CubaNews / April 1998
By Larry Luxner
WASHINGTON -- From tuna to tilapia, from spiny lobster to silver hake, Cuba is becoming an increasingly important player in the world market for seafood products -- particularly for high-valued finfish and shellfish.
Last year, Cuban seafood exports came to $180 million, up from $102 million in 1994, according to Anicia E. García Alvarez of the University of Havana.
"Our fundamental goal is to increase exports and foreign-exchange earnings while diversifying," she told CubaNews. "Until now, our exports have been concentrated in lobsters and shrimp. But we're trying to increase the proportion of live and whole products, mainly to France, Italy and Japan."
García was one of a dozen speakers at a March 31 conference in Washington, at which nearly 100 attendees listened as experts from the University of Havana and the University of Florida in Gainesville assessed the future of Cuban agribusiness.
For most people, Cuban exports usually mean sugar, nickel, citrus and cigars. Yet during the latter half of the 20th century, Cuba's commercial fishing industry has been a leading source of seafood from the Western Hemisphere, with its 135 species or species groups exceeded only by the United States and Canada.
Prior to the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power, Cuba's seafood industry was rather unsophisticated and under-utilized, with small fishing boats bringing their low-value catches to local processing facilities. Annual fishery landings -- primarily for domestic consumption -- averaged around 20,000 metric tons a year.
After the revolution, however, things changed dramatically. The sudden expansion of the Cuban fishing fleet -- made possible by cheap, subsidized Soviet fuel -- made Cuba the envy of all Latin America and the Caribbean, with landings surpassing 100,000 metric tons by 1970 and 200,000 tons by 1976.
The Cuban fishing fleet was divided into four sectors: the Flota Cubana de Pesca (FCP), a distant-water fleet targeting low-valued species such as mackerel, herring and hake for the domestic market; the Flota Atunera de Cuba (FAC), composed of tuna and swordfish longliners operating in the Gulf of Mexico and Mid-Atlantic regions; the Flota del Golfo (FG), targeting bottom fish and reef fish in near-shore waters, and finally the Flota de Plataforma (FP), which went after high-valued, near-shore species such as shrimp, spiny lobster, sponge, reef fish and crab.
Yet around 1977, things took a sudden downturn.
"Virtually all coastal nations in the Americas imposed 200-mile limits for their territorial waters in the late 1970s," according to Charles M. Adams, a professor with UF's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. "With few exceptions, the exclusive rights claimed by these coastal nations excluded access by all other countries to the fisheries resources found in their territorial seas. Cuba's fleets, especially the distant-water fleet, were designed to access these resources throughout Latin America. Thus, Cuba was left with a stable of large, operational costly vessels, which were then forced into the role of only being able to operate in the even more costly open-ocean regions. The high-cost nature of the fleet, while being forced to target low-valued stocks, produced an economically inefficient venture."
Says Adams: "Overall, Cuba's distant water fleet was fishing in the southeast Pacific, off Namibia and Angola, and in the northern Atlantica. That global fleet was subsidized by cheap Soviet fuel. Now those boats are used for freight hauling."
Things got even worse after the breakup of the Soviet Union, with Cuban landings of all forms of finfish and shellfish falling from 232,000 tons in 1988 to 87,700 tons in 1994. According to the UN's Food and Agricultural Organization, per-capita consumption of fish and seafood in Cuba plummeted from 21.8 kilograms during the 1985-87 period to 11.8 kilograms during the 1991-93 period.
Things have since improved, however, with landings up slightly to 94,200 tons in 1995 -- the latest year for which statistics are available.
Of this total, some of the more important species include silver hake (16,800 tons); blue tilapia (10,500); silver carp (9,900); spiny lobster (9,400); snapper (3,800); oysters and clams (3,800); sharks (3,100); pink shrimp (1,900), tunas (1,300) and squid (1,000).
Nearly all of the 19.7 million pounds of spiny lobster Cuba produces annually is exported -- mostly in the form of cooked whole lobster, with lesser quantities of raw, whole lobster and frozen tails. In terms of total value, the major markets for Cuban spiny lobster are Japan (28%), France (24%), Spain (19%), Italy (15%) and Canada (10%). In addition, says Adams, the United States consumes small quantities of Cuban seafood products imported via third countries such as Panama and Nicaragua.
At the moment, Cuba has 14 processing plants for lobster, shrimp, canned tuna and fish. These plants -- which handle the freezing, canning, smoking and salting of a variety of products -- are located in La Coloma, Isla de la Juventud, Batabanó, Havana, Matanzas, Cienfuegos, Casilda, Caibarién, Santa Cruz del Sur, Niquero, Manzanillo, Santiago de Cuba, Guantánamo and Nuevitas.
Under Decree Law 164, passed in 1996, Cuba's Ministerio de la Industria Pesquera (MIP) is being restructured so that governmental oversight in the day-to-day management of fishing operations is reduced dramatically.
"Basically, the MIP will continue to be responsible for management and regulatory issues, but the logistics of near-shore fisheries production will be relegated to a complement of production associations," according to Adams. "The restructured MIP will contain only 21 associations. The near-shore fisheries and acquaculture activities will be administered through 15 provincial fisheries associations which in many ways resemble cooperatives. Each will contain at least 20 state-owned vessels, which each vessel operating within a prescribed budget and quota. Production over the pre-determined vessel quota may generate a profit percentage in the form of monthly bonuses."
Decree 164 also creates a Comisión Consultiva de Pesca, which prohibits fishing of endangered species and imposes sanctions for those who don't practice responsible fishing.
"They're understanding now that they could very easily overfish things," says Adams. "They're contracting a bit and passing measures that impose sustainable management. They have an eye on the future."
If and when Washington decides to lift the embargo against Cuba, the island nation could enjoy a sudden increase in exports of spiny lobster, pink shrimp and other species to the U.S. market -- providing its prices are competitive with Nicaragua, Honduras and other traditional seafood exporters.
"The U.S. shrimp market is dominated by imports, particularly farm-raised shrimp. Additional supplies of pink shrimp would be easily accepted, particularly during those per-iods when Florida pink shrimp landings are low," says Adams. "However, Cuban trawlers would be forced to comply with U.S. law concerning the use of turtle excluder devices."
He adds that "Cuban snapper would likely be very competitive with product arriving from more distant sources within the Central American and Caribbean region. The Florida market for reef fish is very strong and would probably absorb any additional sources of product. And if the Cuban product is priced competitively, other foreign sources may be displaced in the short run."
Adams says UF's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences in no way advocates either lifting the U.S. embargo against Cuba, or keeping it in place. "We're just trying to describe the situation and provide information that would be useful for those who need it," he says, "in order to assess the potential impact if trade is ever resumed."