By Blair FitzGibbon | MeltWater Press

A crack down on illegal fishing by foreign commercial fleets operating in western Africa and investment in the region’s maritime industry could lead to major benefits, including more than 300,000 new jobs, according to a new report from the Overseas Development Institute and porCausa, the Spanish investigative journalism organisation.

The report, ‘Western Africa’s missing fish’, says weak regulation among governments in the region and a lack of deterrence measures, including coastguard patrols, mean that efforts to curb the plunder of the region’s rich maritime resources are likely to fail.

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A Sierra Leonean fisherman interviewed for the report illustrated the scale of the problem. He said he had his nets slashed by South Korean trawlers which regularly fish inside the five mile coastal zone reserved for artisanal fishers. However, Sierra Leone only had two coastguard boats to patrol its entire coastline in 2013.

In the report, the authors analyse, for the first time, the activities of commercial fish freezing and processing vessels off the coast of western Africa through the use of detailed satellite and tracking data.

Vessels from across the world – including China, South Korea and Holland – operated there in 2013, with the region’s catch exported globally, including to major European markets in the UK, Spain, and Holland.

The findings illustrate the difficulties of preventing illegally-caught fish entering the supply chain – in part due to the industry practise of ship-to-ship transfers of catches.

•    Among the 35 fish processing vessels known as reefers, operating in the region in 2013, tracking data showed routes consistent with the transfer of catches from fishing vessels to reefers. This included inside the exclusive fishing waters of Senegal and Cote D’Ivoire – countries which have banned this practice.

•    Most of the reefers were flying a ‘flag of convenience’ – a maritime term associated with ship companies registering vessels in countries with less stringent enforcement mechanisms.

•    Some of reefers and companies analysed, had previously been named as suspects in Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) activities.

The report argues that regional governments should make a concerted effort to build up their fish processing industries and indigenous fishing fleets, instead of selling off fishing rights to foreign operators, as currently happens.

This could create up to hundreds of thousands of new jobs, tackle the current high rates of youth unemployment and generate eight times the amount of revenue  – some $3.3 billion – as the sale of foreign rights.  It could also help improve the diet and health of the region’s people, as more households consume fish protein normally exported by foreign vessels.

Report author, Alfonso Daniels, said: ‘The scale of the losses are enormous. Instead of jobs and development, the livelihoods of artisanal fishers are being decimated by foreign fishing fleets, which operate virtually unchecked.’

According to one previous estimate, more than half of the stocks in the stretch of coast from Senegal to Nigeria alone have been overfished, with illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing believed to account for between one third and half of the total catch. In 2012, Senegal was losing around $300 million due to IUU fishing – equivalent to 2% GDP.

The report recommends that governments in the region:

•    Follow the lead of Cote D’Ivoire and Senegal, and ban ship to ship transfers of catch

•    Immediately ratify and implement a new international agreement aimed at strengthening port controls

•    Work with Interpol, the African Union should develop an IUU blacklist for the whole continent

•    Working with donors, to invest in improving monitoring and deterrence, including regional coastguard patrols

Notes to editors

•    Reefers are large-scale commercial vessels receiving and freezing fish at sea

•    Researchers analysed data from the FishSpektrum Krakken® UVI database – a fishing and fish carrier vessel identifier resource – to analyse movements of reefers and vessels off the coast of West Africa

•    In a 2014 report ‘Cara a cara con la pesca pirata’ in El Pais, J. Naranjo, who collaborated in this report, found there were only two coastguard vessels to patrol Sierra Leone’s waters in 2013

•    In 2014 the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimated revenue from the sale of fishing rights to foreign operators was around $400 million per year for the whole of Africa. The same estimate suggests African states could generate eight times more than this if national fleets harvested and exported the fish

•    The FAO estimated in 2011 that more than half of the fisheries resources in the stretch of coast from Senegal to Nigeria alone had been overfished, with IUU fishing estimated to account for between one third and half of the total regional catch

•    In 2013 USAID calculated Senegal lost around $300 million in 2012 due to IUU fishing – equivalent to 2% of gross domestic product

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