14ymedio, Havana, 14 March 2019 — Today Cubans eat a quarter of the fish they consumed 25 years ago and seafood fishing has plummeted in the last five years, while a thousand boats are engaged to the illegal harvesting of fish, a situation that authorities are trying to stop with a new Fisheries Law.
With the new legislation, authorization will be required for those who want to carry out fishing activities for commercial purposes, be they individuals or companies, and of Cuban or foreign nationality. The licenses will be issued once the status of the resources is evaluated and it will empower the holder to carry out the activity in accordance with the law.
The request to grant, renew, modify and cancel any type of authorization will be processed before the authority empowered by the government, the Food Industry (Minal), according the draft, which also establishes as an “indispensable requirement, in the case of natural persons, that the applicant be at least 17 years old.”
The Fisheries Consultative Commission (belonging to the Minal) will be responsible for analyzing “the state of exploitation of hydrobiological resources in areas where the State exercises its sovereignty, and propose the regulations and measures necessary to achieve sustainable economic exploitation, which includes zones and fishing quotas, closures, establishment of minimum and maximum sizes or weights, requirements, limitations or prohibitions of fishing gear and other provisions to that effect.”
Meanwhile, the areas in which the activity is permitted will be determined by the Council of Ministers, which may limit or prohibit fishing “due to state interests related to the defense of the country or the environment.”
Another aspect that will be regulated by the rule are the fishing methods, which will be defined as: sports, recreational, research or commercial.
According to government data, the decline in fish consumption has gone from 35 pounds annually per person in 1989 to 9.5 pounds in 2014. In addition, in the last five years the number of species that are fished has decreased by 44%; the current number is 54. Catches accounted for 70% and fish imports were around 8,000 tons.
The reduction of fish consumption by the Cuban population in recent years has gone hand in hand with the fall in the supply and variety of fish available through Mercomar, a network of state stores dedicated to the sale of seafood. The reduction of supplies of large fish and shellfish has meant the refrigerators of these places hold only freshwater varieties such as tilapia, tench and catfish.
Many private businesses dedicated to food service, especially restaurants, maintain their supply of fish from contact with private fishermen, most of them illegal. Much of the lobsters, shrimp, and fillets of snapper and swordfish served in these exclusive places come from poaching.
Another serious datum of the last five years is the fall in lobster and shrimp fishing, which has been reduced by 65% and 90%, respectively. These two coveted shellfish contribute $63 million US annually through exports.
The requirement to obtain authorization will make an exemption for free fishing practiced by any person or company regardless of their origin “from the coast or natural shores by rods or reels, lines and hooks, without the aid of floating means.”
The Government is concerned about the thousand vessels that engage in illegal fishing, involving a total of approximately 2,500 people, over which they can increase control when the new law is approved.
To these are added the fishermen not linked to the state sector, who until now were in legal limbo: “The relationship with this mode of management is limited to contracts of sale. Private commercial fishermen have no defined employment status and are not linked to any social security scheme,” indicates the draft of the project.
The legal recognition of fishing as a self-employed activity opens the door not only to the legalization of those who until now have engaged in the activity informally, but also to the fact that they can accumulate money for a future pension, something that they have been excluded from as illegal fishermen.
Another of the problems identified by the authorities is that of the 168 settlements that live by fishing. “In several, fishing is the main livelihood and the employment alternatives in other sectors are scarce.”
The draft Fisheries Law, which has 27 articles and seven final provisions, will be debated with the deputies and directors of appropriate bodies between March 27 and April 3. In addition, an email address has been established so that citizens can send their own proposals.
To date, Cuba was governed by the Fisheries Regulation approved in 1996, which, according to the authorities, turns out to be obsolete and is “insufficient for confronting illegal fishing and preserving fishery resources” as data collected by the state confirm, reflecting the poor state of the sector on the island.
Some 3,376 people are state fishermen and 245 fish for self-consumption. Indirectly linked to state fishing are some 10,843 workers and 2,329 connected to aquaculture. On the other hand, 18,638 carry out private commercial fishing and 17,600 engage in sport fishing.
However, the new legislation does not yet include details on ways in which vessels can legally be acquired, or for the format or the size of the vessels allowed for private fishing. So far, most fishermen use old boats of small sizes, some with more than half a century of exploitation, or they build their own boats or use the inflated inner tubes from vehicles such as trucks, many of them bought on the black market or diverted from the network of state companies.
The importation of these boats is not allowed and the police control the construction of new ones in the coastal areas to avoid illegal emigration to the United States, which complicates the task of building a vessel for fishing purposes. Once built and before being launched into the sea, the ship must be registered in the Cuban Ship Registry, an action that entails a thorough verification of the owner. Those who have a criminal record or have tried to illegally exit the country have little chance of obtaining the authorization.
The new law also ensures that, with the legalization of these fishermen, until now poachers, “there will be no damage to the non-state sector, maintaining the current vessels,” which suggests that only a license for self-employment will be granted only to those who already have a registered boat.
The owners of registered ships must pay an annual tax to the National Tax Office (ONAT) whose value will depend on the size and model of the vessel.
Although the text points to a “gradual reduction of current state vessels, promoting the elimination of those whose technical status is harmful to the marine environment,” it does not announce the sale of some of these boats and ships to private companies for subsequent repair and reuse.
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