GUYANA’S CATFISH TRAPPED ON U.S. BLACKLIST BY GORDON FRENCH
“Let us not panic because of the new changes. It is just a temporary technical barrier to trade.” – Dr. Ozaye Dodson, Veterinary Public Health Director
The local fisheries sector has been dealt a severe economic blow when the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) stopped all Siluriformes fish and fish products (catfish species) from Guyana, effective March 1. Guyana was not alone. Other countries banned from the United States (U.S.) catfish market were Bangladesh, Canada, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Mexico, Myanmar, Nigeria and Pakistan. Hassar, cuirass and the high-pried gilbacker have all been caught in the dragnet that essentially seeks to protect the U.S. fishing industry. The U.S. accounts for 70% of Guyana’s overall fish export market with 80% of the exports being catfish species. Veterinary Public Health Director within the Ministry of Public Health, Dr. Ozaye Dodson, said the department is working assiduously with the fisheries unit of the Agriculture Ministry to realign Guyana’s legal framework with new U.S. fish export demands. “Let us not panic because of the new changes. It is just a temporary technical barrier to trade,” Dodson stated. Amanda Cauldwell, Public Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Georgetown, stated that the U.S. notified the Government of Guyana of the pending changes in November of 2015, more than 18 months before they were to go into effect. “We even gave Guyana an extension until February 3, 2018 to comply with the new regulations,” Cauldwell explained. According to Cauldwell, most countries in the hemisphere have now complied with the regulations. She believes that Guyana eventually can and will comply as well.
According to the embassy official, the U.S. offered technical assistance to the Government of Guyana to help fishermen and women to comply. “Our offer still stands, but it cannot be accomplished overnight,” Cauldwell stated. She pointed out that the U.S. Government takes very seriously the protection of the world’s waterways and marine life and is constantly updating regulations and processes to ensure that waterways and marine life are protected. Guyana’s Veterinary Public Health Department has been mandated, under the 2002 Fisheries Act and the Fish and Fishery Product Regulations of 2003 with guidance of the inspections manual, to monitor, inspect and certify vessels, landing sites, fish processing establishments and fishery products for the local and export markets. According to Dr. Dodson, there are daily inspections and certification of the catfish products to guarantee their wholesomeness for human consumption.
For this purpose, the U.S. Food Safety Inspection Services (FSIS) has requested of Guyana to provide relevant documentation to verify its inspection system is equivalent to their standards or that its public health system is an equivalent degree to that of the U.S. Guyana, Dr. Dodson said, complied with this request. However, the country fell short of the U.S. standards in three specific areas. There was a short fall on the presence of inspectors and then there was insufficient documentation detailing verification of each step in the sanitation and Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) process. Further, there was insufficient documentation specifying how the industry manages adulterated catfish products. The new U.S. standards for import of catfish species demands the presence of inspectors on plants for onehour during an eight-hour shift. Dr. Dodson explained that Guyana’s HACCP and documentation of its inspection frequency will be upgraded to satisfy the new U.S. standards. “Our Fisheries Act is broad, covering all species of fish. The U.S. has specific regulations for the catfish species [and] there have been no changes to the local Act since 2003. There will have to be some adjustments to the Fisheries Act Inspection Manual and Regulations to bridge the gaps,” Dr. Dodson said.
WHAT IS DRIVING THE DECISION? Any country can demand that all countries meet the conditions set out to ensure continued market access, but in the case of the U.S., the recent move is part of an overall plan to significantly reduce catfish imports. The American catfish industry is concentrated in Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi and Texas. These markets have been steadily losing share to imports, predominately from Vietnam. According to the New York Times, the U.S catfish industry became concerned since imports at one time accounted for about 75 percent of the market. U.S. catfish farmers approached the then Barack Obama administration to implement stricter rules to govern the industry. Essentially, lawmakers agreed to shift the inspection of foreign and U.S. produced catfish from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to a more rigorous programme at the USDA. Forbes Magazine characterized the shifting of the responsibility of the inspection agency as extreme financial waste that has been driven entirely by political posturing under the guise of food safety. The USDA regulates meat, poultry and egg products, all things that have been traditionally considered to be high risk foods through a costly process that typically involves some type of continuous inspection. The FDA, on the other hand, regulates all other types of food, including all seafood, using a risk-based approach to inspection. This means that the FDA spends more time and money inspecting high risk food versus low risk food.
ALTERNATIVE MARKETS Duane Faerber, an exporter, points out that when export market to the U.S. is stripped away, the financial ramifications for fisher folk are great. He stated that exporters will turn to Canada to maintain export levels, but there is going to be saturation point on the local market, which will result in lower prices for gilbacker. In the first quarter of this year, gilbacker retailed for $1,000 per pound. “We have not seen the effect yet of gilbacker because the price is still up. There is still the option of the Canadian market, but how much are they going to absorb before they take a similar action like the United States? When this fish starts catching again, if it goes down to $400 per pound as grey snapper, then fishermen will be reluctant to go out,” Faerber explained. He noted that a person selling gilbacker at $800 per pound means that he earns $800,000 if he sells 1000 pounds. This amount, Faeber stated, clears expenses and profits. “Gilbacker is the prize catch. The fishing boats and nets are built specifically for this type of fish. Any other fish they catch is a bonus,” Faeber stated. The matter has also engaged the Cabinet of Guyana.