Fishing groups in West Africa, Latin America fighting back against Chinese incursions

Published on
November 20, 2020

In West Africa, artisanal fishermen are banding together to defend themselves from Chinese fishing vessels, which they blame with creating an impending collapse of regional fishery stocks. And in Latin America, a new industry group has sprung up to defend local fisheries from a Chinese fleet that numbers in the hundreds.

Incursions by Chinese industrial-scale trawlers are threatening the livelihoods of millions of artisanal fishermen in both regions, according to leaders in local fishing communities and environmental organizations including the Environmental Justice Foundation. In Ghana alone, three million people depend on artisanal fishing for a living, Ghana Canoe Fishermen Council Executive Member Nana Jojo Solomon told SeafoodSource.

In response, Solomon’s organization is threatening to withdraw its cooperation with the country’s government on licensing and regulation, said Solomon.

“It’s an urgently critical situation,” he said. “There are no fish. Our marine stocks are collapsing. We are not landing catches. If IUU fishing isn’t fixed this year, we face a crisis.”

Solomon said large Chinese-owned trawlers are legally and illegally catching sardinella, which they sell to Ghanaian natives traditionally served by the artisanal fleet. Called “saiko” – a term for the transfer of catch at sea by large trawlers to local boats for sale to communities on shore – the trade amounted to 100,000 metric tons of fish worth over USD 50 million (EUR 42.2 million), according to the Environmental Justice Foundation. The organization reports sardinella landings by Ghanaian fishermen have dropped by 80 percent over the past 20 years.

While taking income away from local artisanal fishermen, the Chinese trawlers are also a source of funds for the Ghanaian government. Under the federal licensing system, Ghana gets USD 135 (EUR 114) per gross register tonnage of the vessel per year (i.e. a 200 GRT vessel would pay USD 27,000 [EUR 22,800] per year) – “the lowest rate in Africa,” according to Solomon. Yet Chinese companies use Ghanaian nationals to create local companies under which they register their trawlers, a contravention of local law that appears to have been ignored by Ghana’s government.

“The actual owners are Chinese,” Solomon said of many local subsidiaries who, on paper, control many of the larger fishing vessels trolling in Ghanaian waters. EJF has estimated that 90 percent of trawlers operating in Ghana are owned and controlled by Chinese corporations that use Ghanaian front companies to gain national registration.

The situation in Ghana is mirrored by a movement by squid-fishing companies in Latin America to protect stocks from overexploitation by China’s huge fleet. A group of key jumbo flying squid industry leaders, which includes representatives from the processing and exporting sectors of Latin American coastal countries – including Chile, Peru, Ecuador, and Mexico – have formed the Committee for the Sustainable Management of the Jumbo Flying Squid in the South Pacific (CALAMASUR).

Many countries in the region have strong fishing laws, but lack adequate resources to enforce these codes, according to Walton Family Foundation Environment Program Officer Renu Mittal. Non-profits and advocacy organizations have been able to push change by energizing local producer groups, Mittal said, noting the Walton Foundation provided funding to the Sustainable Partnership Fund to help establish CALAMASUR

As they’re dependent on migratory species like jumbo squid, fishing companies operating in jurisdictional waters have “vested interest in pushing for better regulations in international waters” Mittal said. The stakes are high for local fishermen; Mittal pointed to data presented in a European Union submission to the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization, a 15-member body that also includes China and the United States, showing catch-per-unit effort continues to drop.

Mittal said governments in the region now need to step up with enhanced management and better enforcement. These countries have regulations that protect jumbo flying squid from exploitation. Yet more patrol vessels are required to enforce these rules, observers should be required on all vessels at all times, and transshipments at sea by industrial trawlers should be banned, Mittal told SeafoodSource.

Likewise, in Ghana, while the country has strong laws governing its fisheries, they are not enforced. Four state agencies – including the marine police and navy – patrol Ghana’s waters, but lack the vessels and fuel required for effective patrolling, according to Solomon.

In return for licensing fees, industrial-scale vessels in turn get political access and influence, while the artisanal sector receives little attention from the government, even though it provides 50 to 70 percent of animal protein consumed in Ghana, Solomon said. Ghana’s government does subsidize “pre-mix” – fuel for two-stroke engines – and motors for artisanal fishermen. But the relative lack of political clout compared to the industrial trawlers is leading frustrated artisanal fishermen to plot action, Solomon said.

“Government meets on a quarterly basis with the owners of the industrial trawlers, but don’t meet with artisanal fishermen’s representative on a regular basis,” he said.

The financial superiority of the Chinese trawlers over local artisanal fishermen is also buttressed by the Chinese state, with one of the Chinese firms operating in Ghana receiving USD 3 million (EUR 2.5 million) from the Chinese government in subsidies in 2019, according to the EJF.

In Beijing, meanwhile officials speak loudly of sustainability – the term “high-quality, eco-friendly” has become a leitmotif of the many Chinese government guiding policy documents concerning the fishing industry. Zhang Xian Liang, head of the Fishery Management Bureau at the Agricultural Ministry – the country’s top fisheries management post – during a sit-down recently with academics from the Dalian Ocean University fisheries academy, declined to answer SeafoodSource questions as to whether China would contribute to enforcement measures in Ghana.

Solomon and Mittal said their efforts show a route forward for fishermen in areas that wish to fight back against what they believe is unfair behavior by larger fishing nations. Mittal said he believes the CALAMASUR model is transferable globally to any fishery or species that occupies the waters of several countries.

“When different fleets operate over the same stock and fish under different governance arrangements and management regimes, the fleets operating in one jurisdiction will want the others to follow the same or at least similar rules,” he said. “Indonesia also suffers from IUU fishing, especially from Asian distant-water fleets, and the most affected are the livelihoods of local fishing communities, who many times are small-scale operators with low political capital.”

Photo courtesy of Environmental Justice Foundation

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