Fishermen sell their daily catch to one of the three processing plants located on South Caicos, where fishing is currently the centre of the island’s economy.
When the Turks and Caicos salt trade collapsed in the 1960s after more than 300 years of production, the inhabitants who remained on the islands largely turned to fishing to make their living. For more than a decade, fishing represented the islands’ most significant economic activity.
But, as the Grace Bay development and tourism boom revolutionized the TCI economy in the late 20th century, the seafood business lost its primacy. Lobster and conch have always made up the majority of the product coming out of the local waters. Harvested by local fisherman, the catch is sold to processing plants located on Providenciales and South Caicos. The plants clean, prepare and package the products for resale to restaurants and wholesalers across the US and even as far as Europe.
Today’s TCI economy benefits from roughly $5 million in annual seafood exports, with the majority of that amount now coming from the traditional spiny lobster harvest. While the country remains a net exporter of seafood, it now imports a significant amount of fish, a reflection of the growing restaurant trade and demand for fresh seafood with a wide variety by visitors and new arrivals.
Analysts and government officials consider the industry an obvious candidate for increased investment and profitable diversification.
Caicos Pride – which processes and exports seafood from its base on South Caicos – recently commissioned a study into the health of pelagic or migratory fish species in the area. The one-year study is being monitored and managed by DEMA and the results are to be made available to the public after the research is completed and the findings analysed. The study is being funded by a grant from the United Kingdom.
For its part, the government has shown an interest in encouraging investments that could boost the scale-fishing industry, supporting the study into the viability of a pelagic fishing industry for the TCI. Wahoo, snapper, grouper, jack, tarpon and tuna are all found in local waters and could be caught commercially using what is termed as artisanal scale handline methods.
Another reason for diversifying the local seafood industry is the seasonal nature of the work. “TCI has an obligation to report our catch and to establish management plans if we intend to engage with CITES signatory countries such as the US, our primary queen conch export market,” Director of the Department for Environment and Maritime Affairs (DEMA) Kathleen Wood explained in an October press release defining the 2012/13 quota. To protect conch and lobster stocks from being over– fished, the government has strict limits on how much conch can be harvested and limits lobster catch to a defined season.
$4.9m value of fish lobster and conch exported in 2012
With the lobster season limited to the six months between April and September, and with the conch harvest usually reaching its quota around the same time, much of the nation’s harvesting and processing infrastructure is underutilised for roughly half the year. The country currently has five private processing plants, and the government is eager to grow and support this industry to encourage year round operation.