African coastal waters host some of the world’s greatest fish resources. The Gulf of Guinea and the coastal waters of East Africa, for example, have some of the world’s most prized fishing grounds. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that half of the fish stocks off the west coast of Africa are overexploited.
Overexploitation is the story of a new crisis in Africa, underlining the quick depletion of Africa’s coastal fisheries. At the center of overexploitation is the illegal, unreported and unregulated activity in these coastal waters.
Africa has 35 coastal nations and some of the world’s worst-hit regions for illegal fishing. A third to a half of West Africa’s fish catch is illegal, unreported and unregulated — among of the world’s highest, according the Africa Progress Report by the Africa Progress Panel. In Sierra Leone, 252 incidents of illegal fishing by 10 industrial vessels were reported over an 18-month period up to July 2012. In Liberia, over 40 vessels have been investigated for illegal fishing since 2011.
One estimate from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development puts losses from the illegal catch alone at just under US$1 billion annually. Under-reporting and unregulated activity would increase the figure. West Africa alone could be losing as much as US$1.1 billion annually. In the case of Senegal, the loss – around US$320 million in 2015 – is equivalent to around 2 percent of gross domestic product.
These losses are further frustrated by the great social and economic costs to local economies. Up to 25 percent of the jobs in West Africa are linked to fisheries. Up to 66 percent of all animal protein eaten by people in coastal West African states is fish. Overfishing effectively drains the region of revenue and food and counters any efforts for long-term sustainability.
Fishing in Africa: create local, international capacity, co-operation
More often than not African nations lack the capacity to monitor and enforce rules in their waters. A lack of co-operation among states leads to inaction on the waters. Stories of strong penal and registry actions taken in Mozambique and Senegal are in the minority. A regional registry of fishing vessels should be established, providing governments have the option of rejecting any agreement with certain boats in their waters. As demand for fish booms, more vessels will flock to these waters, further exacerbating the need for rules on the water.
The growing international nature of the waters also requires international cooperation. Yet the international cooperation today is very limited to information exchange, voluntary codes of conduct and general statements of idealism. The markets in which companies operate and report profits are clearly globalized. The laws that regulate their practices are not, but rather follow national codes that are nowhere near coordinated across borders. Fishermen and vessels navigate the loose traffic of information sharing and weak national laws to great financial and legal success.
Non-African states have argued that they cannot find strong partner institutions focused on fishing within many African coastal states. This will have to change. It is understandable that the terms of concessions and permits are defined in a national context. But the technology and financial capacity among other things require international participation. The conservation of waters, fisheries and related resources remain an international concern.
Port State Measures Agreement
One attempt to combat the lack of national cooperation and absence of international law is the U.N.’s 2009 Agreement on Port State Measures to Prevent, Deter, and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing (PSMA). The United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 1958 established basic rules for boats offshore and beyond easy visual surveillance. PSMA aims to address what happens when vessels land their catch.
The Port State Measures Agreement’s basic principal is simple: If ports where fish are landed are the checkpoints for the fishing industry, then it becomes much more difficult to find a port-side buyer for illegally caught fish. Countries that agree to implement the PSMA have certain obligations:
- Designate which ports foreign-flagged vessels may seek to enter.
- Restrict port entry and access to port services (including for the landing, transshipment, processing and packaging of fish) by vessels that have been engaged in illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU), particularly those on the IUU vessel list of a regional fishery management organization.
- Conduct dockside vessel inspections in designated ports and meet minimum standards for inspections, inspection reports and inspector training.
- Share information, including inspection results, when evidence of IUU fishing is found.
Adoption is costly
For the PMSA to go into effect, 14 more countries must ratify it. Lobbying across borders and waters is not easy in this context. It is costly and generally bumps up against local rules on lobbying. And even if the PSMA secures the required 25 ratifications, implementation will require significant financial resources and cooperation between governments, the industry, and NGOs to sustain it.
Wide adoption and related capacity building will be essential to avoid the development of “friendly” ports — ports that avoid enforcing a week agreement. That said, building an IUU list of vessels and players could change the nature of fishing and provide a launching pad for African governments to build off.
Spending for the program’s success is the greatest challenge. Consider it the enthusiasm gap. Only those who spend are truly buying in. Philanthropic funding lacks the backing to fit the bill, ultimately, in the words of one investor, forcing African states to pull the coin from the fish’s mouth every time a fisher touches shore with his catch — a twist on a verse from the Gospel of Matthew in the Bible.