Establishing “fish cartels” is key to optimizing profits, output across Africa, World Bank study says

University of California Santa Barbara Researcher Gabriel Englander.

A study supported by the World Bank’s Development Research Group has found African countries have the capacity to increase their fishery output and profits if they embraced a united approach regarding the distribution of fish quotas.

Gabriel Englander, a researcher at the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB), served as the lead author of the study, "A fish cartel for Africa," which was published by Nature Communications in November 2023. Englander talked to SeafoodSource about how deeper collaboration between African countries can bolster market power for the benefit of the continent’s fish sellers and reduce the dominance of foreign buyers.

SeafoodSource: Why did you and the rest of your team decide to focus on Africa’s fishing rights in this research?

Englander: The idea began from reading fishing access agreements that some African countries have signed with the E.U. that give E.U. vessels the right to fish in African waters. I was surprised to learn that the price per ton that African countries receive is much lower than what E.U. vessels can sell the fish for – something like 20 times lower. 

If they had more money, there’s a lot of good things African governments could spend it on, like health and education, so [UCSB Environmental and Resource Economics Professor] Christopher Costello and I brainstormed ways that African countries could earn more money from these foreign fishing access agreements. As Chris said in our press release, the idea of a “fish cartel” for Africa came to us when we realized African countries were getting pennies on the dollar when selling access to richer countries and that these agreements often led to overfishing in Africa’s waters.

SeafoodSource: How can African countries band together in selling fishing rights, considering the unique and complex nature of regulating the fisheries sector across the continent?

Englander: We don’t pretend that creating a fish cartel would be easy. African countries substantially differ from one another. Our goal was to show that if African countries were able to do the hard work of creating a fish cartel, they would reap substantial benefits.

SeafoodSource: What are some of the obstacles in creating a fish cartel model in Africa?

Englander: One thing we do not quantify in the study is the cost of forming and maintaining an African fish cartel. The main cost is officials’ time. Negotiations between African countries could also be complex and take several years.

SeafoodSource: What role should regional economic and political organizations such as the Economic Community of West Africa States (ECOWAS) and the African Union play in attempting to foster collaboration among African countries in the selling of fishing rights?

Englander: These organizations seem like appropriate venues for building an effective African fish cartel, as they are existing institutions in which African countries come together to negotiate and work.

A first step could be a regional fish cartel, such as one including all ECOWAS members. A regional fish cartel might be easier to form than a continent-level cartel if countries within a region are more similar and have stronger relationships with other countries in their region.

However, we show in the paper that almost all of the ecological and economic benefits to Africa come from a continent-level cartel. The benefits from regional cartels are small, so I recommend viewing them as a stepping stone. So, the second step would be linking the regional fish cartels into a single, continent-level entity.

SeafoodSource: Can African countries break their existing agreements with the E.U.?

Englander: If African countries want to respect the terms of existing, long-term agreements, then I imagine they would have to wait until existing agreements expire before negotiating new ones as a bloc. However, countries frequently renegotiate or modify international agreements prior to their expiration, so that is an option, too. 

SeafoodSource: Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing activities perpetrated by foreign fishing vessels are becoming increasingly more common in Africa, especially in West Africa. How might fish cartels help in combating this practice?

Englander: The existence of IUU fishing in African waters is the real genesis of the paper. It’s such an important and hard problem to mitigate. We decided to focus on fishing access agreements and an African fish cartel because it is one part of African fisheries management that I can easily imagine being improved in the medium term.

I don’t think a fish cartel would directly help the IUU problem. In fact, in the paper, we assume it would not – in the sense that the relationship between IUU fishing and African fish stocks is assumed to be the same in both the status quo and the cartel scenarios. 

However, a fish cartel could help indirectly by increasing African countries’ profits they earn from fisheries. They could choose to use some of the additional money – we calculate an extra USD 37 million [EUR 34.1 million] per year – toward monitoring and enforcement.

SeafoodSource: What are some of the recommendations in the study that you consider achievable in the short to medium term?

Englander: By quantifying the economic and ecological benefits of a hypothetical African fish cartel, we hoped to show what African countries stand to gain by working together. If any African government officials find these benefits appealing, with an extra USD 37 million per year, 19 million more metric tons of fish biomass in the water, and better fishing opportunities for domestic and artisanal fishers, then the first step is for them to start talking with their colleagues – domestically and internationally – to see how much interest there is in building a new cartel institution. 

Creating an institution modeled on the ... 

Photo courtesy of UCSB

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