The story of maritime fishing in Africa is often told as a simple one. On the one side are the continent’s countless artisanal fishermen and women who have plied the seas for hundreds of years in their dug-out canoes and pirogues. Today, they suffer because of the other side. Greedy fishing fleets from the European Union and Asia taking advantage of exploitative political agreements. Pirate fishermen, abusing many countries’ lack of control over their territorial waters. And greedy local elites that close both eyes, as long as they can line their own pockets.
To be sure, all these characters exist and the problems in Africa’s fisheries are real. But, as almost always, the reality is more complex than this simple tale of good and bad. Fishing is more than a simple economic activity. It is a complex social, commercial and political arena where competing interests clash. Here, the obvious solution not always turns out to be the right one.
Gaoussou Gueye represents one of these interests. He is the president of both the African Confederation of Professional Organizations for Artisanal Fishery and APRAPAM, an organization for the empowerment of local fishermen in his native town Mbour in Senegal. Gueye is busy man nowadays, representing his constituency on panels and conferences from Senegal’s capital Dakar to far away India. But although “this is now a long time ago,” he still remembers working the nets himself.
In Senegal alone 21,000 pirogues leave their ports every day to fish the country’s rich coastal waters, says Gueye. They land 80 percent of Senegal’s total catch, a valuable contribution to food security along the coastline, where most of Senegal’s 14 million people live. Up to a quarter of all jobs in Senegal and other west African countries are linked to fisheries.
But artisanal fishing is under threat, not only in Senegal but across Africa, Gueye says. “Our biggest problem is the lack of fish.” Landings have declined over recent years, casting doubt over the security of jobs and food for Senegal’s coastal communities.
The fears of Senegal’s artisanal fishermen are backed up by scientific findings. The 2013 World Ocean Review found that in the Eastern Central Atlantic, 53 percent of fish stocks are overexploited. A further 43 percent are fully exploited, meaning that they are fished at a rate that barely allows them to regenerate, while only four percent are non-fully exploited. The situation is less severe along some other parts of the African coastline. But especially where rich fishing grounds and strong local fishing economies exist, overfishing is dramatic.
Responsible for the overexploitation of marine resources, most experts agree, are not the artisanal fishermen. Instead, European, Chinese, Russian and fleets from a dozen other nations push fishing in Africa beyond sustainable limits.
But blaming international corporations doesn’t do the situation justice. For one, African governments and elites want fishing companies to fish their waters. “To be frank, they want the money,” says Isabella Lövin, Member of the European Parliament. She represents the Swedish green party in Brussels and is Vice-Chair of the parliament’s Committee on Fisheries.
Leasing their fishing rights is an important source of income for many African governments. This is true especially for the agreements with the European Union. Most agreements, not only with the EU, are a bad deal for Africa, contributing less to local value added than domestic fishing. African economies could grow by US$400 per year, if they would reserve their fish for their domestic fleets. That is one finding of the FAO’s 2014 State of the World Fisheries and Aquaculture report. But fishery agreements provide quick and direct funds to governments. And these are needed for infrastructure development, education and healthcare.
“That is the dilemma for us who want sustainable fisheries and who want fair relations with developing countries,” says Lövin. Since the 2007 Treaty of Lisbon, the EU parliament has to approve new fishery agreements. That gives it considerable influence. “Why don’t we just say ‘stop all these agreements’? Well, if we do that, these ships won’t go away. They would fish under private agreements and there would be no transparency, no control from the EU, no possibility to politically influence the host countries to set up better control mechanisms and coast guards and scientific research. These measures are now coupled with the fishery agreements.”
EU agreements always include a clause that obligates host countries to apply the same conditions to all foreign fleets. This makes them a powerful tool to set and increase standards. The EU can demand these clauses, because it is able and willing to pay handsomely to guarantee access for its fishing fleets. The current agreement between Mauritania and the EU is worth €70 million per year. It is taxpayer money that is spent to secure jobs in oversized fishing fleets and guarantees steady imports.
But demands for sustainability, financial profit and political influence are not always compatible. In the case of fishing, the tension between them can have unintended consequences, says Gerard van Balsfoort.
Like Gaoussou Gueye, van Balsfoort represents the interests of fishermen, but this is where the similarities between the two men end. Van Balsfoort is the president of the Pelagic Freezer-trawler Association. It represents some of the EU’s biggest fishing companies. The PFA member’s ships are floating factories, which process and freeze their catch of species like herring and mackerel on board. That enables them to stay at sea for weeks and months at a time.
In some years, PFA vessels caught the majority of pelagic fish in Mauritanian waters, Senegal’s northern neighbour. PFA should be one of the main beneficiary of EU fishery agreements, but the current one with Mauritania, says van Balsfoort, “is useless.”
The PFA’s history in Mauritania is fascinating. In the 1990s, fishing activities off Mauritania collapsed. This had geopolitical reasons: Mauritania used to sell the access rights to their pelagic stocks to the Soviet fishing fleet. But these companies experienced a dramatic decline after the fall of the Soviet Union. A NGO approached the PFA, says van Balsfoort,with the request to take up fishing in Mauritania. The organization struck its first, private agreement with the Mauritanian government in 1995.
According to van Balsfoort, this worked well for all parties. The PFA even invested in vessels designed to exclusively fish in Mauritanian waters and building up scientific capacity in Mauritania. “Not for altruistic reasons,” says van Balsfoort, “but if you make big investments, you need to know what you are doing.”
Later, the private agreement got incorporated in an EU agreement with Mauritania. And then, in 2004, the EU expanded eastwards, with Baltic countries like Lithuania and Poland joining. These countries have considerable pelagic fishing fleets. By entering into the EU, these fleets were automatically included in the existing agreement with Mauritania. At the same time, Russia rebuilt its own fleet, parts of which returned to Mauritanian waters.
“There were times when 50 to 60 pelagic trawlers were active in Mauritania, of which perhaps 18 were EU vessels,” says van Balsfoort, which led to severe overfishing. “The Mauritanians saw the money coming in and sold their fish two or three times over. They sold to everybody who asked for a licence and the people who were in charge apparently didn’t care too much if stocks could carry that.”
Then, in 2012, the EU and Mauritania negotiated a new protocol, making drastic changes to the conditions. Without success, it tried to balance competing priorities, from environmental protection to financial profits. The outcome was a complete disaster. Fees for EU boats quadrupled, says van Balsfoort, while the vessels now had to stay further out than 20 miles from the coast, compared to 13 miles in the earlier agreements.
“The technical and financial conditions under which we had to operate from August 2012 were so harsh that we didn’t go,” says van Balsfoort. “There was no use to go there, because we would loose money.” And because the agreement stipulated that the Mauritanian government had to apply the same rules to everybody, non-EU fleets left as well.
The PFA returned to Mauritania after more than one year. Its members feared that if they weren’t landing at least some fish, they would be left out of the EU’s quota allocation.
While they were gone, Mauritanian companies started to exploit the now recovering stocks of sardinellas. But these were no artisanal fishermen either. Instead, Chinese, Moroccan and Mauritanian businessmen set up fish meal factories. Prices for the product used as animal and shrimp feed have skyrocketed since 2005 in the wake of increased demand from China.
Despite these companies often being Mauritanian on paper, they are a far worse deal for Africa than PFA’s fishing, says van Balsfoort. According to him, they contribute little to economic development or food security. The PFA companies sell all their catch to African countries, where pelagic fish features much stronger than on European menus. “In Nigeria they ask us, why don’t you sell us any sardinella any more,” claims van Balsfoort. “And we say we can’t catch them, they are taken for fish meal in Mauritania.”
Gaoussou Gueye, van Balsfoort’s colleague from Senegal, has a similar bad opinion of what he calls “mixed” companies. “In my eyes, they are more dangerous than illegal fishing,” he says. He thinks that their purpose is to circumvent laws that try to regulate the behaviour of foreign fishing companies.
Of course illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing is a huge problem as well. As much as 40 percent of the total catch in western Africa is landing in the nets of pirate fishermen. This puts tremendous pressure on fish stocks.
But IUU fishing is only part of the problem. Some governments award confidential fishing licences to foreign vessels, raising the spectre of corruption. This has long raised the ire of environmental NGOs and advocacy organizations. “What you see is these deals that are being cut between international vessels and small elites in many African countries to the cost of artisanal fishermen and women,” says Caroline Kende-Robb. She is the Executive Director of the Africa Progress Panel an organization devoted to the economic development and good governance in Africa.
In its newest report, the APP has focused on the exploitation of African fish stocks. According to Kende-Robb the business features many of the same structures as mining, a sector infamous for corruption and mismanagement. “It is to the advantage of the elite few who are in power,” she says, “and the local fishermen are voiceless and powerless.”
Stronger international conventions and regulations would be one of the best ways to solve this problem, says Kende-Robb. After all, fish are the quintessential international resource, not bound to arbitrary sea borders. At the moment, though, “you got this fragmented pitcher of lots of different players,” she says. “Bilateral agreements, some regional agreements, international voluntary rules the EU regulations. But the result is a coordinated catastrophe.”
“A really critical agreement,” according to Kende-Robb, would be the Agreement on Port State Measures. Negotiated in 2009 under the leadership of the FAO, ensures that pirate fishing vessels can’t unload their catch in signatory states. But only 10 FAO member countries and organizations have ratified the treaty so far. The agreements needs at least 25 participating states to come into force. “What surprises me is that people are not moving faster,” in the face of the increasing overexploitation of the ocean, says Kende-Robb. “People should already be extremely alarmed.”
But there is reason for hope that at least in some countries, the politics of fishing have taken on a positive dynamic. A case in point is Senegal. “Today, the fishermen are heard,” says Gaoussou Gueye. “They are strong. Members of parliament are starting to take notice.”
The 2012 election was instrumental in this development. It brought the opposition candidate Macky Sall to power and with him a new minister for fisheries, Haïdar el-Ali. The government has invested in its capacity to police the fishing grounds. It handed out fines against IUU fishing vessels — US$ 800,000 against a Russian repeat offender in one case.
Gueye thinks that the dialogue between the government and artisanal fishermen in Senegal is working well for the most part. But in the long run, there will be hard choices to make, he says. “We will have to reduce our fishing activities,” to avoid a collapse of the stocks.
This would of course have far ranging consequences. The EU cut quotas after stocks plummeted due to overfishing. Many small-scale fishing companies didn’t survive. In the end, large corporations like the PFA made it through the hard years, while local fishermen left the business.
In countries like Senegal, governments will soon have to choose and none of the choices are appealing. Continuing to fish at current levels won’t be an option. But pushing the artisanal fishing community out of business would produce unemployment and threaten food security. Not to mention that local interest groups could turn out to be formidable political enemies. The alternative is to deny foreign vessels fishing licences, cutting off much needed revenue. And, at least in the case of the European Union, it may even strain diplomatic relationships beyond the fishery sector.