Tue | Aug 22, 2017

A marriage made in hell

Published:Friday | March 18, 2016 | 3:00 AM

The portfolios of agriculture and fisheries have been conjoined with industry and commerce into one ministry. Is this a wise move?

The logic of this configuration, as has been explained, is that agriculture and fisheries are industries and commercial activities, and, therefore, belong with the Ministry of Industry, Investment and Commerce. Using the same logic, tourism and mining and housing - also industrial and commercial activities - should fall under the one super-ministry. I suspect the real reason for the merger is to reduce the number of ministries and the size of the Cabinet, rather than any principle of commonality.

But, is this a good move? Will it lead to synergies and economic benefits?

First of all, it is a merger of the general and the specific. The vision of the industry, investment and commerce part of the ministry is general: "to foster the creation of innovative and internationally competitive enterprises in Jamaica by 2021", which includes all sectors in the economy. And then the other part of the ministry is to drive the specific sectors of agriculture and fisheries.

I don't know if this marriage of the general and the specific will be good for either.

The odd man out is fisheries, which makes a business out of hunting wild animals. I have had cause in previous columns over the last twenty years to point out that the conjoining of agriculture and fisheries into one ministry is a mismatch, bound to lead to the collapse of Jamaica's fish stock and the industry as a whole. This collapse is well under way, and placing fisheries in the same ministry with Industry, Investment and Commerce may well be the last nail in its coffin. Let me explain.

Hunting wild animals (like fish or birds) is a radically different activity from raising fish (e.g., aquaculture) and birds (e.g., the poultry industry), and they are governed by different economic laws and dynamics. The difference is comparable to that between managing natural old-growth forests (with their complex combination of plants and wildlife), and silviculture (the planting of forest plantations, usually one species at a time).

Agriculture, aquaculture and silviculture are similar in concept to Industry, Investment and Commerce: you can increase output by increasing land area under production, adding the other inputs like planting material (or fish fingerlings), fertilisers, water, etc. Just like in industry, you can increase factory space, add another production line, or put on another shift of workers. Your only issue, then, is marketing.

Take fishing now, what must you do if you want to catch more fish? Using the 'Industry, Investment and Commerce' approach you would employ more boats and equip them with more precise sonar fish-finders; you would set more fish pots with smaller mesh size; use more nets with smaller mesh; send out more divers with spearguns and with more sophisticated SCUBA and hooka gear.

Pretty soon, what you will find is that you have depleted the stocks of fish, lobster and conch and that some of the species (like snapper and grouper) become only a memory. This is precisely what we have done to our fisheries inshore, and we are doing it offshore on the Morant and Pedro Banks, and now we want to rape the oceans further afield.

Just send out more hunters more days of the year, and there will be few birds left.

It is the marine environment (coral reefs, mangroves and seagrass beds) - fish habitat - that produces fish, just like it is bird habitat (forests) that support the growth of bird populations. There are only so many fish and birds that can be supported by the ecosystems we have. If you want more fish and birds to be available to be caught, you have to promote the health of the ecosystems within which they thrive.

So we must limit the number of fishers and bird shooters, control the gear they use and the areas they exploit, establish bird and fish sanctuaries, and have a restricted season for shooting birds and catching lobster and conch. And we must protect bird habitat and fish habitat.

Hunting wild animals like birds and fish, or logging in natural forests, is not your typical economic activity and should not be grouped with 'Industry, Investment and Commerce'. Overharvesting, overexploitation and deforestation will be the inevitable result.

The portfolios of fisheries and forestry would be better placed - along with hunting - under the environment portfolio, where habitat protection and wildlife conservation reside.

- Peter Espeut is an environmentalist. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.