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The Fight for Fish: West Africa’s Declining Aquatic Biodiversity

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes below.

By Harry Mercer

The 5,500km coastline of west Africa is home to some of the most diverse fisheries in the world. It is also hugely economically significant, with more than 7 million people from Mauritania to Liberia relying on fishing for their livelihoods, from catching, to selling, to processing.

But the region is also one of the world’s poorest and least monitored. Boats can pass comfortably from one country’s waters to another, confident that most governments don’t have functioning navies. Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing is rampant, with over 40% of fish caught illegally, the highest level of any region in the world.

Whilst data is limited, local fishermen and international regulatory groups report that the stock of small bottom-of-the-food-chain fish like sardinella is rapidly depleting as foreign trawlers scoop them up en masse to serve Chinese fishmeal factories. It means fish — staples of the west African coastal diet — end up instead feeding livestock and farmed fish on the other side of the globe.

In response, international conversationist NGO Sea Shepherd has created the ‘Bob Barker’ – a former Scandinavian whaling ship – to monitor illegal activity. Usually operating at night, it cuts an imposing figure as it hunts down illegal fishing. The ship acts as transport and crew for law enforcement and fishery officials from five west African countries. Rumours of its presence tend to send foreign fishing boats — often from China or Morocco — scattering to neighbouring countries’ waters. But there is one type of boat that never flees from Sea Shepherd: massive European tuna vessels that dwarf the Bob Barker.

“Their boats have the best technology, their paperwork is always perfect — and they’re happy to show us,” says one crew member in the Bob Barker. “It’s like they don’t have anything to hide — they can pay whatever they need to pay to have all the proper licences and documents.”

Some of those fees are paid for by EU taxpayers, through the bloc’s multibillion-dollar fisheries subsidy regime, part of which is meant to help the impoverished countries of west Africa thwart illegal and unregulated fishing. Further, the EU often boasts about its role in monitoring and enforcement in the region. “The presence of the EU in these waters …  is a fundamental contribution in the fight against IUU fishing,” says Daniel Voces de Onaindi, managing director of Europêche. But critics say this legal EU fishing is as damaging as the illegal variety.

For decades, heavily subsidised boats — primarily from Spain, France, Portugal, Italy, and Greece — have travelled far afield to feed Europe’s insatiable appetite for fish. About 200 of them currently ply the waters off west Africa, via what the EU calls Sustainable Fishing Partnership Agreements. The bloc has 13 such deals — 9 of which are with west and central African states.

Under the agreements the EU pays a set amount annually to the host country — ranging from €600,000 in The Gambia to €61.6 million in Mauritania — for a set tonnage of either small fish closer to shore that are largely sold to fishmeal factories or tuna further out at sea. The EU’s payment includes some funding for fisheries management, environmental sustainability, and local industry support. But it amounts to just a small fraction of the value of the fish.

Whilst the European Commission boasts of the agreement’s ‘transparency, food security, and economic potential,’ activists and academics argue that the deals are neither sustainable nor equal. While the agreements claim to both develop local fisheries and sustainably supply Europe with fish, critics say they effectively do neither. African countries are paid little for expensive tuna caught by European boats and African fishermen and consumers lose their sources of livelihood and protein to industrial trawlers.

Ultimately, the result of increased industrial fishing by European boats has been greater insecurity in west Africa’s waters and the decline of coastal communities. Resultantly, hundreds of thousands of economic migrants from coastal west Africa have pursued a new life in Europe. In this way, the deals also directly contradict the EU’s own aims of fostering development in west Africa to curb migration from the region. Whilst one side works on development to try to support the populations of these countries, the fishing agreements undermine West African economies.

In turn, for west Africa’s fishing economy to fully thrive and maintain its diversity, the current Eurocentric model must be replaced. In the words of Lee White, a British conservationist and Gabon’s current environmental minister, “If we’re going to develop Africa, we have to kill the current model and keep more of the value added on the continent … we need a more equitable share between the countries that own the natural resources and the countries that have the technology to exploit them.”

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