Fishermen say they are disappointed in last week’s vote against a private member’s motion in Parliament calling for the compulsory acquisition of a piece of land, along North Church Street, in George Town, which is being used as a fish market.
The motion, entitled ‘Protection of the Marine Environment and Shoreline’, was moved by Opposition Leader Arden McLean. It called for government to forcibly purchase the land, known as Red Spot Bay, from its current owner, Chris Johnson, to end his ongoing dispute with the fishermen.
In a writ filed last month, Johnson called on the court to declare him the sole owner of the property, and to bar the fishermen from using it.
However, the fishermen say they have no intention of leaving the site.
“All my life I have seen people fish there,” said McLean, as he made his case for the motion in Parliament on Thursday, 10 Dec.
“…[W]hen a property has such cultural value to a country, such cultural significance to a country, I believe that the government should at the very least try to secure that so that it can be kept in perpetuity for generations and generations to come”, he said.
The motion failed after 11 members from the government benches voted against it.
“Some of these politicians are not looking out for the Caymanians,” said fisherman Robert Prendergast. “How could they vote against the bill, when they know that we need it to continue making our livelihood?”
Minister Joseph Hew, who voted against the motion, told the Cayman Compass that since 2018 he has served as a mediator between the fishermen and Johnson, and that the motion was not the ideal option.
“If we went down the route of compulsory acquisition, then Mr. Johnson could take it to the courts,” Hew told a handful of fishermen during an impromptu meeting by the fish market.
Hew cited previous legal challenges involving government acquisition of land, noting those have gone on for years.
“We tried to forcibly acquire the horse stables on the Linford Pierson Highway, and was met with a legal challenge; that was 12 years ago and we are still engaged in that legal battle,” said Hew.
“We tried to forcibly acquire an easement that was being used on Lisa Lane in West Bay to build a road, and was met with another legal challenge more than a year ago and that challenge is still ongoing.”
“[Johnson] wants to put that land into a trust for the purpose of the people of the Cayman Islands in perpetuity,” said Hew.
This would result in the creation of a seaside park at the current location.
Under an initial agreement between Johnson and the government, the fishermen would have relocated to the other side of the parcel, a few hundred feet away, to a narrow stretch of ironshore, with Johnson retaining ownership of the property. However, the fishermen baulked at that proposal.
“I cannot believe that my offer would be turned down to accommodate a few individuals selling suspect fish,” Johnson told the Cayman Compass. “The intention is to enable people to go swimming without the obstacle of the dangerous illegally constructed fish market.”
The only options that remain are for Johnson to sell the land or for government to forcibly acquire the site.
“We want the government to forcibly take the land,” said Prendergast, who has sold fish at the market for more than two decades. “This was never the desired option, because we don’t want to take Mr. Johnson’s land, we just want to use it.
“But since he won’t sell and he won’t let us stay, then we need the government to take it by force,” he added.
“I know that if we go to the courts this could take years,” said Christopher Moore, another fisherman who uses the spot. “I would rather that and still be able to use it while it is still before the courts than to lose it all together.”
Johnson said any attempts to take his land would be met with swift legal action.
“Clearly this is just a politician vote campaign,” said Johnson. “I will certainly appeal any seizure of the land and take the matter all the way to the Privy Council. This makes no sense to anyone.”
He added, “I have been extremely reasonable about this matter and amazed that the fishermen are not now accepting my proposal.”
Hew said he remains hopeful that the government will be able to arrive at “an amicable solution for all the parties”.