Posted by: The ocean update | May 29, 2015

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

U.S. sailors, coast guardmens and members of the Senegal military prepare to board a fishing vessel Jan. 25th, 2015 (Photo/US Naval For Africa)

U.S. sailors, coast guardmens and members of the Senegal military prepare to board a fishing vessel Jan. 25th, 2015 (Photo/US Naval For Africa)

May 29th, 2015 (Samantha Spooner). 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.

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