Pirate politics

Overfishing along West Africa’s coast is endangering fish stocks and livelihoods, but local fishermen are not to blame.

‘The dramatic decrease in fish off our coasts now really worries us,’ Aisha says solemnly. ‘Because of overfishing, fishing has become a precarious profession. A future with no fish left is fast becoming a reality.’ She is sitting on the beach of Joal, Senegal, among vibrant, primary-coloured pirogues (traditional boats made from carved-out tree trunks), waiting for the fishermen to return with their day’s catch. A battered pair of scales rests by her side; she will buy some of the fresh fish and then sell it in local markets.

Along West Africa’s coast – covering the countries of Senegal, Mauritania, Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Guinea Conakry, Sierra Leone and Cape Verde – fishing is the main activity, this being one of the world’s most productive fishing areas. But the individual governments of these countries do not have the resources to effectively monitor the waters, so foreign fishing fleets – many of them illegal – are plundering the fish stocks at an alarming rate.

These coastal waters are among the world’s richest fishing grounds and support great biodiversity, because winds push the surface water away from the coast and draw up cold, nutrient-rich waters from below. Only one per cent of the world’s seas experience this beneficial upswelling – and of the four most nutrient-dense areas, two are found off Africa’s west coast. Because of this natural wealth, everyone wants to come and fish in these waters; consequently the number of fish is depleting fast.

Fish provide a crucial source of food in West Africa and traditional fishing remains a vital occupation. Overfishing therefore threatens the food security and livelihoods of many thousands of people – not only the fishermen, but those who depend on their catch – to say nothing of the wider ecological picture.

In Senegal, 80 per cent of the fishing is done by artisan fishermen, employing 600,000 people who produce 350,000 tonnes of fish a year. Fishing is Senegal’s primary source of foreign currency, generating 310 million euros annually. In Guinea Bissau it contributes up to 50 per cent of the government revenue, earning 31 million euros year.

‘Allowing fishing to continue at its present high levels is risking the destruction of the economic security of some of the world’s poorest people,’ says Daniel Pauly, director of the Fisheries Centre of British Columbia, who has worked extensively in the region.

But in Senegal and Guinea Bissau, as in the rest of West Africa, too many fishing concessions are given to big industrial trawlers. Their respective governments, however, are more interested in earning money from fishing agreements than in environmental protection. Guinea Bissau, for example, is cripplingly poor, its economic situation worsened by the recent civil war; it desperately needs the foreign income from selling fishing licences.

The waters around Europe have already been emptied, so the West African waters are now in hot demand. ‘Europe has dealt with its excess fishing and unsustainable demand by exporting the problem to Africa, where fishing vessels can operate with impunity and the minimum of control,’ says Steve Trent, executive director of the Environmental Justice Foundation.

Developed countries are paying minimum fees for these rich fishing grounds: unfair agreements are signed, so that West Africa loses its fish for small gains, or compensations instead of much-needed cash. For example, two years ago China built the House of Parliament in Bissau, Guinea Bissau’s capital, in exchange for profitable fishing rights – this was controversial, and many people argued that cash would have been more beneficial. ‘It is hypocritical for governments to talk about encouraging aid to Africa, while allowing their food and income to be stolen from their waters, ending up on dinner plates in Europe,’ says Willie Mackenzie, Greenpeace Oceans Campaigner.

This year should have been a critical time: the final round of negotiations for the Fisheries Agreement between Senegal and the EU took place in Dakar in July. No agreement, however, was reached – in theory, the EU boats must leave, but so far there has been no movement, and the likelihood is that further negotiations will take place at a later date.

The Fisheries Agreement between Guinea Bissau and the EU also came to an end this year; their five-year agreement, signed in June 2001, had set quotas that environmentalists said were too high. Yet instead of reducing the quotas this year, the contract has been extended for another year.

Illegal fishing along Africa’s west coast greatly exacerbates the situation. The culprits come from other parts of West Africa or from Europe, and illicit Chinese and Korean boats are proliferating. These unlicensed boats flout the laws and are not being stopped. They go in restricted areas, exceed quotas and use banned methods of fishing. Agreed quotas are already too high, but even these are illegally exceeded. International law forbids fishing with mono filament nets, yet it is widely practised – especially off this coast – and many trawlers use nets with a smaller mesh than permitted.

‘Illegal boats enter shallow coastal areas that were retained as exclusive fishing zones for traditional fishermen. These protected areas provide vital reproduction and nursery grounds for tomorrow’s fish,’ explains Dr Papa Samba Diouf, Head of the World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) marine programme in West Africa. ‘Or the big boats stay outside the 12-mile forbidden zone, but ask local fishermen to fish for them in the restricted areas and bring the catch back to them.’

The problem is that fishing in West Africa is largely unregulated, with little or no surveillance. The few surveillance boats that do exist are old and often break down. ‘Fishery laws are worthless if they cannot be enforced,’ says Nelson Dias, head of the Bissau office of the International Conservation Union (IUCN). ‘Our lack of surveillance is a big problem. Guinea Bissau needs a satellite system to ensure that we can comprehensively monitor all our waters, but we do not have the financial means.’

Recently, Mauritania signed a six-year agreement with the EU, worth 86 million euros per year (the EU’s biggest fisheries agreement to date), allowing access for 200 of their boats. However, there is no way for Mauritania to safeguard this agreement, as Dr Tom Pickerell, WWF’s Fisheries Policy Officer, points out. ‘The lack of surveillance permits a free-for-all for the EU fleet. This has sparked a debate about whether the EU should overexploit African fisheries now that its own fish stocks are depleted. We have seen small improvements towards sustainability by EU agreements, but there are still huge, gaping holes in the net – if only there were huge holes in the actual nets!’

As commercial fleets empty the seas around them, artisan fishermen in West Africa have to work increasingly hard. Many are already finding that they can no longer survive from fishing alone, and are forced to look for other means.

In Senegal, migration has grown profitable, recently becoming a popular place from which to make the attempted escape to Europe. Many fishermen use their boats to transport illegal immigrants on the treacherous journey across to Spain. ‘This year, we’ve seen a huge increase in people leaving Senegal’s coast, hoping to make a new life in Europe,’ says Diébel, a fisherman from Senegal’s Saloum Delta. ‘In the bigger fishing boats we can fit 60 people lying down and carry them across to Europe. It is a better way to make money than fishing.’

Guinea Bissau is partly protected from the big fishing trawlers by rocks and banks of sand surrounding the Bijagos archipelago, which lies off its coast. As a result, its waters are still bountiful: so unauthorised fishermen are flocking here, often from Senegal, Guinea Conakry and Sierra Leone. It is also a place where contraband thrives because of its lack of controls; drugs and cigarettes are smuggled through these fishermen’s temporary camps and transported in their boats. The migrants cut down the mangroves, using the wood to smoke large quantities of fish, which they sell in their home countries – a double tragedy, because the supposedly protected mangroves provide important breeding grounds for the region’s fish.

The migrants come just to make money quickly, with no thought for their impact on the surrounding ecosystem. In contrast, the Bijagos people have a traditional system of managing resources and a sense of tomorrow’s needs; they take from the environment only what they need. The question arises, however, as to how long the Bijagos will keep this attitude with so much outside pressure on their resources.

It is evident that unless something is done, all the fish will disappear. More international cooperation is needed to enforce the laws if future fishing plans are to be sustainable, and more revenue from the fishery agreements needs to be spent on effective surveillance. Agreements should only be signed with countries that have surplus fish – ie, more than the national fishermen can sustainably catch; and quotas should be set, incorporating scientific research, which will prevent damage to future stocks. ‘There are many laws which need to be put in place, and adhered to,’ says WWF’s Dr Papa Samba Diouf emphatically, ‘including not catching highly threatened species, or baby fish, and allowing biological rest for set periods of the year, particularly during spawning times, so permitting regeneration.’

As the fishermen land with their catch, the beach of Joal remains, for the time being, alive with energy. Clad in weather-battered waterproofs and hats, their skin glistening with water, the men charge up the sands, fish tails spilling over the baskets supported on their heads. Piles of fish stand high on the shore. The sea is a mosaic of pirogues, horse-drawn carts collect some of the fish, and other baskets are loaded into lorries packed full of ice. Birds circle the skies, waiting for stray fish. But if the fish stocks are not protected, men too may soon have only strays to catch. ‘This is our way of life,’ laments Lamine, a 44-year-old traditional fisherman. And once the fish have gone, they are gone forever.’

Kate Eshelby

What can I do?

As the crises of overfishing of our seas deepen, the need for consumer education to increase demand for responsibly produced seafood is becoming more urgent.

Consumers can contribute to the responsible management of fish supplies by demanding that the fish they eat comes from sustainably managed stocks and that the way in which it is caught causes minimum damage to the marine environment.

What should I ask?

The three main questions to ask when you buy fish are the following – what is it, where did it come from, and how was it caught. Ask yourself this when looking for fish, ask your fishmonger, and ask the waiter in a restaurant. For too long, we have been timid about asking such questions, but for the good of the planet this has to end.

The answers you want are simple – is this a fish species whose stock is considered to still be at sustainable levels? Was it caught in waters near where I am buying it (thus ensuring freshness, limited food miles and that I am not, as in the case of UK consumers eating African fish, depriving another person of their local harvest)? And was it caught by hand – eg using either hand lines or nets? Only this kind of small-scale fishing is in the long run truly sustainable. If you can’t satisfy yourself on the answers to all these questions, you should consider the fish an unsustainable choice, and either eat a different fish, or something else altogether.

Where can I find out?

To help inform these choices, the Marine Conservation Society FISHONLINE website can help you to identify which fish are from well-managed sources and caught using methods that minimise damage to marine wildlife and habitat. Go to http://www.fishonline.org/ to find out more. Fast becoming a one-stop-shop for consumers concerned about the sustainability of the fish they eat, the website now provides information on almost 150 species.

For those not online, or seeking more information, the Good Fish Guide (first published in 2002 and out of which the fishonline website developed), is the first guide dedicated to educating consumers about how fish is produced and the issues related to fish consumption.

As consumers, we need to do our best to ensure that the fish we buy are from well-managed stocks. The list of fish dwindling in West African waters is long. The following species are critically threatened:

Barracuda                       Blue ling 
Catfish                          Cuttlefish 
Grouper                       Marlin Rays 
Seabream                         Shark 
Shrimp                             Skate 
Snapper                            Sole
Swordfish                   Tropical prawn 
Tuna                             Turbot

Jeremy Smith

More from this author