EU fishing agreements accused of contributing to overfishing in West Africa

European fishing vessels in West Africa – and the access agreements that allow them to fish there – threaten to undermine food security for local coastal communities, according to a recent study.

Fishing agreements between the European Union and West African countries continue to target fragile fish stocks in the region, according to Ifesinachi Okafor-Yarwood, who researches why people in West Africa are driven to illegal fishing and who recently published a study on the E.U.’s contribution to overfishing in West Africa.

Driven by demand back home, E.U. vessels are targeting fragile fish species such as European anchovy, bigeye grunt, sardinellas, bigeye tuna, yellowfin tuna, and swordfish, according to the study. Small-scale fishermen in West Africa who rely on local fish could suffer if those populations become depleted.

Targeting African fisheries – despite evidence that some stocks are overexploited – has enabled the E.U. to preserve and regenerate fish populations in European waters while exporting overfishing abroad, according to Okafor-Yarwood.

"Their policies do not reflect the fact that they are in support of sustainable fisheries," Okafor-Yarwood, who earned her doctorate at King’s College London, told SeafoodSource. "The E.U. should be leading the way in making sure that they do not by their actions or inaction undermine sustainability of fisheries in that part of the world."

Okafor-Yarwood’s study synthesized existing research, policy documents, and catch data in the E.U. and West African countries to conclude that fishing agreements between the two countries have shifted overcapacity in the E.U. fleet to West Africa, simultaneously shifting the decline in marine resources.

The E.U.’s Common Fisheries Policy, first introduced in 1983, was originally created to preserve fish stocks, protect the marine environment, ensure the economic viability of European fleets, and provide consumers with quality food. But updates in 2013 explicitly extended sustainability requirements to third countries where the E.U. has arrangements to fish.

Access agreements aren’t the only problem, according to Beatrice Gorez, the coordinator for the Coalition for Fair Fisheries Arrangements, which advocates in Europe for artisanal fishing communities in third countries. European Union fleets also target overexploited stocks in Africa through private licensing, chartering, joint venture agreements, and high seas fishing.

"It's important to consider all of these ventures if we want to combat overexploitation," Gorez told SeafoodSource. "An E.U. vessel barred from an agreement will just re-flag [or] get into a chartering operation [or] take private license in a neighboring country, and continue with the same negative impacts."

Allocating E.U. funds to pay for access agreements amounts to subsidizing fishing by artificially lowering costs for E.U. vessels in the region, Gorez said. Agreements that link financial compensation to permitted fishing levels end up encouraging overfishing because of the monetary incentives. Gorez believes that vessel owners should pay 100 percent of their access costs, and that payment levels should be set to help countries develop sustainable fisheries by funding monitoring, control, and surveillance, or research for artisanal fisheries.

But truly addressing overexploitation might require severely restricting access through zoning or even granting zero access.

"If we want to fight against the E.U. contribution to overexploitation, I feel the only way is to ensure E.U. fleets do not have any access to these resources, and this can be done through agreements," Gorez said.  In addition to that, bottom-trawlers fishing in coastal tropical ecosystems have to scrapped.

"These [trawlers] – E.U., Chinese, locally flagged – are very destructive, compete with local fishing, and do not bring much to the coastal states," Gorez said.

Countries beyond the E.U. target fish populations in West Africa, especially China. But few governments proclaim such overt sustainability ambitions as the E.U.

"China is not claiming to be the global police. They don't have this IUU fishing regulation. They don't have this Common Fisheries Policy. They don't have this commitment," Okafor-Yarwood said.

Okafor-Yarwood’s study also found that the E.U. selectively applies regulations that would prevent IUU fishing. Yellow cards – a mere warning – were issued to countries with which the E.U. trades significantly, while red cards – a complete ban on fish trade – were issued to countries with which the E.U. trades less. In recent years, the average trade between the E.U. and yellow-carded countries was on average USD 884 million (EUR 798 million) per year, while it was USD 21 million (EUR 19 million) per year with red-carded countries, according to the study.

Okafor-Yarwood said she believes that West African countries have more negotiating power than they might realize. Guinea-Bissau, for example, managed to increase its payment from the E.U. from EUR 9.2 million (USD 10.2 million) per year to EUR 15.6 million (USD 17.3 million) per year for five years after its old agreement expired in 2017.

"If a country that is politically unstable can actually negotiate a better deal, delay for a year, then how much more can a country do that is not politically unstable?" Okafor-Yarwood asked. "They have an opportunity to ask for more, to negotiate for better. If you have to engage because you need the revenue, then you have to make sure to ask for better deals.”  

Photo courtesy of Fabian Plock/Shutterstock


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