At a time when countries across the Caribbean region are faced with economic challenges, innovation in one of its prime sectors — the fisheries and aquaculture sector — can spur the kind of growth needed to help buttress the regional economy. However, this kind of change won’t come overnight.
The Caribbean Regional Fisheries Mechanism (CRFM) is working with member states from around the region, as they prepare to take the first steps in converting fish waste to fish wealth — a change that could multiply earnings from the sector.
“Going forward, we need to make the point that proper utilization of fishery resources is not about increasing production or increasing catches, it is more about maximizing value of what we are now taking and realizing the significant benefits that is possible by focusing on value addition,” said Milton Haughton, executive director of the CRFM.
Chief fisheries officers, senior fisheries officers, and private sector representatives from 17 CRFM member states learned about the application of the value chain approach to the fisheries and aquaculture sector when they attended a weeklong workshop held recently in Suriname.
“The objective was really to introduce participants to the value chain approach in fisheries, and we did this in collaboration with development partners from Iceland and the Faculty of Food and Agriculture at the University of the West Indies (Dr. Sharon Hutchinson and Dr. Ardon Iton),” Haughton said.
Dadi Kristofersson, Ogmundur Knutsson, and Thor Asgiersson, lecturers from United Nations University – Fisheries Training Program (UNU-FTP), based in Iceland, traveled to Suriname to help lead the training. They also took with them a range of products which Iceland makes from fish waste.
“Iceland has made tremendous advances in value addition in fishers and they are perhaps the world’s leaders,” the CRFM executive director said.
This success did not happen overnight — it arose out of a period of crisis, when the country was experiencing a decline in its fisheries after the 1960s. However, Haughton said, they were able to turn things around largely by applying the value chain approach to make better use of their resources — such as improving quality, making beauty products from fish guts, and adopting a market-driven approach to fisheries. The Icelandic economy with a per capita GDP of about US$45,000 is driven largely by the fisheries sector.
“They are no longer going out to catch as much fish as they can, but they are trying to optimize the value, and satisfy the requirement of their markets,” Haughton explained.
Applying the value chain approach begins with the simple things, starting with preparatory activities before the fishers go to sea, and then extending to harvesting, handling, processing, marketing, and distribution.
“We can catch fish in such a way that we maximize value just by targeting ‘when, where, what size, etc.’ we catch based on market demand; just by doing that you can improve value. In some cases, it’s just about maintaining the freshness and quality by improving the handling of the product,” the CRFM executive director explained.
Whereas Caribbean countries have plenty of fisheries resources, they also import a great deal, including items such as smoked salmon for the tourism industry. Countries like Suriname, the host country for the training, are exploring ways in which they can create viable local products to substitute for those imports. The fisheries experts who traveled to Suriname saw this firsthand, as they were offered smoked “bang-bang” (snapper) — a new local delicacy served right alongside the imported product.
Haughton explained why understanding the market demand is key for producers hoping to corner the market to maximize local gains. “Think more about the consumer: What is it that the consumer really wants? What is it that the consumer will pay more money for? There would be a major change overall in the way fishers and processors conduct their operations if they were to focus more on the consumers,” he commented.
“The modern consumers, the housewives, are looking for specific products. They are looking for good nutrition, freshness, and easy-to-prepare meals. These are things that fishers and processers will need to be thinking about. And those who have thought through it, and who have structured their operations along these lines, are making great gains,” the CRFM executive director added.
He said that in the Caribbean region, fishers and fish processing facilities start with the catch: “Their starting point is to go and catch as much as they can and when the product is landed they try to figure out how to sell it but the value chain approach looks from the other end. It starts with the question: What is the market that I want to serve? Where is the best market? What form of product the market is demanding? Then you work back from the market to determine what fish you should target and you structure all of your activities to satisfy that market,” Haughton recommended.
Some types of non-selective fishing results in a lot of waste in the fishing industry. Many operations, such as the shrimping in the southern Caribbean, will harvest large quantities of non-target species. Haughton explained that a lot of the non-target species or by-catch is discarded, since it is deemed to have low market value. However, using science, technology and good marketing these can be converted into useful products.
“I was in El Salvador recently and I was surprised to see that they were making cookies and meals for children from flour [derived] from fish that would normally be discarded,” Haughton revealed. In other places, fish guts are used to make cosmetics and pharmaceuticals — very high end products — and increasingly, companies are using fish enzymes to make creams and lotions.
Haughton said that the CRFM and member states need to do much to promote the value chain approach in fisheries and aquaculture. The CRFM intends to provide the institutional support, capacity building and awareness raising that is needed. In the months ahead, the CRFM will lead the development of more case studies to document success stories from which the region can learn. These reports would be made available to consumers as well as private sector stakeholders, who will be key in driving the process forward.
“They – the private sector—have to be key stakeholders and partners, and they have to be convinced that it makes sense,” Haughton said. “There needs to be a free flow of information from consumers to harvesters, right through the chain, so people know what is happening and they can make good decisions. The need for free flow information is an important part of the transition towards the value chain approach in the region,” he added.
Haughton urged development partners in the fisheries sector, as well as training and research institutions, fish processing facilities, and government ministries responsible for fisheries and trade, to work together to understand the challenges, remove the constraints and impediments, and provide incentives for development of the value chain in the fisheries sector in the region.
“We have a long way to go but we have identified some potential fisheries and potential resources where we could begin to apply this approach,” Haughton said.