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close this bookCERES No. 070 - July - August 1979 (FAO Ceres, 1979, 50 p.)
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The island that discovered the sea

In 20 years Cuba has succeeded in tripling per caput fish consumption

by Juan Agodar Derpich

Until the end of the 1950s, or more precisely, until 1958, the market for fish in Cuba was almost entirely limited to the capital, the only place where there was a system through which agents and wholesalers could distribute to retailers. For this reason, almost all the fishmongers were also in Havana, and per caput fish consumption was minimal; the more so since cold storage facilities were lacking, and the purchasing power of the majority of the population was very low.

In the urban areas of the provinces, fish consumption was insignificant, although slightly higher in the case of fishing ports. In the provinces, dealers in the fishing ports and sometimes the fishermen themselves sold directly to the retailers; some itinerant salesmen had almost a monopoly of their district or village, and thus maintained an artificial scarcity of fish so as to keep prices high.

There were absolutely no isothermal lorries. The fish was, transported, in , wooden boxes with ice, in lorries, small trucks or even cars or in the same conditions by rail. Fairly frequently, it arrived in a bad state at the market.

Although it is an archipelago, made up of the islands of Cuba, Pinos (now called Isla de la Juventud; or Isle of Youth) and another 1600 smaller islands, whose coastlines total 5 476 km, Cuba lived with its back to the sea, concentrating its fishing activities, rudimentary and with few resources, on the insular platform. Its fish production represented a ridiculously small proportion of the national economy and its merchant navy was almost inexistent.

In January 1959 the Government, realizing the importance of this absurdly abandoned sector for the country's economy, launched into feverish activity to conquer the sea.

Foremost among the measures taken by the Revolutionary Government in connection with the fishing industry was the creation and promotion of Fishing Cooperatives. They began by grouping together the majority of the 13 000 fishermen, with the initial aim of improving the subhuman conditions in which they lived and worked, while plans were being drawn up for the increase of fishing on the insular platform, immediately after the foundation of the Cooperatives, building started on several fishing towns - Manzanillo, Pilon and Caibarien - and, to a greater or lesser extent, all groups of fishermen began to benefit from these new housing plans. Thus the Cuban fishermen, who had not been organized either socially or economically before 1959, were grouped and received assistance by way of credit facilities, fair prices and multiple services .

Thus were laid the foundations of what is today Cuba's fishing industry.

One steed boat, one trawler and one workshop - this was all the Cuban fishing fleet had when it was created on 1 June 1962. Cuba, which until 1958 fished with only ancient schooners as its principal vessels, began deepsea fishing in 1963. Toward the end of the 1960s, Soviet-built 51-m side trawlers, Japanese-built 47-m tuna boats, and 106-m factory stern trawlers began to swell the Cuban fishing fleet, which rose from zero to about 100 000 gross tons.

No shipyards in the country

Naturally, the growth of the fleet had to be matched by a corresponding growth of land installations, from the construction in 1960 of the first Fishing Terminal (in Regla, bay of Havana) with a refrigeration capacity of approximately 1 000 tons, to Havana's Fishing with an initial capacity of 12 000 tons subsequently raised to 21 000 tons, which makes it one of the major fishing ' ports in Latin America. Since 1972, the country has a new and modern refrigeration complex, with a capacity of 5 000 tons, in the province of Oriente. At present, there are more than 40 fishing units all over the island.

Nor were there really any shipyards in the country, apart from a few scattered repair docks. An attempt was immediately made to improve those that could still be used, and new shipyards were built on the north and south coasts of the island. The aim was to encourage boat building, first of wood (a task abandoned because of the scarcity and difficulty of obtaining the raw material), and later of reinforced concrete and steel. Now, plastic and polyester fibreglass are also being used (boats and auxiliary launches for fishing, and others for sporting and recreational purposes).

The first reinforced concrete boat was launched in 1970, and today eight shipyards are engaged in building them. Part of this output is for the fishing fleet - at present composed of more than 2 000 boats - and the rest is sold abroad. To date, Cuba is only building craft for coastal fishing; for deep-sea fishing it continues to buy trawlers from Spain and refrigerated transport ships from Japan.

The technique of reinforced concrete, of which Cuba is a world master, is based on the use of steel bars or tubes, wire netting, cement and sand, and is more like house building than ship building. Reinforced concrete boats are cheaper to build, last longer than wooden ones, need only simple and infrequent repairs, and are practically immune to rust.

The Cuban shipyards produce three kinds of reinforced concrete boats, although they have also made some coastal and sporting launches. These are the "Langostero" and the "Escarnero," both 16.16 m long, and the "Carnaronero," 18.25 m long.

Reinforced concrete boats made in Cuban shipyards now number over a thousand. Having established their efficiency, the Government is prepared to offer advice on the construction of this type of boat to developing countries that are trying to increase the volume of their catches to improve their people's diets.

In 1959 the activity of the country began to change substantially. Consumer purchasing power increased comparatively quickly as an immediate result of a series of measures to improve living conditions for the poorest strata of society, which coincided with the first measures taken to improve living conditions for the fishermen.

In 1960, the Government drew up an official price list, both for retail fish sales and at landing point, at the same level as standard prices existing before 1959, but with a tendency to lower the price of expensive fish, compensated by a small increase for seasonal species. These prices have been maintained, with slight fluctuations, up to the present time.

The suppression of private wholesale trade necessitated the creation of a distribution network managed by the State. This was a very difficult task, bearing in mind, on the one hand, the intention to provide fish as a food, not just to some of the people, as hitherto, but to the entire population; and, on the other hand, the lack of adequate means (transport, refrigeration, ice, suitable processing and marketing installations, etc.), since the product is highly perishable.

Ousted dried cod

National distribution of fish, like all other activities in the economic process, began to be planned by the State, in accordance with prevailing socialist ideas. Two basic types of consumption emerged within the country: individual or direct consumption, and social or collective consumption, the latter by hospitals, infant nurseries, dining halls in institutions and schools where the pupils were on grants, restaurants, hotels, people's dining halls (in work centres), etc. There were also orders of priority in the consumption of "choice" species (groupers, sea bream, lobsters, etc.) whose availability, although increasing, was insufficient to meet the total demand. This order gave priority in the supply of these species to the social category mentioned above.

By the end of the 1960s, the distribution network had gradually reached a point where it could supply fish to every part of the country. The network used isothermal lorries with double differential gears for mountainous areas, isothermal lorries for urban distribution, and lorries with refrigerated trailers for interprovincial transport. Cold stores and ice-making plants were set up in key places, and establishments were organized exclusively for the sale of fish to the public, provided with refrigerators and other equipment to ensure good presentation and guarantee the quality of the product.

Since 1960, Cuba has been increasing both its imports and its exports of fish products. Imports rose from 18 600 tons in 1960 to 56 900 tons in 1969, while exports went from 1 300 tons in 1960 to 7 900 tons in 1969. The successive development of both items is shown in the table above.

Catches, which at the end of the 1960s amounted to 79 900 tons, have increased as follows:

Catches of fish, crustaceans molluscs etc.* In tons

1970

1971

1972

1973

1974

1975

1976

1977

105 800

126 000

139 600

149 900

164 979

143 325

194 090

185 182

* Including quantities of black-finned tuna

Increased imports of fish reflect the improved living conditions in Cuba, with the peculiarity that a new line of products (frozen fish) has ousted dried cod from its position as top favourite.

This change in consumer habits was made possible thanks to the establishment of numerous refrigerator installations in the distribution network. Dried cod, which may be considered as a symbol of under development in the region, has gone out of fashion now that fresh and frozen fish occupy first place in protein supply to the country's population.

In Cuba, distribution is carried out in accordance with the plant for consumption per head, a figure that results from the division of available fish among all consumers. Specific programming varies in selection and quantity, from one area to another according to the characteristics of the area (urban, rural, mountainous, etc). Also, because of habit, taste, etc., not everybody eats fish, or at least not in the same quantities; so in practice there are surpluses, which means that fish is one of the products that may be bought freely.

One aim of distribution is to bring about an increase of consumption in the rural areas and, in general, in the provinces in the interior of the country; in other words, to bring fish to areas where formerly there was never enough of it.

The ports are of course the first links in the distribution network. Some of them are not only landing points but also regional distribution centres. Nevertheless, distinction must be made between them and the interior regional distribution centres, which exist because only a limited area can be supplied from the port.

Thus the distribution carried out by the Instituto Nacional de Pesca (National Fisheries Institute) includes the primary distribution from the ports and the secondary distribution from the regional distribution centres. The next step, distribution to the retailer, is the responsibility of the Ministerio de Comercio Interior or the local authority; the collective food supply, for hospitals, infant nurseries, students, hotels, restaurants, workers' cafeterias, etc., is the responsibility of various state organizations.

To link together these three kinds of distribution centres (the ports, those in the interior and those for sale to the public), the above-mentioned infrastructure of transport and sales establishments is used.

Fishing far afield

Although fishing on the coastal platform has reached a very high level, production is still not enough to meet internal demand. Despite its sustained increase, which will continue in the next few years, fishing in the waters around the archipelago is limited.

To meet the already enormous internal demand, it has become necessary to fish as far afield as the southern cape of Africa. The main areas used for international operations are: the Gulf of Guinea, the west coast of Guinea, the east coast of Canada and the United States, the Gulf of Mexico and the west coast of Latin America (Peru). There, in the faraway places where the Cuban fleet fishes today, is the true beginning of a cold storage chain that sometimes ends up in the most impenetrable spot on the Sierra Maestra, the legendary mountain of Cuba.

Two examples of the considerable growth of fish consumption: in the eastern province, traditionally the most backward in the purchase of this product, fish consumption in 1971 (25 800 tons) was above the national production registered in 1958 (21 900 tons); the tonnage distributed, at landed weight, rose in 1972 to no less than 136 500 tons of seafood products, or 9 300 tons more than in 1971.

In summing up the effort made by Cuba to diversify and enrich the diet of its people, it should be noted that per caput fish consumption, which in 1958 was only 4.8 kg, reached 10.1 kg in 1970, 12 kg in 1974 and 15 kg in 1978.

This stocktaking may be useful and interesting for other countries, since the socioeconomic need to meet the demand of a constantly growing population for fish products is the same all over the world, or even greater in developing countries.