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Hauling in crawfish

Hauling in crawfish

Despite a recent dip in demand, Bahamian spiny lobster still underpin export industry

The Bahamas Investor Magazine
June 22, 2010
June 22, 2010
Tosheena Robinson-Blair

Spiny lobsters, known locally in The Bahamas as crawfish, are surely the thoroughbreds among edible ocean-dwelling crustaceans. Their flavourful, meaty tails are a staple in fine-dining establishments around the world, from New York to Milan to Tokyo. And despite a recent dip in demand and value, the resilient Panulirus argus is still a multi-million dollar contributor to the Bahamian economy.

According to the Bahamas Reef Environment and Educational Foundation (BREEF), a non-government organization, crawfish exports account for 40 per cent of the total exports of The Bahamas and 60 per cent of the total fishery product landings. The fishing industry overall contributes, on average, 2.5 per cent to the country’s annual gross domestic product (GDP).

A 1995 survey by the Department of Marine Resources estimated that the fishing industry employed over 9,000 individuals, with 95 per cent as fishermen and five per cent in buying stations and processing facilities. The Caribbean Regional Fisheries Mechanism, of which The Bahamas is a member, put that number closer to 10,000 in 2004.

By far the largest market for Bahamian crawfish is the US. In 2008, the top three processing plants combined accounted for 94 per cent of all local lobster exports and, according to Department of Marine Resources reports, they sent approximately two-thirds of their product to the US. Most of the remaining third was shipped to France and a relatively small percentage went to Canada.

Rough seas
However, the industry has not been immune to the recent economic turmoil. Prices for crawfish have tumbled over recent years, as demand for luxury items has waned amid the global slowdown. This, coupled with sharp increases in fuel costs, has taken its toll on the profit margins of fishermen and suppliers alike. In 2009, The Bahamas exported a little over five million pounds of crawfish valued at $59.6 million, a decline of some $17.9 million in export value year on year, and some $27.1 million less than what was made in 2007.

“Over the last two years the price of lobster has been cut pretty much in half,” says Anthony McKinney, president of Paradise Fisheries Ltd, one of the top three processing plants in The Bahamas. “Lobster prices have dropped from an average wholesale price of $20 per pound to $10 per pound.” It’s a market price last seen in 1991, when lobster tails fetched around $10.21 per pound.

For fishermen, low prices for catches translate into leaner paychecks. For exporters, it means coping with increasingly smaller profit margins.

Survival of the fittest
The key to survival until prices recover is to “cut expenses where possible,” says Glenn Pritchard, president of Tropics Seafood Ltd, the country’s number one crawfish exporter. “Limit capital expenditures to bare necessities only. Develop good fiscal practices [and] always plan and budget for bad times.”

According to Michael Braynen, the director of marine resources in the Department of Marine Resources, there has been a gradual decline in crawfish exports weight and value since 2003. He posits that numbers are low for multiple reasons.

“One major factor is the decline in value per pound being experienced worldwide and coinciding with the timing of the global economic recession,” explains Braynen. “The other factor is that there has been a gradual decline in the quantity of crawfish landed, the amount exported and their value, even prior to the global recession.”

This is because operating costs are up for fishermen, while the price for the catch is down, suggests McKinney who, along with Pritchard, co-chairs the government’s Fisheries Advisory Committee. “High fuel prices are a cost incurred by the fishing boats. It has a trickle-down effect,” he says.

“A lot of boats have had to cut back on their fishing trips,” adds Adrian La-Roda, spokesperson for the Bahamas Commercial Fishers Alliance. “The average season is four to five trips, many just made three. It didn’t make sense to do more and so they’ve been going after other products, mainly the scale fish [such as snapper and grouper] and conch.”

Stronger stuff
Over the years, the industry has grappled with all manner of setbacks from hurricanes, poaching and out-of-season fishing, to depleted stocks and more stringent international standards. However, crawfish fishermen are a hardy bunch and for the most part, they remain hopeful that lobster prices will change for the better, says La-Roda. “Right now fishermen are making somewhere around 25¢ to 50¢ profit per pound. Keep in mind the cost of harvesting lobster is about $4-$5 per pound. The market is only paying them about $5.50-$6 per pound of lobster,” he explains. Fishermen know that perhaps prices will not hit the $4-$5 per-pound profit levels seen in 2007, but they are optimistic that they will reach at least to a $2-$3 per pound profit, continues La-Roda.

Abner Pinder, chief councillor for Spanish Wells, a tiny island that sits just off the northwest tip of Eleuthera, agrees. “The economy is taking a serious blow,” he says. “And Spanish Wells, for years, has depended on its lobster market. When you take a 30 per cent drop in your income, that’s a blow to anybody. But I’m convinced the strong will survive. In another year, maybe another two years, once the economies in these other places [that we export to] stabilize, the price of lobster will go up again.”

Conservation is key
With this in mind, concerned parties are looking to the future and how best to sustain the industry. After all, crawfish are not an inexhaustible resource and overfishing could quickly deplete stocks. Experts agree that the continued success of the commercial fishing industry depends on the use of responsible fishing methods and a general respect for the country’s fishing regulations.

To this end, the main thrust of recent legislation governing the crawfish industry in The Bahamas limits environmental damage and protects juvenile and egg-bearing lobsters. For instance, there are laws relating to crawfish size limits (a minimum 5.5-inch tail), the imposition of an April 1-July 31 closed season, and laws preventing fishing by foreign boats and the harvesting of egg-bearing females.

To further protect the sector, various other initiatives are being undertaken. The Department of Marine Resources, with support from the World Wildlife Fund, has initiated a new programme called the Fishery Improvement Project (FIP) to identify and address a range of priority issues within the industry.

Industry stakeholders are doing their bit by pursuing the international Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification in an attempt to ensure that fishery resources are well managed and that market access continues. The MSC uses an eco-label to reward sustainable fishing practices and major seafood buyers from around the world have made commitments to purchase from MSC-certified fisheries. To put it another way: no MSC certification, potentially no buyers.

For fishermen, although the MSC certification equals paperwork, it will bring dividends in the end. “It’s a process of reporting their fisheries,” notes La-Roda. “A catch certificate must accompany every shipment of lobster, and eventually other seafood products, that leave the country. It will say where the lobsters were caught, who they were caught by, and what handling methods were used.”

If successful in its MSC-certification bid, The Bahamas will be the first country in the region to be able to proudly display the MSC logo on its lobster tails. “We’ve always been able to export a quality and consistent product,” says La-Roda. “If we continue to do that, it will be difficult to beat the Bahamian lobster.”

Crawfish industry stat
The earliest known government records on crawfish indicate that fishermen in The Bahamas were hauling them in as far back as the 1930s.

Local fishermen caught 1.975 million pounds of crawfish during the 1936-37 season. Over the next two seasons that number dipped to 1.3 million pounds harvested in 1939. During the 1940s hauls appear to have peaked at 2.98 million pounds, although records are sketchy.

The year 1952 saw local production, export pounds and export value logged for the first time in the Agriculture and Marine Product Board’s annual report. That year fishermen produced for market 1.4 million pounds of crawfish valued locally at roughly £76,000. Approximately 1.2 million pounds of crawfish were exported that year to the tune of just under £100,000–marking a gross profit of over £23,000.

Up to 1963, production figures were based on a six-month fishing season. From 1964-1965 the fishing season was extended to seven months. From 1966 onwards, fishing was allowed for eight months of the year and the value of exports was reported in Bahamian dollars as opposed to the British pound.

In the 1960s, fishermen sold crawfish by the hundreds to buyers. The price per hundred went from £10 in 1960 to £26 in 1964. Going into the 1970s, the price of crawfish continued to climb. Dockside value of crawfish landed in Nassau increased steadily, with tails being sold for an average of $2.50 per pound in 1970 to $4.85 in 1978.

In the early part of the 1980s, crawfish prices remained on the rise. Tails fetched $6.90 per pound in 1982. However, in the following years prices began to dip in line with a corresponding decline in the export market price. A single crawfish tail in 1984 sold for $6.15 per pound.

The next decade saw crawfish price per pound rebound, reaching $10.39. By 2002, it was $12.54 per pound. That year about 7.36 million pounds of crawfish were landed with a value of $92.2 million.

Since 2003, there has been a gradual decline in the industry’s export weight and value. That year fishermen landed a whopping 7.6 million pounds of crawfish valued at only $80.59 million–more pounds, but valued some $11.6 million less than the previous year.

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