Barbados bets on tuna to boost the value of fish exports

02 April 2020

The island’s fishing sector players and United Nations organizations draw up a plan to increase the value and sustainability of tuna exports.

Barbados fishing industry representatives and United Nations agencies have drafted a strategy to increase the value of the island’s tuna exports.

If fully implemented, it could dramatically boost revenue from tuna exports, from US$303,000 in 2015 to $7.5 million in 2027, UN officials say. Fishers would earn an additional $2.5 million over the same period.

The Oceans Economy and Trade Strategy for Barbados aims to give the nation’s fishing industry the tools needed to move up the tuna value chain, away from the low-value unprocessed whole fish currently exported, towards fresh boxed tuna loins.

Processed, ready-to-eat fish products sell for a higher price in global markets – about twice as much in North America, for example.

“By processing the tuna before export, the local fishing industry could capture much more of the final price that consumers pay,” said Pamela Coke-Hamilton, director of UNCTAD’s international trade division.

“The result would be transformational for the island’s fishing industry,” she said, adding that helping exporters in developing countries transition from raw materials to processed goods is key to helping them reap more benefits from trade.

“This is at the heart of UNCTAD’s mission.”

Processing plant and new regulations needed

The project – a joint endeavour between UNCTAD, the UN Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea (DOALOS), and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) – addresses the different aspects of the national fishing industry where improvements are needed to transition from unprocessed to processed tuna exports.

These include fleet efficiency, quality controls and, most important, infrastructure. Implementation would include building the island’s first fish processing plant – an investment of about $1.7 million.

The strategy also calls for updating national regulations related to fisheries in the Caribbean, such as the Barbados Fisheries Act, to strengthen sanitary standards and traceability systems so that exporters could apply for voluntary sustainability certifications, such as the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) label.

Sustainability certification would open access to fast-growing markets. Sales of seafood with the blue MSC label, for example, have grown 34% over the past years, from 8.8 million tonnes in 2014 to 11.8 million tonnes in 2019.

Going beyond exports

Improved traceability is also key to fighting illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, which steals about $23 billion from our oceans and seas each year and affects one in every five fish caught.

Some 6 million tonnes of tuna are caught worldwide every year. The global market was valued at $11.6 billion in 2018 and is projected to reach $14.4 billion by 2024. Growing demand is putting immense pressure on stocks, and better traceability is essential for more sustainability.

Joyce Leslie, acting chief for Barbados’ fisheries agency, said improving the sustainability of the island’s fisheries is as important as increasing the value of exports.

She said protecting fish stocks is essential for food security because Barbadians rely on fish for their main source of protein, consuming about 5,000 to 6,000 tonnes annually.

Though the strategy focuses primarily on exports, a new processing plant and improved sanitary measures would allow the tuna sector to better serve local hotels and restaurants and retain more value on the island.

It would also help decrease dependence on food imports. FAO estimates that about 86% of the fish consumed in Barbados is imported.

A ministerial conference

Three dozen representatives from the island’s fishing industry and the UN partner organizations agreed on the strategy at a meeting in the capital Bridgetown on 4 March.

The Ministry of Maritime Affairs and the Blue Economy is reviewing the proposal. Approval of a final version is expected before the fifteenth UNCTAD ministerial conference, set to convene in Bridgetown from 18 to 23 October. One of the conference’s key themes will be the oceans economy.  

Once approved, UNCTAD and DOALOS will support Barbados in the implementation of the strategy, providing technical assistance and capacity-building help as needed.