Why Africa united to fight illegal fishing

Earlier this month, over 40 African Union (AU) nations signed a binding agreement to curb piracy and other maritime crime on the continent’s coastlines. The meeting in Lomé, Tongo, drew 18 heads of state – considerably more than most African Union meetings – a fact that demonstrates the importance to African leaders of curbing piracy, illegal fishing, and other crime on Africa’s economically endangered coastlines. The deal will establish a maritime security fund, and is also meant to strengthen cooperation and communication between governments.

The Lomé agreement brings together more than 40 nations with mutual interest in securing the continent’s shores. 90 percent of African imports and exports are transported by sea, making maritime security essential to the economic success of all African countries. Coastal states in West Africa are losing about $1.3 billion annually, just to illegal fishing alone. It is no wonder then that the agreement was praised as “historic” by Congolese President Denis Sassou Nguesso, while President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya said that it demonstrated an increasing ability to work together as a continent to solve such problems. Only a few years ago, outside powers such as the EU needed to be called in to help control piracy off the coast of Somalia.

The attention given to this problem is evidence of the vast economic impact of maritime criminal activity. South Africa alone loses billions of dollars every year to illegal fishing, especially to the poaching of abalone and lobster, prized by poachers for their high demand in places such as Hong Kong, China, and other parts of East Asia. Last year, 74 fishing vessels operated by Chinese Distant Water Fishing companies were found to be fishing illegally in prohibited West African fishing grounds and falsifying their gross tonnage, according to a two-year Greenpeace investigation. Most of those cases dated between 2000 and 2014, off the coasts of Guinea, Ghana, Senegal, and Guinea-Bissau. One report by the Overseas Development Institute estimates that West Africa could create as many as 300,000 jobs by ending illegal fishing.

Much of the illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing that goes on in West African waters is at the hands of Chinese vessels. Chinese companies have expanded operations in the region from 13 vessels in 1985 to 462 in 2013. IUU fishing by Chinese vessels has been increasing in other parts of the world as well, but in Africa, these practices pose a particular threat. African governments have historically had limited ability to enforce maritime law. One third of all fish caught in waters off of West Africa is obtained illegally by Chinese fishing vessels. Traditional fishermen, using wooden canoes and small nets are now forced to compete with Chinese fishermen using some of the most destructive and large-scale fishing methods the world has ever seen. For example, many of these vessels use massive “drift nets”, which were banned by the UN in 1992. These nets can range from 10 to 100 nautical miles long, connected between buoys on the surface and lead weights 40 feet below.

Since many impoverished Africans rely exclusively on fishing for not only income, but also basic sustenance, the influx of IUU fishing is an especially serious problem. In Mozambique, IUU fishing has reached critical proportions. A 2013 study revealed that out of the 130 ships operating off its coast 129 were foreign, and concerns increasing that within 10 years, the Mozambique Channel may be all but bereft of maritime life. With the country losing 65 million dollars a year to illegal fishing, Mozambique’s state-backed tuna fishing company EMATUM bought several patrol vessels to help protect the nation’s waters. The country is now embroiled in a multimillion-dollar international controversy, after creditors deemed the purchase too expensive.

Meanwhile, piracy in West African waters has increased, as pirate activity off the coast of Somalia has finally started to decline. Fueled by the rise of militant rebels on land in places like Nigeria, economic pressure on a rapidly expanding population, and slumping oil prices, piracy in the Gulf of Guinea has yielded some of the world’s most dangerous waters for seafarers. One report said that 1,225 seafarers were attacked by pirates there in 2015 alone. African nations have tried to deal with this problem on their own, but have found little success.

While efforts by individual nations are commendable, the nature of the causes and effects of piracy and IUU fishing mean that cooperation between governments is essential to tackling the problem. International policy observers have suggested that more regional coordination could be the next step for Africa’s maritime security. Coastal waters must be protected as a shared resource. Furthermore, nations could fill the gaps in their own security infrastructure with assistance from private sector security firms. Finally, African partners in China and the rest of East Asia must pressure Beijing to reign in illegal fishing operations.

The Lomé agreement is a step towards the kind of cooperation that is necessary to secure Africa’s coastline. The signatories should ratify the agreement as fast possible in order to reap the benefits from its operation. With so many countries dependent on fishing and other economic activity on the African coastline, measures like this one are crucial to stem a still growing problem.

Samantha Maloof

Samantha is a freshly minted graduate in International Relations based in Cairo, currently working as a research assistant in a small think tank looking at development and inequality in Africa

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