Fighting for our fish
When you think about multibillion dollar, transnational crime, fishing may not come to mind.
But global estimates place economic loss from fish poaching — in which vessels snatch up their catch without authorisation — at US$9 billion ($800 billion) a year.
For the Caribbean, the impact is not well documented, but it definitely costs tens of millions of US dollars annually, according to Milton Haughton.
"Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing is among the top priority activities going back some years," said the Caribbean Regional Fisheries Mechanism (CRFM) executive director.
The catch from illegal fishers often makes it more difficult for legitimate players to compete as it is dumped in the market. But the poachers pay no attention to conservation measures.
"IUU fishing is taking out of sustainable levels of fish stock," said Haughton. "These all translate into losses."
Punishment for the offence may not be high enough to deter criminals from engaging in the activity. "In Jamaica, penalties are extremely low." Jurisdictions with higher penalties had less IUU activity, Haughton told the Jamaica Observer.
Caricom countries signed an agreement two years ago, called the Castries (St Lucia) Declaration for short, to focus on tackling the problem as a collective.
"Member states (are) to cooperate in the implementation of harmonised minimum terms and conditions of access to monitor, control and conduct surveillance of fisheries resources," the agreement said.
Nations in the trade group also commenced exchanging information on vessels registered to fly their flags in an effort to weed out those that aren't suppose to fish from regional waters.
On Tuesday, the group took a bigger step towards achieving its goal.
The CRFM brought Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Panama into its fight, through an agreement signed in Belize with the Central America Fisheries and Aquaculture Organisation (Spanish acronym OSPESCA).
"It is the first time that Central America and Caricom have come together on this matter," said Haughton.
Apart from eradicating IUU through stronger monitoring and information exchange, the Belize Declaration focuses on developing aquaculture in the region. It also aims to improve conservation and management of transboundary species, such as migratory pelagic fish stocks (including tuna) and spiny lobster.
"The long-term objective of the partnership between the CRFM and OPSESCA is to secure a brighter and more prosperous future for our fishing communities that rely on the marine resources for their livelihoods," said Haughton. "It should also ensure that the fish stocks are able, through prudent management, to make enhanced contribution to the social and economic development of our countries now and in the future."
The region is far behind the rest of the world on aquaculture by his reckoning. He estimates that almost 50 per cent of total fish stock consumed outside the region is from farmed fish (marine and inland).
"Less than five per cent of fish comes from aquacultue in the region," he said.
But increased economic activity from fisheries doesn't necessarily have to come from investment in farming or protecting fishing zones.
Markets can be created for species that are edible (and tasty) but are not traditionally eaten.
For example, Belize is said to have hundreds of species in its waters, but local consumers are accustomed to only a few, such as lobster, conch, snapper and grouper.
"We know about flying fish (a delicacy in Barbados). Did you know there is flying fish in Jamaica?" asked Haughton, rhetorically.
More recently, an invasive species, the Pacific lionfish, has been ending up on more and more dinner plates in the Caribbean. It is also being targeted for control under the Belize Declaration.
"That is one specie that fishers have a licence to over fish," added Haughton.