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Africa’s Fish Belong to Africans – Stop Stealing Them

Caroline Kende-Robb's picture

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.


Submitted by anonymous on

This was really illuminating. Thanks for sharing this information. I hope more could be done even to make the international public aware that this is happening. It is certainly a crime that is being committed by governments whose citizens have no idea they are engaging their tax monies (or national flag) on this plundering of African resources.

Submitted by Caroline on

Thank you so much for your comment. I fully agree that much more must be done to raise public awareness. Indeed, the management of the global ocean is alarmingly neglected. Furthermore, when we first started the research for the report we were shocked by the lack of robust high quality data.

The illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing estimates are calculated using very poor data. In our report we use the figure of $1.3 billion lost off the cost of West Africa each year. But we think this figure is much higher.

A key multilateral treaty is the Port State Measures Agreement but it has been ratified by only ten states so far. The FAO is encouraging states to include the agreement in their national legislations but progress is slow.

Recently, however, there have been some small policy shifts. For example, the Department of State of the United States Government, convened a high profile meeting last month hosted by Secretary of State John Kerry. The objective of the meeting was to mobilize the international community around ocean protection.

Some African states are also moving and our report highlights Senegal as a good example. But ultimately much more needs to be done to move from destruction to opportunity. Multilateral solutions will be essential.

Submitted by Nicholas Murozvi Munhumutapa Mada on

Beautiful piece of work. Africa is bleeding because of its presidents who team up with donors on the expense of long suffering African people.

Submitted by Caroline Kende Robb on

Dear Nicholas, you are right. Many parties are benefiting from the exploitation of the oceans. In addition, Mr Annan has noted that leaders and business interests actively collude in, and benefited from, the illegal sale of permits to foreign fleets. He states that multilateral action is essential but also adds that, "African political leaders have frankly failed to manage natural resources in the interests of the true owners of those resources - the African people." Caroline.

Submitted by John Milton on

Thank you for this article, however who is in a n=better position to act the you people at the World Bank? The action should come from you. Threatening to stop or halt World Bank programs to countries not taking care of this urgent matter and putting all the pressure you can on your European and US counterparts to take action. Awareness is one thing, but not accompanying this message with actions proposals is a little hypocrite, if you ask me. Sort of "I warned you!" attitude. A massive campaign has start. Are you taking the lead?

Submitted by Caroline on

Dear John, I very much agree with you that the World Bank has a role to play. The challenge of the oceans will only be resolved through multilateral action and, as you say, a massive campaign at the global level. You can watch a short video by World Bank President, Jim Yong Kim, here where he talks about the role of the World Bank in promoting healthy oceans. But many would say we all need to do much more as the crisis is already with us and the grave consequences of mismanagment and exploitation are being felt by billions. Caroline.

The blog rightful illuminates the plunder inherent in Africa's fishing industry and the associated costs. Rich countries contribute to these illicit practices. Governments and political figures in Africa are to blame too. In Senegal, for example, according to the Africa Progress Report 'Grain, Fish, Money' highly placed political figures were able to sell illegal permits to foreign fleets for personal gains.

But it is refreshing that some governments are taking robust steps to safeguard their fisheries resources. In early 2014, a Senegalese court handed out the largest ever fine on a foreign vessel, US$12 million, to the operators of a Russian ship, the Oleg Naydenov. We need to see more of these moves in other countries. Africa cannot afford to lose out that hugely from illegal fishing whilst poverty ravages lives of millions of people.

One thing is instructive. Governments across Africa should improve domestic governance (and surveillance) by expanding their monitoring of vessels on their seas and implementing their fishing laws. Livelihoods of coastal communities are tied to fishing and these livelihoods have to be protected and improved.

For more recommendations and steps to end the plunder, see this year's Africa Progress Report. It sharply and comprehensively deals with the topical issues on illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing. Read more here:

Submitted by Gerry Kearns on

Thanks for this. The theft is disgraceful and the consequences for coastal economies is appalling. Is there any way of having EU trawlers volunteer to have their routes logged so that they might qualify for a a sort of legal fishing certification and then have consumers pressure supermarkets to only buy "legal fish" etc.? Does artisanal fish enter international trade or is it all consumed locally? If it is traded internationally might "artisanal fish" become a form of certification? Perhaps both of these things already happen and I don't see it, or perhaps they are both impractical but I do object to the possibility that I am buying stolen goods when I eat fish.

Submitted by Miwanda Bagenda Sandra on

The fish business if annoying, one day I walked through a fish market in Kampala and the fishmongers asked me to buy "Stake" but all they had was the bones and the heads!! They told me that @once the big men buy the fresh, they are left with heads and bones in other words, fish skeltons which they smoke and sell!!

Apart from that Lake Victoria is polluted, the fish stocks have dwindled because of poor fishing methodologies used by the international companies who only leave bones to the locals.

To me it greed both from the African leaders and double standards with their counter parts who import fish from African Lkakes.

Submitted by Ann Kele on

Again a food security matter ! Would it be an economic solution to give the African states exclusive fishing rights on their coasts ? However, on the high seas, quota restrictions should be applied for the protection of fishes swimming to the coasts of Africa (new methods for the separation of fishes caught may be the subject of new researches). China is one of the biggest investors in Africa. Could China support the African fishermen's interests at international level ? (Convention on Law of the Sea)

Submitted by Asberr N. Mendy on

I hailed from Tujereng, a coastal village about three kilometers from Tanji, I know exactly what you are talking about. Long before the mechanization of fishing boats, fish were abundant and diverse sometime venturing very near shores of the landing sites to feed and take refuge in the shallowness of waters nourished by influxes of nutrients from the adjoining rivers overgrown with mangroves. Fishermen needed not go afar but wade or sail in near-shore waters to fill their boats in a wink of the eye. I remember helping fishermen off-load their boats in return for a fish to grill, fry or boil to tease my taste buds and satiate my grumbling stomach. In fact, everybody at the fish landing site goes home with fish to eat with family members.
It did not occur to me, neither to the fishermen nor the fisheries authorities that although these natural resources replenish in abundance, they are subject to depletion depending on the rate of extraction the effect of implements on their habitats. In the late 1970s to the early 1980s when coastal states realized they can turn these resources to wealth they relegated culture, traditions and welfare of the fishing communities to the second, third and fourth best. The scramble to maximize wealth without scruples accentuated with the coming of distant water fleet to fish in exchange for hard currencies and promise of technical and financial support. I hear states big or small ranting and yelling about illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing (IUU), what is it? It means stealing of fish from waters of coastal states without authorization, proper regards of regulations and landing them in foreign ports for value adding and sales without telling the owners that you stole so many tons of fish from their waters.
The high value policy objectives such as poverty alleviation, food security, employment creation, income generation to name a few carved in fisheries sector policies or strategic development plans in the coastal states may seem like cosmetics to mask the greed. Management measures are proposed but are not strictly followed through. Transparency, accountability, participation, etc., never made it to the commercial dictionaries as they impede the directional flow of cash.
I realized that the authorities and collaborators scored high in overexploitation of key resources, destruction of their habitats and deprivation of livelihoods and food insecurity. There is a need for the fisheries authorities to pause and rethink their actions. They should carryout institutional and legal reforms and put in place right governance and sustainable fisheries management structures in order to prevent overexploitation and illegal fishing and in that way, guaranty that my children and me and generations to come will enjoy fish in its diversity and size in the form we appreciate most with surplus income to spend on other goods and service and thus, keep the economic and social development engine running.

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