Foreigners reeling in profits from Jamaica's fishing waters
Camilo Thame, Business Reporter
More than two decades after the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea gave Jamaica a 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the waters south of the island, it is foreigners, rather than Jamaicans, who are reeling in the catch of nearly J$50 billion a year, by some estimates.
And as these vessels, from neighbouring countries as far away as Japan and South Korea in Asia, reap this benefit, more and more Jamaican fishermen chase fewer and fewer fish, mostly in coastal waters, for a national industry worth about $6.6 billion a year, or merely a sixth of what the foreigners take away.
Critics complain of a lack of Government action to deal significantly with the problem and the absence of a coherent policy to help Jamaicans exploit its lucrative sea resources.
"We allow foreign vessels to come into our EEZ and fish," laments Roderick Francis, owner of the conch fishing outfit, B&D Trawling. "But we don't take advantage of the opportunity."
Francis explains that the foreign ships anchor within Jamaica's EEZ for months at a time, sometimes for a year or more at a stretch, fishing large catch such as tuna and grouper. These big trawlers feed smaller vessels with their catch, which, in turn, resupply the 'mother ships'.
Limited policing capacity
Part of the issue, Financial Gleaner sources say, is that no entrepreneur has yet invested in a fleet of the size to compete with the kind of factory ships that poach in Jamaica's EEZ. At the same time, Jamaica does not have the capacity to seriously police its waters.
In fact, this is not a problem that is uniquely Jamaican, but one apparently faced by its partners in the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), suggests a recent report by a regional fishing oversight body, the Caribbean Regional Fisheries Mechanism (CFRM).
"The extension of the territorial sea up to 12 nautical miles and the EEZ up to 200 nautical miles, made possible by UNCLOS, has increased the incidence of violation of the jurisdiction of Caricom states by their neighbouring states and territories, and also by distant fishing fleets from countries such as South Korea and Japan," this report says.
Indeed, the need for Jamaica to come to grips with this issue as part of its wider national security concern is highlighted in a national security strategy report that was published earlier this year.
"In order to maintain territorial integrity, it is essential that Jamaica has a capability to undertake regular surveillance of the EEZ by air and sea to detect vessels and aircraft, and to monitor and control their use of the air and sea space," the report advises. "This should include the necessary regulatory framework to allow for effective enforcement of all laws, including the Customs Act, Fisheries Act and the maritime environmental protection laws."
The area that Jamaica would have to police, if it is to seriously fulfil these obligations is approximately 89,000 square miles, much of it wide open sea, but including 15,171 square miles that are part of a joint regime under a 1993 delimitation pact with Colombia.
This is a serious task for a country whose coast guard has only a handful of boats and a primary focus on drug smugglers and gun runners. Moreover, the authorities even have difficulty keeping order among the growing numbers of near-shore fishermen who scramble to make a living in an environment where the catch has been declining for years.
Indeed, in the 2004/2005 fiscal year, government figures show the marine fish harvest declined 11.6 per cent to just under 8,400 tonnes. Yet more fishermen, according to Havelan Honeyghan, head of the Jamaica Fisherman's Cooperative Union (JFCU), were chasing that lesser catch.
"Too many fishermen," Honeyghan complains. "(There are) about 40,000 fishermen (up from 25,000 a decade ago) and 9,000 boats - so there are more fishermen, less fish."
By Honeyghan's reckoning, making a fish trap, finding a boat and going to sea is seen as an easy option for people who lose their jobs.
"When redundancy takes place, the first place these people look to is the fishing industry," he says. "Low capital, low skill, and for some unscrupulous individuals attracts them for the drug trade."
Tourism contributes to fishing decline
At the same time, he says, the growing tourism industry, which ought to be a benefit to the industry, is, paradoxically, a contributor to the decline of coastal fishing.
"The development of hotels and tourist resorts across the country has helped to destroy the wetlands," he says. "The mangroves serve as a sanctuary and breeding ground for fish; the wetland protects reefs, so the reefs become barren."
Under the circumstance, the business is becoming increasingly marginal for the small players.
"Up to five years ago, 25 traps - fishing pots made from wire mesh - could catch maybe 400 pounds of fish out at Pedro Cays. Now maybe 200 traps can catch 200 pounds," Honeyghan explains.
Honeyghan wants the Government to develop a slate of reforms to ease the pressure, including protection of the marine area, proper licensing and tackling illegal external fishers, and the creation of employment-generating opportunities in coastal communities to draw away a portion of fishermen from the sea.
But it is not just the smaller operators who have felt the pinch. Even relatively substantial and specialised groups, like Francis' conch fishing firm, have had some hard knocks in recent years.
Indeed, a series of events in the in the mid to late 1990s squeezed out participants in this specialised area and has left a shell of what used to be a thriving sub-sector.
For example, between 1994 and 1997 conch exports totalled 5,809 metric tonnes, an average 1,936 tonnes a year, or more than half the 3,180 tonnes of seafood Jamaica exported in 1997. The export value that year was US$15.4 million. But by 2001 conch exports had slumped to 748 tonnes, valued at US$5.3 million, against total seafood export that year of 1,300 tonnes which earned US$11.5 million.
A series of legal fights between the major conch harvesters at the start of the decade over regulatory and other issues, as well as over-fishing and foreign poaching caused a near total collapse of the industry. By 2004, only 252 tonnes of conch were exported, valued at US$4.4 million, against total seafood exports of 970 tonnes from which the country earned US$6.7 million. By contrast, Jamaican fish imports - 28,000 tonnes, were valued at US$59 million.
The uncertainty, tighter regulation and reduction in the annual allowable catch for conch drove many players out of the sector, among them the Wisynco group of companies.
"We had a large processing facility that mostly produced conch for export, exporting 1.5 to two million pounds (680-900 tonnes) of conch annually during the mid- 1990s," says the group's CEO, William Mahfood. "Government brought in restrictions that disallowed the amount ... We had to shut down.
"It was unfortunate for an industry that could have been producing six million pounds of conch annually, today making revenue of a billion dollars."
Inland fisheries, often touted as the potential saviour of the fishing industry, has also faced difficult times.
Donnie Bunting, one of Jamaica's largest independent farmers and suppliers of fresh talapia to the local market, says there is a glut in the market, making it difficult to offload the product.
"Since August, farmers have seen a dramatic decline to around 30 to 50 per cent of normal sales," Bunting says. "Farmers have been lowering prices to undercut other players, but the middle man isn't passing on the saving to consumers. Wholesalers can buy less fish, maintain prices but get larger margins. Take less effort to offload the lower amounts of fish and make the same amount or more money."
Bunting also points to a peculiarity of the local market which demands fish ranging in size between 1/3 to ??? pounds.
This, he says, is "a premium product" sold at commodity prices.
Talapia can grow to four pounds as is done in Taiwan for processing, while the table market there requires fish weighing 1 1/2 to two pounds.
"It is feast and famine," added Bunting. "Like the pig industry, farmers come out when there is a period such as this one. But because the cycle takes nine to 12 months, the next season there is shortage, influencing farmers to get back into the continuing cycle."
Jamaican fish farmers, totalling about 50 full-time operations, produce approximately 300 tonnes monthly. These farms employ about 500 persons directly and involve another 250 wholesalers who onsell to another 1,500 vendors.
The average price of $130 per pound places the total earnings for the industry at close to $100 million a month or $1.2 billion a year.
Caribbean Mariculture Products Limited is another inland farm, but it grows pacific white shrimp.
According to project manager, Noel Thompson, the joint initiative between the Jamaica Agricultural Development Foundation (JADF) and the University of the West Indies (UWI), operates 145 acres of water area on a 220-acre spread of land located in Brampton, St. Catherine.
The venture was initially set up in 1995 as 20 acres of water area to demonstrate viability of inland shrimp farming, but was expanded to a commercial entity at the end of the 1990s, becoming profitable in 2001.
Disease hit shortly thereafter. The company spent the last two years recovering. Disease, ultimately, is not the major hurdle facing Caribbean Mariculture, which produces an average of 23 tonnes of shrimp monthly, mostly for sale to hotels and restaurants.
"It (the business) is not financially viable at current size," says Thompson. "Two hundred and fifty acres would be profitable. With the same staff complement and overhead costs could run a farm more than twice size."
But the area where the farm is located in the parish of St. Catherine was recently zoned as residential area, so Thompson has had to hold off plan for expansion. Relocation is a possibility.