African countries fighting back against illegal fishing

One in four fish in Africa is still caught illegally, despite the efforts of many African nations to overcome the problem.

According to the organization Stop Illegal Fishing, an independent non-profit based in Africa dedicated to ending illegal fishing in the continent’s waters, ongoing efforts are being made by the majority of African maritime states to end illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, but greater momentum is needed if the “New Frontier of African Renaissance” – hailed by the African Union earlier this year – is to come to fruition.

IUU fishing is threatening the sustainability of fish stocks, damaging the ecosystem, depriving governments of income, and African people of their livelihoods, according to Peter Thomson, United Nations Special Envoy for the Ocean. And the scourge of IUU is affecting a majority of African nations; 38 of the 54 African countries have coastal borders and many inland countries have vast lakes, which are also affected by illegal fishing and poor fishing practices. 

The issue of IUU in Africa has been well-studied, and numerous solutions have been proposed. A report in 2016 by the Overseas Development Institute and Spanish research and journalism group PorCausa used satellite tracking to monitor the methods and scale of the problem, pointing out that transhipments, lack of inspection of containerized shipments, inadequate legal frameworks, poor technology, and a lack of political will were all partly to blame. The report estimated that by developing and protecting Africa’s fisheries, around USD 3 billion (EUR 2.6 billion) could be generated in additional revenue and some 300,000 jobs created. 

China, which is the largest fishing power in West Africa with more than 500 industrial fishing vessels operating in the region’s waters, must play a bigger role in stamping out illegal practices in its fleet, including the widespread use of illegal nets and frequent engagement in the practice shark-finning, according to Greenpeace. But spurred by growing intolerance on behalf of the governments of many African nations, China is taking action. Since 2016, China has cancelled subsidies worth USD 111.6 million (EUR 99.3 million) for 264 vessels caught fishing illegally. China has also revoked the distant-water fishing licenses of several companies and blacklisted others, alongside their ships’ captains. 

China may have the largest fleet operating in Africa, but it is not the only guilty party. In 2017, ocean conservation group Oceana revealed that European countries including Greece, Italy, and Portugal had all authorized unlawful fishing off the African coast. In April 2018, Oceana identified and tracked a Spanish commercial vessel that switched off its automatic location system (AIS) while fishing in the waters of at least five African countries.

According to Thomson, a major turning point in the war against IUU fishing in Africa took place in 2017 at the U.N. Oceans Conference, where the United Nations outlined a series of Sustainable Development Goals designed to spur progress on ocean-focused sustainability efforts.

Thomson said one goal in particular, Goal 14, which relates to conservation and sustainable development of marine resources, has created a shift in attitude and inspired more effort to go into ocean-focused initiatives.

“Prior to that, we were sleepwalking towards disaster when it came to [the] oceans’ health, but after that there was an awakening, because there was no longer excuses for lack of knowledge about what was happening in the ocean,” he told SeafoodSource. 

Thomson mentioned the G7's work on ocean action, the blue charter from the Commonwealth, progress following the Tuna 2020 Traceability Declaration, and the creation of numerous marine protected areas as benchmarks of progress in the effort to improve the health of the world’s oceans.

“In the year since the conference, it's amazing what has been done,” he said. “Four of the targets of SDG 14 mature in 2020, so we've only got two years to do them. There's one on marine protected areas, one on fish subsidies, another on managing coastal ecosystems, and another on better managing fish stocks. I believe that all those are do-able and we've got plans to make them do-able. I have been shocked by what has happened to the ocean in my lifetime, but am now at a position where I feel optimistic about the success of our battle-plan.”

In terms of marine protected areas, as of January 2018, 16 percent of marine waters under national jurisdiction (up to 200 nautical miles from shore) were covered by protected areas, which is more than double the 2010 coverage. This equates to a total of more than 22 million square kilometres of ocean that now is part of a marine protected area, resulting in the mean coverage of protected marine key biodiversity areas increasing 30 percent in 2000 to 44 percent in 2018.

And on the issue of managing fish stocks, on 30 August, 2018, Indonesia and Namibia agreed to jointly combat the practice of illegal fishing, which remains rife in their respective maritime areas. In West Africa, with violations increasingly threatening the livelihoods of its fishermen and its food security, and driving the collapse of the country’s inshore fishery, Ghana stepped up its own fight against illegal fishing this summer. Officials from the Ghanaian Fisheries Enforcement Unit doubled their effort to stop the illegal practice known locally as “saiko,” which is thought to be responsible for 100,000 metric tons of illegal and unreported catches in 2017, with an estimated landed value of USD 34 to 65 million (EUR 29.1 to 55.7 million).

In its seminal study, “Africa's Blue Economy Handbook,” the United Nations’ Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), outlined how tackling illegal fishing, in addition to fighting marine pollution and piracy, can make rapid, diversified economic growth possible on the continent.

Recently, UNECA has started to provide more local, national, and regional support to support the development of the African “Blue Economy.” 

“[UNECA] is working with other partners, including the [African Union], the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and the African Development Bank (AfDB), which are putting the Blue Economy at the forefront of discussions on the continent’s economic future,” the handbook states. “The steps taken in Africa to adopt a Blue Economy approach reflect a wider appreciation of its importance at the global level.”

Photo courtesy of Stop Illegal Fishing


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