Wed | Nov 22, 2017

Peter Edwards | Something's fishy in Chinese deal

Published:Sunday | October 22, 2017 | 12:00 AM

On September 25, I stumbled upon a tweet originating from the agriculture ministry with the headline 'Agriculture and fisheries ministry paves way for access to Chinese fisheries market'. At first glance, the headline suggested that the agreement paved the way for Jamaican commercial interests to be able to purchase Chinese fisheries products.

However, on further reading, the ministry had, three days earlier, signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Ministry of General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine of the People's Republic of China. The MOU allows Chinese interests to access Jamaican fisheries, leading to the export of lobster and fish from Jamaica to China.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) 2016 State of World Fisheries report, China is the world's leader in marine capture production. In 2014, China topped the list of major producers at more than 14.8m tonnes, followed by Indonesia at 6m tonnes. It is important to note that this figure represents tonnage captured by Chinese flagged vessels within China's territorial waters, as well on the high seas and in other sovereign states' coastal waters. The FAO report also noted that there is a growing demand for four valuable groups - tunas, lobsters, shrimps and cephalopods (squid, etc.) - registering record catches in 2015.

As is typical with some of these high-level government announcements, there is little transparency and no details. There are a few red flags that were raised from that MOU statement. My concern is largely based on three phrases: "... promotion of the export of lobsters in the first instance", [the export of...] "other aquatic products", and ... "effective and mutually beneficial trade relationship".

Jamaica's nearshore reef fisheries are renowned as one of the most overfished in the world. Even though overfished, Pedro and Morant Cays continue to provide significant amounts of lobster and conch, supporting local demand and a lucrative export market (dominated by two or three large companies). The Pedro Banks suffers heavily from poaching by other countries.

With these challenges, I am bewildered as to why China, with its global appetite for seafood products, is being allowed into our waters. Can the current lobster population withstand the increased level extraction to supply the Chinese market?

The MOU alludes to lobsters in the first instance and, thereafter, other aquatic products. Is there a detailed list of these other aquatic products (species)? I'm going to hazard a guess that based on the more diverse palate of the Chinese seafood consumer, these other products might include sea cucumbers, sea urchins, seaweed. It probably includes other invertebrates and plants not generally consumed by the Jamaican, US or EU markets. Other products might also include species of cuttlefish and squid that occupy deeper parts of our territorial waters.

The MOU may also allow Chinese access to pelagic species such as tuna, mahi mahi, marlin and sharks. These fish occupy deeper waters, are found further out at sea and are typically too expensive for the average Jamaican fisher to access. It requires bigger boats (the size of a ship) with longer ranges to make catching them profitable. Do we have the requisite baseline biological information, including distribution, population sizes, breeding history, etc., that will allow us to set sustainable quotas for extraction of these species? Do we know how the removal of these species will disrupt the ecological balance and food chain?

 

MUTUAL BENEFIT

 

The MOU suggests that this agreement will be a mutually beneficial trade relationship. However, the question begs to be asked: Who will this trade relationship benefit more? It has been my observation that successive Jamaican governments have a poor track record of negotiating deals that are in any shape or form mutually beneficial (e.g., bauxite levy, cruise ship head tax, toll roads). It is unlikely that this MOU will be any different and therefore Jamaican fishers and taxpayers will continue to be excluded from most of the benefits.

Will Chinese industrial fishing vessels be allowed to operate freely in our waters? Will there be levies or taxes (per pound) attached to the export of lobster and other aquatic products? Will the Chinese government provide Jamaica with seagoing patrol vessels for conducting scientific monitoring? Will China provide the JDF with drones to monitor illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and other criminal activity? Will the Fisheries Policy be updated to reflect this new fishing arrangement?

There are too many unanswered questions and a lack of transparency on what exactly these other aquatic products are, how much will be harvested and by whom. No agreements or MOUs to harvest marine products should be made prior to understanding if the lobster and these (unnamed) new aquatic products can be sustainably harvested.

There needs to be full disclosure on how the capture of the economic rent from this expanded fishery will accrue to the Jamaican people. In other words, who will benefit from the profits, Jamaican fishing interests, the Government, the taxpayers?

Jamaica may again find itself being held up as a poster child for how industrialised fishing led to the decimation of our marine life.

- Dr Peter E.T. Edwards is a Jamaican marine scientist, environmental economist and policy analyst. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com or tweet @peterericthor.