There is a silent epidemic plaguing Africa’s shorelines, borne out of a crisis of global governance, greed, and indifference: the continent’s fish stocks are being depleted at an unsustainable rate, endangering the millions of people that rely on fishing for jobs and nutrition. According to a June report published by the Overseas Development Institute, stamping out unsustainable fishing in West Africa could create 300,000 jobs and bring in $3.3 billion in additional revenue. The biggest culprit is the so-called illegal, underreported or unregulated (IUU) fishing, which has thrived on the back of flexible regulatory environments and indifference. While about 10 to 30 percent of the world’s fish catch is IUU, the predicament is particularly acute in Africa, where one half of all fish catches fly in the face of international rules.
It might seem like a small detail in the grander scheme of things, but fishing also has enormous economic effects, resulting in losses of up to $23bn in the world’s economy. The problem is particularly bad in nations such as Senegal, whose $320 million loss in 2015 amounts to nearly 2% of GDP. Sierra Leone has also been hit hard, losing $29 million to such illicit activities in 2012. Up to a quarter of West Africa’s jobs are linked to fishing. The fishing and fish farming industries employ at least seven million people in West and Central Africa.
Depletion of fishing stocks has many negative consequences for fish-dependent countries. For one, it poses a major health risk for such nations, which rely on fish as a source of protein and micronutrients. Of the 795 million people globally who lack sufficient food, 460 million of them reside in major fish-dependent countries. Declining fish population could cause deficiencies in micronutrients and fatty acids for ten percent of the world’s population.
But the unlawful activities of fishing vessels go beyond just illegal fishing. The Environmental Justice Foundation reports that industrial fishing vessels commit a wide range of transgressions, including “attacking local fishers, refusing to pay fines, covering their identification markings, using banned fishing equipment, transshipping fish illegally at sea, refusing to stop for fisheries patrols, bribing enforcement officers, fleeing to neighboring countries to avoid sanctions, and committing labor violations.”
And while the ODI report focuses on West Africa, the situation in East Africa is not much better. While some international and regional bodies are making progress in the fight against illegal fishing, much improvement is needed. If the international community wants to ensure the health, prosperity, and livelihood of Africa’s coastal communities, it must act now to preserve this vital resource.
As ships from around the world swarm Africa’s waters, poorly equipped local fishermen simply can’t compete with the modern machinery of large foreign vessels. The problem can be seen, for example, in impoverished nations like Somalia, where large, advanced foreign ships capture three times as much fish as the locals, who typically use small, fiberglass skiffs. In Mozambique, only one of the 130 vessels in its waters in early 2014 belonged to locals, according to the head of the country’s national tuna agency. It is not just local fishermen, but patrol ships as well, which lack the resources needed to combat illegal fishing.
Fortunately, some progress is slowly being made in the fight against illegal fishing. For instance, the first global treaty intended to curb illegal fishing is now in effect. Agreed upon in 2009, the U.N.’s Agreement on Port State Measures to Prevent, Deter, and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing (PSMA) has been ratified by 29 countries and the European Union. The PSMA treaty will require foreign fishing vessels to request permission before visiting ports and will force them to provide more information on their cargo, identity and activities.
Action is also being taken on a regional level. FISH-i Africa, an organization of eight littoral countries in Southeast Africa, seeks to end IUU fishing in the western Indian Ocean. The task force facilitates regional cooperation, enabling member countries to share and analyze data on vessels and access technical and satellite tracking expertise. Anti-IUU measures have been enacted on a national level as well. Mozambique, for example, aims to wrest control of its fish stocks from foreign ships with the purchase of around 20 vessels for its national tuna fleet with government-backed loans through EMATUM. The government expects the plan to yield some $200 million annually. The small, poverty-stricken nation has sought, with the help of South Africa, to stamp out the practice by purchasing anti-illegal fishing vessels to control its waters. While the move has been met with anger from investors and the IMF, Mozambique has largely maintained that in order to guarantee the food security of its population and East Africa, it needs to invest in a fishing fleet capable of tackling foreign vessels. Kenya, as well, plans to purchase a patrol ship to combat illegal fishing. Other African nations have also enacted various measures, including registering fishermen, expanding monitoring and surveillance capabilities, stiffening penalties for illegal fishing, and using air-surveillance systems. Such policies are small but promising developments in the continent’s quest to preserve its crucial fish stocks.
If efforts to combat illegal fishing are successful, the rewards could be significant. Possible solutions to the global illicit fishing problem include better information sharing, greater use of satellite tracking of vessels, more investment for fisheries infrastructure in fish-dependent nations, the creation of global and regional registries of fishing vessels, restricted access to insurance for ships involved in IUU, and transparency in fishing agreements. If the international community and afflicted countries continue to enhance efforts to curb IUU fishing, Africa’s vital fish stocks could be preserved for future generations, ensuring a healthy, more prosperous Africa. But time is running out.