The government must act with alacrity to ensure the glitch in catfish exports to the US is temporary

Dear Editor,

The Ministers of Agriculture and Public Health are responsible for the loss of the fish export market to America.

The US government banned the export of Siluriformes fish and shrimp from Guyana into the US from February 3, 2018. The US demanded that regulations pertaining to fish inspection in Guyana must conform to inspections at US ports. The only response from the Guyana government is that this represents a “protectionist” policy of the US Government. I have not the slightest inclination to defend the US government. Yet the protectionist provisions of US trade policies are not new. Periodically new provisions are introduced and countries like Guyana find ways to overcome these unfair trade policies. On several occasions during my time as Minister of Health and Minister of Agriculture, we had to update our regulations, including inspection regulations, in order to maintain our fish exports to America.

In this instance, America wanted us to ensure that there was a presence of inspectors, documentation detailing verification of each step in the sanitation and Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points process, and documentation specifying how the industry manages adulterated catfish products.

These are not new requirements for Guyana. To a varying extent, Guyana has had to meet these standards in the past. Previously, these standards were more onerous than the standards that America required. Guyana had updated our standards to meet EU standards as part of the EPA (European Partnership Agreement). As our export partners expand and increase their trade requirements, Guyana has sought to meet them in order to maintain our markets. Even if the new standards were intended to be protectionist, clearly, the Government of Guyana failed to respond to new demands from an important stakeholder.

These are doable things and Guyana has shown a capacity to meet such demands in the past. In this instance, the US Government gave Guyana notice since November 2015, more than 18 months before the provisions were to become effective, in May 2017. In fact, the US extended the deadline to February 3, 2018. We simply ignored the warnings from America. Now the fishermen and their families are collateral damage. As boats become idle and more Guyanese become unemployed, there is a deafening silence from the APNU+AFC officials. The Ministers of Agriculture and Public Health are missing in action, as usual.  These two ministries have important roles in ensuring Guyana is export-ready for fish and fish products. In, fact, the new food bill that was passed by Guyana’s parliament in 2017 was intended to strengthen these regulations. Were these Ministers even aware of the new policies or were they caught sleeping at the wheel again?

At no point did Guyana attempt to meet the conditions demanded by America. This is sheer recklessness. At no point did the Minister ever caution fishermen that there is an impending disaster and that they would not be able to export their catch. Such incompetence displays a reckless disregard for the welfare of the fishermen and their families and for Guyana’s trade earnings. The question then is who is right? Is the loss of fish exports to America because of the protectionist policies of the US or is it the incompetence of the Guyana government?

The Americans insist that the demands made were not intended for Guyanese fishermen, but for fishing industries in all countries exporting fish to America. They claimed that the policies that they warned countries about since November 2015 were intended for the protection of the world’s waterways and marine life. The Americans have advised that these regulations are within the capacities of countries like Guyana to meet and that the country had shown previously that it is capable of making adjustments. In fact, America appeared to have offered technical assistance to Guyana to meet the new regulations. Other countries did so and exports of their fish to America have not been affected.

The Guyana government must act with alacrity to ensure that this glitch is temporary and that before long we would meet the new standards that America wants. They are doable and do not require provisions that are too onerous. In a country where CoIs have become the go-to response for government, a CoI is necessary. The Ministers of Health and Agriculture are guilty of dereliction of duty.

Yours faithfully,

Leslie Ramsammy

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