Fifth List

Fifth List is a documentary about fishing regulation in Cuba. No, wait, stay! I promise this film about fishing regulations is interesting!

Cuba has a pretty unique economic system in the modern world, for obvious historical reasons. Being so different from the one I’ve grown up with in Scotland, it can seem a bit mystifying. By focusing just on fishing, you get a window into the complex relationship between state and private capitalism.

The majority of fishing takes place for the state, but recent changes in government policy mean fisherman can sign up to the ‘fifth list’ which registers them for commercial fishing. I think though I’m still thinking of commercial fishing like what that phrase means in Scotland, conjuring up a business with a trawler, or fleet of trawlers, bring home daily massive catches, for processing and sale on an open market, both domestically and abroad. That’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about guys going out on something that is basically a rowboat with a vespa engine in it, and in some cases just hook and line fishing.

The state still owns all the capital, so the fisherman don’t technically own their boats, they are allocated a boat by the government. It may be theirs for life, but it never really belongs to them. Like when folk describe themselves as owning their own house when the mortgage means the bank technically owns their house until the day you pay your last penny on it.

If they want to repair their own boats, they have to put in paperwork requesting permission to repair it, and state exactly what they’re going to do. So if it starts making a funny noise, and you apply to tune up the engine, but get in there and find three or four things need fixed, you’ve got to reapply before you can make those changes. Which sounds like an arseache from here, I can’t imagine how frustrating it must be when it means the difference of you going to work that day or not.

Also, you don’t just come home with a bunch of fish and think, I’ll sell half to Captain Birdseye and half to Findus. All commercially caught fish also go back to the state, but like, it’s commercial wing. The best I can figure it, it’s like the difference between the BBC and BBC America, where one of them is allowed to sell ad time for profit. I mean, this film can tell you about how regulation of commercial fishing is going, it can’t explain to you how the entire economy works in Cuba. That would be a much longer film.

The fifth list was a way for the government to bring the black market in fishing into the open economy. People might always catch a little more than they were supposed to, and sell it on the sly to neighbours or whatever. A black market, even one as innocuous as fish, has a lot of corrupting effects, so it was seen as better to give it a legitimate outlet, even if that might have be problematic as well as a logistic nightmare. (Kinda like the WoW token created by Blizzard, if your frame of reference is less Krugman and more Gul’dan.)

Trouble is, it’s like inventing a private sector for an industry in the 21st century when you already have a fully realised economy that doesn’t really fit with what you are creating. So like, Cuba already has multiple policies on environmental protection, overfishing, and balancing fishing with coastal tourism. So you’re creating an industry after the regulations already exist. And without perhaps the infrastructure to get all this extra catch to where it needs to go promptly to stop that whole local black market thing taking hold.

Also, we all recognise here that if you have something that is driven by making money, you then need oversight to ensure it is complying with regulation. Cuba doesn’t really have that, because reigning in unethical practices in private business is just something they have no real experience in. Because work, as standard, is normally organised by the community or local administrative authorities, everything is geared around open communal activity. Private self-advancement is the exception, and they don’t really seem prepped for how that changes the way people view work and the opportunities it affords to get away with all kinds of shit. Just as an example, what’s the employment law around dismissal of pregnant employees? Who regulates health and safety compliance on a boat employing workers aimed at commercial activity? Like, Cuba doesn’t have that, all that infrastructure for chasing up shitty behaviour.

And right now the big emphasis in Cuba is on tackling climate change. So you have the creation of national parks which include waterways and coastlines. Fishing is not permitted there, or within the areas allocated for tourist use. Yet there isn’t something basic, like an off-season, ensuring fishing is prohibited during breeding season. So on one level you have quite detailed policies on climate change impacts for the industry, and on the other hand you don’t have even some of the basics to protect its sustainability in place. It’s all very patchwork.

And that’s what this film covers, (see, told you it was interesting) the range of opinion among fisherman about what the fifth list should look like and what it should do, which regulations would be welcome in protecting the industry for the livelihood of communities and future generations and which are needless red tape. Some are fully on board with being environmentally compliant, but feel like their expertise, or awareness of how problems play out on the ground, isn’t being brought into consideration, and used to inform policy. Some feel like the state has not fully explained its reasoning behind its environmental policies, or the concept of climate change, and that leaves them aggrieved that the regulations seem arbitrary and punitive.

How Cuba develops the fifth list, and gets them on board with the protection of their own industry and own fishing grounds is a huge challenge. Honestly, really interesting film. One of those documentaries that makes you realise how much more you have to learn.