Twenty-five years ago, I lived in a fishing village, Tanji, on the coast of The Gambia. The village came alive before sunrise: if you got up early, you could see the brightly colored "pirogues" pushing out to sea, with six or seven brave young men sailing their precarious wooden dugout canoes. This was no mean feat. The Atlantic was unforgiving and sometimes treacherous.
I worked with the fishermen as part of a European Union fisheries project and, with time, we became friends. We spoke Mandinka, drank atyre, and shared our struggles and hopes. They told me how over the years catches had declined dramatically, forcing them to sail farther and farther out; how the trawlers were creeping closer to the shore, often mangling their fragile nets.
Many of these vessels came from China and the European Union. While the EU’s fisheries project continued to "develop" the villagers, trawlers from the EU were sucking the waters clean of fish. The irony was lost on no one. The villagers felt angry, cheated and powerless.
One day, two pirogues did not return. Thirteen young men perished at sea, leaving families emotionally and economically devastated. Leaving friends with a deep, helpless sadness.
Today, West Africa suffers proportionally more from illegal fishing than any other region of the world. Every year, the region loses $1.3 billion worth of fish to illegal fishing (see Infographic). This plunder destroys entire communities, who lose opportunities to catch, process and trade fish.
Rising global demand for fish has made African waters a magnet for fleets from around the world. While trawlers from the EU remain the primary foreign presence, fleets from China, the Philippines, Russia, South Korea and Taiwan have also expanded in recent years.
This wholesale theft of African resources, and how to end it, is described in Grain Fish Money: Financing Africa’s Green and Blue Revolutions, the 2014 report of the Africa Progress Panel, chaired by Kofi Annan. The report outlines the glaring lack of international cooperation – a patchwork of voluntary rules and fragmented institutions that the Global Ocean Commission has described as a “coordinated catastrophe.”
How can we halt the plunder? African governments should increase fines on vessels that fish illegally, support artisanal fishing, increase transparency and provide full disclosure of the terms on which commercial fishing permits are issued. It’s time to limit the unequal and unfair competition between industrial fishing fleets and artisanal fisheries.
Financing the plunder must also stop. Rich nations hand over US$27 billion a year in subsidies to those who are depleting the oceans, including cheap fuel and insurance. Major subsidizers include the European Union, Russia, and East Asian nations with significant “distant water fishing fleets.” At least part of these subsidies goes to fleets that are implicated in illegal fishing in Africa.
Many commercial fishing vessels operating in African waters are registered to states that are either unwilling or unable to carry out their regulatory responsibilities. This transfers the burden of controlling “rogue vessels” to African governments that often lack the capacity for effective regulation. “Flags of convenience” are the maritime equivalent of tax havens, making it possible for owners to hide behind shell companies or nominees. A registry of fishing vessels that sail under a flag of convenience should be established, so African governments have the option of avoiding agreements with such vessels.
Governments can also improve controls in ports where the fisheries catch is landed and reported. As Mr. Annan has stated, "Commercial trawlers that operate under flags of convenience, and unload in ports that do not record their catch, are engaging in organized theft disguised as commerce."
Illegal fishing is theft, comparable to tax evasion, so there are strong grounds for the G8, G20, and other country groupings to back an initiative by Norway that would establish illegal fishing as a “transnational crime.” This could bring illegal fishing under the remit of Interpol, with police, customs agencies, and justice ministries playing a more active role in enforcement. Furthermore, all nations should ratify and implement the Port State Measures Agreement that would allow coastal nations to deny port entry and services to foreign vessels suspected of illegal fishing.
Concerted international action to protect Africa’s fisheries is urgent. The stakes are high – and not just in fishing villages like Tanji. Ultimately, the crisis of the oceans carries serious consequences for the rest of the world in terms of biodiversity loss, livelihoods, fresh water, clean air, rain, and protection against climate change.
Luckily, a silver lining is in sight – global governance of the high seas is shifting from the margins of political debates to centre stage where it belongs. It is time to end the plunder of Africa’s fishing resources, unleash the long awaited blue revolution, and restore a healthy global ocean.