By KHRISNA RUSSELL
Deputy Chief Reporter
THE Bahamas cannot supply its local spiny lobster market while simultaneously meeting the demand of a “nearly insatiable” Chinese export market, Bahamas National Trust (BNT) Executive Director Eric Carey said yesterday, adding lobster numbers have declined over the years.
Mr Carey questioned what officials see as the maximum sustainable yield and insisted the government ensures this number is not more than the environment can sustain.
Last week, Agriculture and Marine Resources Minister Renward Wells confirmed the government was awaiting a response from the People’s Republic of China on whether it will approve the large-scale import of live spiny lobster from the Bahamas for Chinese consumption.
Asked whether there were any concerns the move could potentially deplete the local lobster supply, Mr Wells told The Tribune there were none because this resource was currently sustainable due to the closure of the season, which also prohibits the fishing of mature lobsters when they are spawning.
However, Mr Carey said it is not safe to presume the closed season means “all is well”.
“There are only so many lobsters that we have,” added Mr Carey. “So you cannot continue to harvest all that you are harvesting now and export the tails and try to supply what is a nearly insatiable market, the Chinese market. So it comes down to us being able to determine what the maximum harvestable sustainable yield is for our lobsters and make sure that we are not harvesting more than the environment can sustain.
“Now some might say that if we are going to redirect the effort and Bahamian fishermen are now going to be paid for what is now a trash part of the industry ie most of the lobster heads are discarded and they bring no monetary value, if they are going to outfit some of those boats so that instead of the head being wrung from the body and they are put into a live well and brought to market. So if we’re still talking about the same number but some of that number being redirected towards this market that’s an interesting concept. Then I think that would make sense because I am advised that there is a higher market with the whole, live lobster.
“However, what we cannot do is as I said, supply the hundreds of thousands of pounds now as we currently do in the current traditional market and then expect that we are going to try and supply the Chinese market. It’s economics but it’s also science and ecology. There are only so much lobster out there in our waters.”
Responding specifically to the minister’s remarks that the current supply could not be depleted because of the closed lobster season, Mr Carey said he hasn’t seen any evidence that lobster breeding has increased leading to more of them being readily available.
“It is not safe to presume that because we have a closed season that all is well and we’ll just be able to have a closed season and harvest every other lobster. I mean what are suggesting? That once we have a closed season that we could just harvest every lobster that is out there? Obviously not because who is going to breed?
“The minister needs to be assured as the minister responsible for determining what happens to my marine resources and using scientific evidence that we have sufficient lobster to harvest, as we are doing now for all the tails, and that we can harvest an additional amount for the live market and leave sufficient for the breeding bank.
“In the closed season the lobsters are producing and they are producing the interest that we will harvest next year, but you need that principle to produce a certain percentage of interest that we could harvest next year.
“I am not suggesting that we do not have enough, but I haven’t seen any evidence to suggest there are more. It needs to be asked how much are we harvesting now? What is the anticipated increase in harvest and most importantly what is the maximum harvestable yield? Has that been determined? If that has not been determined, then neither the minister, or myself, or any fisherman can say that we have sufficient.”
However, Mr Carey said he fully supports finding ways for Bahamian fishermen to earn more income.
Last week, Mr Wells said as live lobsters fetch a much higher price, revenue generation for the Chinese market would be a lucrative addition to an already $100m seafood export industry where $80m is already accounted for by spiny lobster sales.
He said the discussion began last year and, so far, resulted in the Department of Marine Resources conducting a series of studies necessary for a country to be a contender for the Chinese market.
Earlier this year, then-Prime Minister Perry Christie announced at the launch of the Bahamas Trade Information Services Portal, that Tropic Seafood was engaged in “major research” on farming lobsters and exporting them via air to China.