extant agreement with GATOSP, no more than 87 vessels should be operating in the industry.
Sookhdeo has been regarded as a mystery to persons in the fisheries sector here and in Trinidad and Tobago, where he said he had an established business under the name of Hassid Enterprise Limited. A Google search of the enterprise’s name came up empty. The Ministry had previously rendered the name of the company as Haseed Enterprise.
Defending his right to the licences, in a statement he issued through the Ministry of Agriculture, Sookhdeo questioned why as a Guyanese who wanted to invest here he has been subjected to such scrutiny when he is a seasoned fisherman who is familiar with the industry. He says he has owned and operated long liner boats, Red Snapper cage boats and shrimp trawlers.
Sookhdeo in the statement had said that when he migrated to Trinidad, he partnered with an “old friend” and that birthed Hassid Enterprises Limited, which has been in existence for approximately 15 years.
Upon his return to Guyana due to challenges in the Trinidad and Tobago fishing sector, he said he approached the government for assistance and made an application for trawler licences as he had already had the required vessels for the trade.
“Boats deteriorate fast because of the salt air. If you park up your boat for about two years, you’d be lucky if you get something out of it. That is why I turn to the government for help. I made an application and I went through the process,” Sookhdeo explained as he sought to provide clarity on the licensing issue.
It is this application process that GATOSP has a problem with as it says it was not consulted despite the existence of an agreement between it and the ministry.