Fishing out illegal exploitation

As the European Union tightens its relationship with Western Africa to prevent IUU fishing, ships continue to illegally trawl Senegalese seas to sell in EU-markets


Local fishermen hauling in their boat after the day’s fishing, taken on the beach of Senegal’s capital City Dakar (Source: Wikimedia Commons)


Legal and illegal exploitation of West African seas by foreign fishing ships has continued at the expense of deprived locals for decades. While the European Commission imposes new sanctions to restrict the illegal fishing of foreign ships, there are fears local waters will continue to be overfished for hungry Europeans.

As Stuart goes to his local fish shop for his Friday cod and chips after a long day’s work, the last thing he is going to be thinking about is the exploitation of Senegalese fishermen.

Though he has noticed the price of his standard battered-cod go up in the past year, his lighter pocket of change is not going to be enough lead him to the streets to campaign against overfishing in West Africa.

Aside from Stuart and other common Europeans, the international community has long been aware of the illegal exploitation of West African waters. A study conducted by the Environmental Justice Foundation documented ships with Chinese and European-flags being the main culprits of overfishing in banned waters, with the fish being subsequently sold in EU markets.

There is no way the EU can overlook their involvement in West African illegal fishing, particularly as blame has already been attributed to European ships.

In 2014 British newspaper the Guardian spoke to the Senegalese Minister for Fisheries, Haïdar el Ali, who openly directed responsibility towards European-flagged vessels. “The giant ships that we are currently pursuing, for illegal fishing, trawl pelagic fish… [cod, prawns, trout] a food staple in the entire region. In a single day those ships can trawl what an artisanal crew takes in a year.”

The issue creates a difficult conflict of interest for the EU. On one hand,  it has long-standing economic agreements with the West African Community, dominated by Senegalese fishing, which make the EU the largest trading partner in the region. On the other hand, European businesses have for a long time benefited from the exploitation of West African seas as the EU being one of the world’s largest fish markets, with demand increasing year-by-year.

The region is one of the world’s most resource-rich fish environments, with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) contributing well-over 2 million tones of fish per year, not including statistics for illegal, unreported or unregulated (IUU) catches.

The region is economically dependent on the fishing industry for it’s exports, but also for employment. Of the almost 8 million people living on the Senegalese and extended West African coast, over 600,000 men and women depend directly on the fishing industry for employment.

Joal is Senegal’s largest fishing city catching 120,000 tonnes of fish per year, but the port like many on the coast has suffered desperately in recent decades.

Since the European Union made its first African fishing agreement with Senegal in 1979, illegal fishing operations from other foreign vessels became commonplace; with many locals blaming the initial European involvement. “After the arrival of the European boats our productivity has declined day-by-day”, said one of the many local fishermen.

Our families cannot pay for their water, electricity or schools.

Speaking to The Guardian, many locals retorted to the desperate dependency on fishing in the Joal area. “”There used to be flies all over the town, because people would throw away fish, they were so plentiful. Now there are no flies because no one throws anything away.”

“Twenty years ago we could not have imagined that people from Joal would be eating sardines and sardinella. There were much better fish to eat. Now it’s all we catch.”

In the past 10 years the city of Joal has seen its fishing community double, while the annual number of catches has decreased by 75%. West African fisheries are literally fished to their capacity.

“Illegal fishing in West Africa is out of control”

Senior Fisheries planning officer of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, David Doulman

The issue of illegal fishing has continued to be facilitated by regional powers lacking the required resources to quell the problem. Papa Gora Ndiaye, the Director of West African fishing policy (REPAQ), explains that the “absence of political and economic stability” is the key contributor to the illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing in the area.

Despite active attempts by security forces to combat IUU fishing within the region, efforts have been in vain. As described in a scientific study by the European Commission’s Director General for environment, “coastal nations lack the necessary legislation to adequately protect their marine resources.”

Countries in the region have not been able to set up the costly and complex control structures that exist in the developed world, to combat the problem.

The most senior fisheries authority in the region, The Sub-Regional Fisheries Commission (SRFC) cites the four most prominent reasons why they have not been able to successfully fight IUU fishing:

  • Inadequately trained authorities
  • Poor states see IUU fishing as a low-priority
  • Relatively low salaries for fishery authority workers
  • High cost to supervise the sea

[Science for Environment Policy: European Commission DG Environment News Alert Service]

Without the sufficient authority forces in place, fishermen have had free-rein on the sea, which reached its peak in 2015 when West Africa had the highest level of IUU fishing in the world. Losing over €1 billion per year to IUU fishing, Greenpeace estimates that 40% of all West African fish is caught by illegal means.

And from the fishermen’s perspective, why would they not make the most of the situation? When illegally fishing, not paying taxes, or duties charges is unpunished in one of the world’s most fish-rich environments, it would seem there is no moral high-ground at sea.

By its own admission, the EU occupies an integral position as a stakeholder in the conservation of African waters. But for a long time European powers have been more concerned about what they can get out of the seas, rather than what they can put in.

Even on the Commission’s website, documenting existing trade with West Africa, all policy in support of the region’s development is listed under the title Aid for trade; with European exports of chemicals, machinery and pharmaceuticals in exchange for fuel and food.

Aside from the requests of support from regional authorities, a number of international organisations have openly appealed to the European Union. Speaking to the Huffington Post in early 2015, West African Green Peace activists Marie Traore and Justine Mailot explained clearly that “European and local [African] citizens’ interests are not aligned. We ask the EU to put pressure on our governments, but they often have no vested interest in pursuing this.”

What has changed, and why?

Since then the European Union has intensified its involvement in the West African region by imposing stricter policy to further ensure the prohibition of IUU fishing. However, reasoning for the EU’s increased control over fishing has less to do with supporting regional fishermen, and more to do with the economic impacts of the environment.

Overexploitation of fish stocks has led to critical market shortages which could seriously damage the fish ecology in the West African sea, beyond repair. In December 2015 the European Commission admitted that if it did not step-In with new rules to stop illegal fishing, then fish commonly eaten by Europeans and locals would become scarce.

IUU fishing commonly targets fish which are popular in international markets, with the higher-value species being cod, salmon, lobster and prawns. If the EU did not intervene to prevent IUU fishing, the cost of Europe’s most popular sea-food would noticeably increase.

Stricter monitoring of the seas with emerging technologies previously unavailable to local patrollers will help enforce the EU’s newly proposed international rules, which will apply to vessels coming from inside and outside the EU.

Fortunately for the ecology of the West African sea, experts indicate that better management of the region will swiftly reverse the effects of decades of overfishing.

Worldwide fishing organisation, Rare, are confident that the regions fish reserves will be able to bounce-back. But only if the maintenance of the area will primarily benefit the local community without foreign interest taking precedence.

“Properly managed marine ecosystems can rebound relatively quickly… it is not too late to reverse trends.”

The worry is that throughout the EU’s involvement in the region, it has always had something to benefit from what it puts in. From the long-standing trade agreements with Senegal dating back to 1979, to the more recent policy of Trade for Aid, locals have always had to make compromise for support with the EU.

Hopefully the environmental severity will not only diminish IUU fishing, but will also quell the exploitation of locals in the West African region.

And hopefully Stuart will continue to be able to buy his weekly cod and chips, with enough change left over to donate towards the fight against illegal fishing.





Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s