Africa: Foreign fishing fleets depleting a potential wealth resource

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Africa’s domestic fishing grounds are protected under international law. Why then, do foreign fishing fleets continue to exploit Africa’s waters and cause huge social and economic losses for the region each year?

Every day hundreds of unlicensed fishing vessels enter African waters and trawl for shrimp, sardines, tuna, and mackerel. They cost Africa some $1 bn a year, according to 2005 study by DFID, the UK government’s official aid agency. “It is not just an African problem,” says Mr. Arona Soumare, Worldwide Wildlife Fund (WWF) conservation director for West Africa. Even developed states with substantial marine security forces struggle to keep unlicensed fishing vessels from their waters. However, Mr. Soumare notes, the social and economic impact of such losses on Africa is huge.” The funds lost to illegal fishing are “a potential source of income” that African countries “can ill-afford to be without.”

Africa’s waters are protected under international law. In 1982, the International Law of the Sea set a 200 mile zone off the shores of coastal states within which fishing and other natural resource exploitation cannot take place without a licence. But African countries’ efforts to stop illegal fishing within those limits are hampered by a lack of expertise and the lack of the enormous resources needed to police such wide maritime areas. Only a few countries, like Namibia and South Africa, are able to patrol their waters and keep away illegal vessels, says Sloans Chimatiro, senior fisheries adviser at the secretariat of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), adopted by African leaders in 2001.

Under various national and international agreements, boats must be licensed. They must not take more fish than the set quota and they must keep away from protected areas. Fleets are not permitted to use long trawling fishing nets. Such nets catch everything within their reach. Excess or unwanted types of fish are simply discarded

But to enforce the rules, governments need equipment — patrol boats, aerial surveillance and monitoring systems, says Andre Standing, a senior researcher at the South African Institute of Security Studies. They also need trained law enforcement staff, proper investigation procedures, audits of fish stocks and sustainable fisheries programmes. Not many African countries have these or the funds and expertise to create them, notes Mr. Standing.

Experts suggest that the solution lies in better cooperation among governments, especially sharing information and equipment. “No single country can effectively guard its territorial waters without working together with others,” asserts Mr. Chimatiro. Now NEPAD and its partners, including DFID and the non-profit group, Stop Illegal Fishing, are working with African governments to improve collaboration and the sharing of information and resources.

Livelihoods threatened

Since many Africans earn their living from fisheries, there is a social impact from illegal fishing. According to WWF, fisheries “make a vital contribution to the food and nutritional security of over 200 million Africans and provide income for over 10 million, mostly small-scale fishers … and entrepreneurs.” In 2005, the West Africa Sustainable Seafood Development Alliance, a network of fishing professionals based in Dakar, Senegal, found that some 5.6 million jobs in West Africa were fisheries-related and that exports from fish products from the region earned $711 mn. For Africa as a whole, some $2.7 bn worth of fish and fish products are exported annually.

Despite the importance of fisheries in their economies, governments spend very little to protect and manage them. Tim Bostock, a DfID fisheries programme coordinator, told Africa Renewal that fisheries have traditionally ranked “very low on people’s political radar worldwide,” contributing “to the problems we see today.” However, he adds, “Looking at the money being lost has definitely helped garner the attention of politicians.”

Regional coordination needed

Combating illegal and unregulated fishing requires countries to share expertise and information so that fleets forced away from the waters of one country cannot simply move to a neighbouring area. Some organizations try to provide coordination. The Sub-regional Fisheries Commission (SFRC), based in Dakar, Senegal, is a platform for cooperation among Cape Verde, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mauritania, Senegal and Sierra Leone. The Committee for the Eastern Central Atlantic Fisheries (CECAF) is supposed to play a similar role. “But CECAF has no regulatory powers and the SFRC has a limited geographical scope,” Mr. Soumare told Africa Renewal. Similarly, the West African Sub-regional Fisheries Commission is not yet fully operational, Mr. Soumare concedes. “African inter-governmental organizations that have a mandate to combat illegal fishing appear to be chronically under-funded and inefficient,” adds Mr. Standing.

In 2007, the Sub-regional Integrated Coast Guard Network, a joint project of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the Maritime Organization of West and Central Africa (MOWCA), was set up as a way to link maritime security agencies, non-African navies, insurers, Interpol and various UN agencies working on fisheries and security in 25 states along Africa’s western and central coastline. IMO and MOWCA hope that countries like Ghana, Nigeria and Senegal, which are members of the Network, will use it to share information and resources and improve their collective ability to halt illegal fishing.

According to IMO’s Chris Trelawny, if African states “tightened the net” around illegal fishing, they could earn more from licenses and could then pay for better surveillance of ports and seas. Mr. Bostock agrees. “If that wealth can be channelled to better policing and if you have patrol boats where fish are trawled, then surveillance can be quite effective. It doesn’t cost that much relative to the fisheries’ value.”

Donor support appears to be growing. In 2006, donors pledged $240 mn for monitoring and surveillance of fisheries across Africa. In 2008, DfID approved £6 mn for a five-year Partnership for Africa Fisheries programme, to be coordinated by the NEPAD Secretariat. The programme aims to bring governments, civil society groups and private fishing companies together to find ways to better manage fisheries and prevent illegal fishing. While such projects provide a promising start, much more will be needed to help safeguard the livelihoods that depend on Africa’s coastal waters.

Ms. Mary Kimani is a writer for United Nations Africa Renewal magazine.

Africa Renewal  Africa Renewal magazine, published by the United Nations, examines Africa's development, achievements and challenges. It provides expert analysis and on-the-spot reporting to show how policies affect Africa's people.
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