Meeting the stringent requirements of international food safety standards can make the difference between success and failure in the regional fisheries sector both as a generator of foreign exchange and as a provider of safe food for domestic consumption.
According to leading regional experts and industry players meeting in Barbados earlier this week, such issues are fast becoming matters related to the very survival of a food sub-sector already besieged by a variety of environmental and regulatory factors.
According to figures from the Seafood Industry Development Company (SIDC), made available to the meeting organised by the Caribbean Regional Fisheries Mechanism (CRFM), in T&T the industry represents ten per cent of total output in the agriculture sector amounting to .09 per cent of national GDP and rising.
However, though exports continue to rise, peaking at $80 million over the last recorded period, the country remains saddled with imports that exceed $60 million annually.
Regional experts, however, say that while there was a level of primary processing and packaging in the local industry, further processing to meet Sanitary and Phytosanitary Standards (SPS) would be required to "help close the gap."
Similar situations arise throughout the Caribbean.
CRFM executive director, Milton Haughton told the meeting: "A very important challenge for us in the region at this time is how to optimise economic and social value of our fish and aquaculture production."
"A key impediment is meeting international standards for SPS and seafood safety," he said.
Experts say potentially lucrative European markets can go relatively untapped until regional processors take action to take advantage of markets now subject to free trade under the European Union's Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA).
Haughton pointed to the fact that several Caribbean countries "have still not been able to fully surmount the challenges posed by the complex SPS requirements of the EU regulations and are thus effectively barred from exporting fish and seafood to the EU market."
More than that, according to Ena Harvey, who heads the Barbados office of the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA), "we need to provide wholesome products for our populations as well as for the millions of long stay and cruise visitors and for whom the tourism experience includes a cuisine featuring seafood."
She noted that "a high percentage of the seafood products we consume, is imported as frozen and salted fish."
It was a point also made by Esworth Reid, permanent secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture, Food, Fisheries and Water Resource Management of Barbados.
"Despite the abundance of sea water that surrounds us and the high population of fish that may be in our waters, I have not yet seen or heard of a can of tuna or any other fish labelled 'produced in Barbados', 'produced in Trinidad' or produced by any other country of the region," he noted.
"I believe that I would be correct to say that all of the canned fish consumed in the region is imported," he added.
The assessment of the meeting which ended Tuesday was that the Caribbean was "at the very early stages of introducing a new regime for safe seafood for local and international consumption."
The "SPS Measures" project discussed at the meeting, in Haughton's view, was important to "help to create a solid foundation for our countries to improve trade capacity."
This, he said, made it possible for the Caribbean "to take advantage of opportunities to expand export of fish and seafood, not just to Europe, but also to other markets, while at the same time ensure that imported and locally harvested fish are safe for our people to eat."