Fishermen off the coast of Havana, Cuba. Picture: 123RF/RAINER PUSHER
Fishermen off the coast of Havana, Cuba. Picture: 123RF/RAINER PUSHER

Havana — In the sleepy Cuban fishing village of Cojímar that inspired Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, locals say they are struggling to catch fish.

Cuba’s fish stocks have dropped drastically in recent decades due to over-fishing and environmental factors, scientists say, prompting the country to pass a law last month imposing new regulations on the fishing industry.

“We catch less, about half of what we once did,” said Carlos Duran, who has been fishing for more than four decades. “Some people go out 10 times without catching anything at all.”

Cuba estimates the population of the 54 species it fishes commercially, such as grouper and snapper, has declined 44% in the past five years with catches falling 70% over that period.

The decline has been a blow to the fishing industry, which has already suffered the dismantling of its long-range state fishing fleet because it could not maintain it in the wake of the collapse of Cuba’s former benefactor, the Soviet Union.

The expansion of fish farming has been unable to make up for the shortfall worsened by a decline in imports in the cash-strapped country. Much of the seafood Cuba does produce, including lobster and shrimp, is exported to generate much-needed hard currency. And while the communist-run country began allowing private fishermen to sell their produce a decade ago, albeit only to the state, red tape poses serious barriers to their productivity.

Cubans eat a quarter of the seafood they did at the end of the 1980s, according to official data, and just a fraction of the global average fish consumption per capita, leading them to joke bitterly about being an island without fish.

The new fishing policy aims to at least recover domestic stocks by curbing illegal fishing and implementing science-based fisheries management using catch quotas and zoning.

These are best practices that are increasingly being adopted worldwide, although Cuba is a forerunner in the Caribbean, according to Daniel Whittle, a senior director at the Environmental Defence Fund, a US non-profit group that has been advising Cuban authorities on conservation and sustainable fishing.

Whittle said the practices should also make the industry more resilient to new challenges, such as climate change, and protect its rich marine biodiversity including some of the world’s most pristine coral reefs. While the practices might affect fish supply in the short-run, they should boost it in the long-run. Some private fishermen in Cojímar, just east of Havana, are nervous that its implementation by often heavy-handed authorities will make their tough job even harder.

Vintage boats

Cuba’s overhauled fishing regulation aims to phase out state boats that are not up to modern environmental standards, which could further shrink the number of state fishermen from 3,376.

It also finally offers legal recognition — and therefore benefits such as a state pension — to Cuba’s 18,638 private commercial fishermen, although it does not address some of their most pressing concerns.

Limits on boat-building and imports, for example, mean private commercial fishermen own vessels that often pre-date Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution, such as the island’s candy-coloured vintage American cars, and are kitted out with motors from decades-old Soviet land vehicles.

“We use motors from land vehicles, so motors that, for a while, were driving an ambulance, tractor or even forklift,” said Georis Lopez, whose boat uses a Czechoslovak motor from the 1980s.

Even fishermen who are considered “self-employed” are legally obliged to sell their catch at fixed prices to state companies. Many say they can only make a living by selling some of their catch on the black market, often to the private restaurants that have flourished in recent years in tandem with tourism.

That lucrative sector is increasingly competing with state stores for what seafood Cuba does produce. Cubans say they are frustrated at having to eat freshwater, farmed catfish heavily stocked in state stores while tourists dine on snapper and swordfish.

“We fought in the revolution for everyone to be the same but we have social classes once again,” grumbled Jose Armando Hernandez at a seafood store in Havana. “It’s good this new fishing law is coming if it improves the offer and price of fish.”