Fishy business in West African waters - and the bad guys are not always the usual suspects

West Africa alone could be losing $1.3b annually. The Chinese have expanded fishing operations in Africa from 13 vessels in 1985 to 462 in 2013.

THE African Union declared 2015-2025 as the “Decade of African Seas and Oceans”. And not a moment too soon. 

West Africa is one of the most diverse, and economically important, fishing zones in the world; but it is also the area which has shown the highest levels of illegal, unreported or unregulated (IUU) fishing activities in the world. 

West African waters, traditionally a fishermen’s paradise within the rich Canary Current Large Marine Ecosystem, which extends from northwest Africa to Guinea Bissau, are under threat with over 50% of resources labelled as “overfished”. 

One estimate from the OECD puts losses from the illegal catch alone at just under $1 billion annually. According to the Africa Progress Panel however, factoring in under-reporting and unregulated activity would increase the figure and West Africa alone could be losing as much as $1.3 billion annually. 

These figures understate the real social, economic and environmental costs of overfishing. Fisheries are crucial in West Africa in terms of livelihood and food security. 

A plunderer’s paradise

Yet, the lack of efficient fisheries management systems and the weak governance by West African governments have allowed companies to plunder marine resources at a low cost. These companies come from all over the world; from Japan, South Korea, Russia, Spain, France, Italy and China. A report by the Canadian Naval Review stated that 37% of the region’s catch is being caught illegally by fishermen from abroad. 

China has received a great deal of attention, with a report by Greenpeace, specifically investigating Chinese companies’ illegal fishing practices in West Africa, making some worrying discoveries. It states that in just under 30 years, Chinese companies have expanded their fishing operations in Africa from 13 vessels in 1985 to 462 vessels in 2013, which now comprise one fifth of the total Chinese-owned distant water fishing fleet. These Chinese flagged and/or owned vessels currently fishing in African waters are predominantly bottom trawlers, one of the most destructive fishing methods in the modern fishing industry.

Dodgy operations

Worryingly a huge number of these operations are dodgy. Between 2013 - 2014, at least 74 fishing vessels owned and operated by four Chinese Distant Water Fishing (DWF) companies, including the country’s largest DWF company, China National Fisheries Corporation, were exposed in 82 potential cases of IUU fishing activities and gross tonnage (the volume of all enclosed spaces of the ship - which essentially relates to how much it can carry) fraud in the waters off Senegal, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau and Ghana. 

The CNFC under-reported gross tonnage for 44 of the 59 vessels it operated in West Africa, a practice that allows companies to evade licensing fees, while also giving these vessels illegal access to restricted areas. For example, from 2000-2014, 12 CNFC vessels that operated in Senegal, though its local joint venture, Senegal Armement SA), had on average under-declared their actual GT by 43%, and avoided paying at least $618,000 in licence fees to Senegal. 

A report looking into illegal activity by Chinese companies, will clearly identify Chinese as the main perpetrators - and, according to the Greenpeace report, in 2013 they are. Over 1,055 Chinese vessels are fishing in other countries’ EEZs.104 out of these 462 vessels were fishing in Africa’s waters in 2013, the biggest foreign-flagged and/or -owned industrial fishing fleet in Africa. But they are certainly not alone. 

According to Caroline Kende-Robb, the executive director of the Africa Progress Panel, last year European trawlers remain the primary foreign presence. Whilst these may not fall under the illegal activities banner, like the Chinese fleets above, they sometimes conduct business in an equally exploitative way. Formal agreements may be in place but they are unequal. Take for example the fact that the EU pays just $97 million for 100 ships to operate in Mauritanian waters. The agreement, the EU’s largest in Africa in terms of finance and volume of catch, includes provisions requiring the fleet to operate at least (32km) from shore, to use Mauritanian crew, and to transfer 2% of the catch to government. However, extensive unregulated, unreported and illegal commercial fishery activity has been reported. There have also been concerns over a lack of transparency. 

Flags of Convenience

The waters get even murkier when one looks at the country of ownership of the ship, and the flags flown by the ships. 

In 2012 for example, the Senegalese revoked the licenses of 29 foreign fishing trawlers – several of them 10,000-tonne factory ships – registered in countries including Lithuania, Russia, Ukraine and other jurisdictions. However, the vessels appear to have been reflagged as “charter” vessels registered in Mauritania, the Gambia and Guinea-Bissau. With nominal Senegalese ownership, these vessels had a legal right to fish. 

According to advocacy group, SeaWeb, one way in which some fishing interests seek to avoid controls is by the use of what are known as “flags of convenience”. Previously, under international law, the country whose flag a vessel flies was responsible for controlling the activities of that vessel to ensure that it abides by the relevant rules, such as fishing regulations. 

Taiwan, Korea, Japan and EU league

The most notorious countries, that failed to restrict the fishing companies registered within their jurisdiction from owning and operating FOC fishing vessels, were named as Taiwan, Korea, Japan and the European Union. For example in 2005, a report by the Australian government, the International Transport Workers’ Federation and the WWFT found that the European Union and Taiwan topped the list for having the largest number of companies operating fishing vessels under the flags. 

However, the EU has recently reformed its Common Fisheries Policy and has, in the process, updated most of its policies, management standards and tools to manage its fleet, including its DWF vessels. The bloc is also currently the leader in the fight against IUU fishing, developing a trade policy to address some of these issues. 

Also, more recently, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea made a historic ruling, affirming that “flag States” have a duty of due diligence to ensure that fishing vessels flying their flag comply with relevant laws and regulations concerning marine resources to enable the conservation and management of these resources. 

Flag States must now take necessary measures to ensure that these vessels are not engaged in IUU fishing activities in the waters of member countries of West Africa’s Sub-Regional Fisheries Commission - covering the West African countries of Cape Verde, The Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Mauritania, Senegal and Sierra Leone. Further, they can be held liable for breach of this duty. The ruling specifies that the European Union has the same duty as a state. 


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