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Africa seeks to safeguard its fisheries
For ages fishermen have cast their nets into the waters of the Atlantic coast, stretching for 2,000 kilometres from Morocco to Guinea-Bissau, one of the world's last remaining great fisheries. Their catches have been abundant, but the increasing presence of foreign trawlers, particularly from Asia and Europe, has brought the depletion of some key fish stocks. This has raised concern that the livelihoods of small-scale fishermen and the sustainable development of a major economic sector are now under threat."If there had been enough fish in our waters, would we have to use up our fuel to go as far away as Freetown [Sierra Leone] to fish?" asks Senegalese fisherman Abdourahmane Ndir. He warns that if European boats continue to overfish, "they will kill Senegalese waters, just as they have done with their own."Partly in response to such concerns, Senegal halted European fishing in its offshore waters in January, following a breakdown in negotiations over renewal of fishing concessions the European Union (EU) has enjoyed for more than two decades. The agreement with Senegal is one of many the EU has signed with African countries allowing vessels, mainly from Spain, Portugal, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands and the UK, to take home hundreds of thousands of tonnes of tuna, shrimp, sardines, salmon, anchovies, hake and other types of fish in demand in Europe.Livelihoods of Senegalese fishermen are threatened by depletion of fish stocks, in part by European trawlers. Photo : ©United Nations Since the 1950s, industrial fishing in the Northern seas has expanded rapidly, depleting stocks in the most productive areas to levels at which recuperation has become almost impossible. To cater for its growing demand for fish and keep its fleets busy, the EU headed south during the 1970s and signed agreements with African and Indian Ocean countries -- permitting more than 300 ships to work in African waters. While the EU also has treaties with nations in the North Atlantic and Latin America, its most important source of imported fish is Africa. The EU bought 540,000 tonnes annually between 1993 and 1997. Nearly half of this -- 240,000 tonnes per year -- came from Africa. Morocco provided 74 per cent of Africa's share, while Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Mauritania and Senegal together accounted for 25 per cent of the catch.The agreements last an average of three years and stipulate the royalties to be paid, the number of observers on each ship and the number of local workers foreign boats must hire. The costs of fishing rights are calculated differently for each agreement -- based on the number of vessels, the amount of fish caught or both. Often the EU pays a flat fee for access rights to a fixed quota of fish and individual shipowners then pay for licences. Such fees account for an estimated 15 per cent of Mauritania's national budget and 30 per cent of Guinea-Bissau's.However, a study by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) warns that the long-term costs of these agreements -- through the loss of income for local fishermen, environmental damage and depletion of native fish stocks -- far outweigh the short-term financial gains. The hard currency developing countries earn from these agreements may help them pay off external debts and stimulate economic growth, but, says UNEP Executive Director Klaus Töpfer, "unless strict safeguards are in place, this can be a costly mistake."Costs of over-fishingSenegal is one of six countries highlighted in the ongoing UNEP study, "Economic Reforms, Trade Liberalization and the Environment," parts of which were released in November. Over-fishing in Senegal has had a devastating impact, depleting some of the deep-living coastal species favoured by European consumers, the report states.Several factors contributed to this:-- The Senegalese government signed a number of agreements with foreign fleets during the 1980s, to boost a poorly performing fishing industry.-- The Lomé Convention, a preferential trade agreement between the EU and African, Caribbean and Pacific nations, accelerated fish exports by guaranteeing duty-free access to the EU market.-- The 1994 devaluation, by 50 per cent, of the CFA franc, the currency of the community of former French colonies in West Africa, made exports cheaper.By the late 1990s, fishing in Senegalese waters exceeded the estimated annual sustainable catch of 420,000 tonnes by an average 30,000 tonnes (see graph). Fish have now overtaken groundnuts as the country's primary export. In 2000, about 30 per cent of export earnings were derived from fishing, a sector that employs about 600,000 of the country's 3.5 million economically active people.But this rapid growth was not without cost, notes UNEP. The report warns that there is risk of shortages on the local market in the future, due to a shift by small-scale fishermen in favour of exports rather than domestic markets -- drawn by higher profit margins in the export sector. There has also been a decline in certain species. Yields of conch, an important part of the Senegalese diet, dropped from 20,000 tonnes in 1989 to 5,000 tonnes in 1998 due to the depletion of stocks.In addition, the country has not benefitted substantially from transfers of technology promised through its fishing agreements with industrial nations, UNEP reports. Instead of developing new, modern fish-processing plants, emphasis was placed on expanding existing outdated facilities, denying the country an opportunity to process and thus add value to its product before export.Negotiations deadlockedIncreasingly concerned about such problems, Senegal is currently deadlocked in negotiations with the EU. The country signed the first of a series of four-year fishing agreements with the EU in 1980. The last one, signed in 1997, expired in April 2001, but was extended twice to allow further talks. The negotiations dragged on through these temporary extensions with no agreement, and in January Senegal stopped EU fishing.Mr. Franz Fischler, European commissioner for agriculture and fisheries, says the suspension "is not in accordance with the excellent long-standing relations existing between the EU and Senegal."However, the mood of the negotiations has been far from excellent. The talks reportedly broke down partly due to EU demands for an increase in its catch by 60 per cent -- from an annual quota of 10,000 to 16,000 tonnes. The 15-member EU also demanded that the number of vessels allowed to fish in Senegalese waters be raised from 148 to 207.Senegal, on the other hand, is demanding that the EU pay more for access to its fish. Under the last agreement, the EU paid E48 mn over four years. Also, rather than maintaining a simple commercial relationship, Senegal is seeking a more cooperative arrangement to safeguard the sector's sustainability. Officials point to Senegal's relationship with Spain (Senegal also has bilateral agreements with individual countries) as a possible model. Spain is involved in building a $4 mn fish market and a $7 mn training college for Senegal's small-scale fishermen.Mr. Ndiaga Gueye, Senegal's director of sea fisheries, says the government "will not just accept anything under the pretext that it has financial benefits."The country wants to develop its own industrial fishing sector to improve efficiency. The sector relies on old, inefficient trawlers and equipment, contributing to the problems of over-exploitation. While the 10,000 tonnes EU fishermen take home annually is lower than what local fishermen harvest, Minister of Fisheries Cheikh Sadibou Fall says Senegal needs to secure its own interests first and develop a leaner, modern sector that is capable of exporting local products direct to supermarket shelves.The country is insisting that the period of the new agreement be shortened to two or three years. Senegal is also reluctant to provide exclusive fishing zones to EU fishermen or to allow shorter rest periods (time necessary to allow the replenishment of fish stocks), as requested by the EU.But officials are all too aware of the risks of taking a hard negotiating position with their most important trading partner. Mr. Amadou Wade of Fenagie, Senegal's fisheries federation, says negotiators are wary of the danger that the EU "could refuse to let us have access to its markets for trade if we don't comply."Nature of fishing agreementsThrough pressure from local associations of fishermen, some EU agreements increasingly involve Africans in industrial fishing and contain clauses that support the development of the local industry. The Brussels-based non-governmental lobby group Africa-Europe Faith and Justice Network (AEFJN) notes that the new generation of agreements, such as those signed by Namibia, Morocco and Senegal (now expired), include measures to avoid over-fishing, give priority to national fleets over foreign vessels and demand greater local involvement in fish processing in order to increase the value of the exported product."However, the commercial aspect and the interests of the EU still dominate these fishing agreements," notes AEFJN. A survey by the French Research Institute for the Exploitation of the Sea shows that for every euro Europe invests in these agreements, it earns three. EU agreements with Southern nations have created more than 40,000 jobs, the survey shows, 80 per cent of them in the EU.AEFJN notes that even though the boats pledge to respect their quotas and abide by the laws of licensing countries, few African countries have the means to monitor them, "hence they don't respect the conditions of the contracts." In West Africa, nations must monitor not only the boats of the EU, but also those from Japan, Russia and South Korea. Rogue boats pose another challenge, by encroaching on different fishing grounds without respect for quotas or limitations.Harmful subsidiesCritics charge that what makes EU fishing agreements with African countries particularly harmful is that they bring in highly subsidized, commercial fleets to compete with poor, local artisan fishermen, who almost always have no access to official aid programmes. The subsidized boats, often much bigger and boasting superior equipment, are designed to catch more than those belonging to small-scale fishermen.In Senegal, small-scale fishermen rely on a low-technology approach marked by low financial investments and a large workforce. There are 60,000 small-scale fishermen who bring in more than 70 per cent of the total volume of fish consumed locally. As fish become scarcer, the fishermen are travelling farther out to sea. Those unable to keep up with the competition from the larger boats resort to supplying the European and Asian boats instead, notes AEFJN. In some cases, the AEFJN charges, foreign vessels use local fishermen to gain access to coastal areas they are prohibited from under the fishing agreements.The EU spends about $1 bn annually subsidizing fisheries. Of this, about $280 mn directly supports 850 vessels to fish outside EU waters, the group's fishing directorate reports.Because they support large ships and fleets, subsidies often lead to over-fishing, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). At times they are used to expand fishing capacity -- construction of new vessels and modernization of fleets -- identified by fisheries specialists as a major cause of unsustainable fishing. In a 2000 report, the FAO noted that 75 per cent of the world's major fish stocks were either fully exploited, over-fished, depleted or recovering slowly from depletion. This means that fleets fishing for the majority of the world's fish stocks either "already have too much catching power or cannot add any further catching power without threatening the sustainability of those stocks."After years of resistance from industrial countries, the World Trade Organization finally agreed to place fishing subsidies on the agenda of the new round of trade negotiations that commenced this year. This may put caps on global fishing subsidies, estimated to be as high as $14 bn annually."For as long as it has been profitable to over-exploit, there have been no incentives to fish in a way which allows the environment, and therefore the fishing industry to prosper," notes Mr. Brendan May, chief executive of the Marine Stewardship Council, a London-based non-profit group lobbying for sustainable global fishing. "Fishermen are not anti-conservation. But they often fear that what they conserve, someone else will take."