It was midnight on 14 December 2016, when five fishermen in Tombo village near Freetown in Sierra Leone revved up a small outboard engine and powered their boat far out to sea. They threw in their net and soon bagged a good quantity of fish. But as they hauled in their catch, a terrible storm blew in. When the waters finally calmed, one of them, an 18-year-old named Alimamy, could not be found.
Alimamy had stood precariously on the canoe’s edge—something he was used to doing—onloading the fish when the storm waves hit. He was tossed overboard and drowned, despite his colleagues’ frantic efforts to save his life.
“It was a sad day for us in this village,” said Samuel Bangura, the local harbour master, who recounted the story to Africa Renewal. Mr. Bangura, whose job includes the search and rescue of fishermen missing at sea, had dispatched a search party to recover Alimamy’s body.
Dwindling fish populations
Tragedies such as these are common in Africa’s coastal nations but fishing itself is in deep trouble. Fish populations are being lost due to overfishing, forcing boats like Alimamy’s to sail far from home. “There are no fish nearby anymore,” lamented Mr. Bangura.
Overfishing occurs when more fish are caught than the population can replace through natural reproduction. This is linked to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU) or fishing piracy.
Some 37 species were classed as threatened with extinction and 14 more were said to be “near threatened” from Angola in the south to Mauritania in the north, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Mr. Bangura lays blame on foreign trawlers scooping ashore almost every life form at the ocean floor. “We are competing with big trawlers,” he said. “They take all the fish and they destroy our nets.”
The sturdy fishing trawlers, owned mostly by Asian and European companies, are able to drag better and stronger trawl nets over a large expanse of seabed. The trawlers can easily withstand sea turbulence and are able to mechanically haul netted fishes into pre-positioned storage rather than haul them by physical labour.
In Somalia and Tanzania, trawlers “deploy giant, non-selective nets, wiping out entire schools of tuna, including the young ones, which they discard dead,” reports IUUWatch, a European Union based organization whose website is sponsored by The Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), Oceana, The Pew Charitable Trusts (Pew) and World Wide Fund for Nature (IUU) fishing.
Some trawlers are licensed in Africa while others operate illegally. The licensed ones pay taxes, although the dynamic nature of the fishing business complicates tax computation. Many governments lack the capacity to monitor the operations of fishing fleets, thus undercutting efforts to fix fair tax rates, let alone collect revenues.
Mr. Bangura expressed outrage that illegal fishing vessels operate with impunity in Sierra Leonean waters, but it is also a situation that puts African countries in a bind. Governments need revenues, no matter how meager, to invest in agriculture, social services and other sectors that can expand economic opportunities. Yet fishing revenues are low compared to the tons of fish that are carted away.
“The revenue generated by these catches doesn’t make it back into state coffers,” observes Dyhia Belhabib, research associate and fisheries scientist at the University of British Columbia, Canada. “Boats from China and Europe caught fish valued at $8.3 billion over 10 years (from 2000 – 2010) from the [West African] region. Only $0.5 billion went back into local economies.”
An additional $2 billion worth of fish is “either taken out without prior consent from local governments or is never reported due to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing,” maintained Ms. Belhabib.
In July last year, a Spanish trawler ‘Gotland’ was impounded in Spain for illegal fishing in Senegalese waters. The vessel, registered in Mauritania with a Russian crew, fled to the Exclusive Economic Zone waters of Mauritania after it was spotted by Senegalese security authorities.
In October 2016, Somali authorities observed a Panamanian-registered fishing vessel named GREKO 1, flagged to Belize, seeking port access in Mombasa. The vessel escaped to Kenya where it was arrested under the FISH-i protocol. The FISH-i is a programme by Comoros, Seychelles, Somalia, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique and Tanzania to combat IUU through information sharing and enforcement.
The Somali authorities settled out of court with the registered owner and a $65,000 fine was paid.
In 2015, two of six fishing vessels (dubbed the “Bandit 6”) on Interpol’s wanted list were arrested on the Cape Verdean coast, off the port of Mindelo, as they poached toothfish–a tasty relative of cod typically sold in North America. Their arrest followed a campaign by the ocean conservation group Sea Shepherd.
Overfishing in African waters
West African waters are powerful magnets for foreign fishing operations because they “are amongst the most fertile in the world,” notes Greenpeace, underscoring that the resources are fast dwindling. Some of the endangered fishes include Osteichthyes, popularly known as bony fish, which has 1,288 species, majority of which are found on Africa’s west coast. The Madeiran sardine is overfished in west and central Africa, according to the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the world’s largest environmental network. The IUCN reported in January that due to overfishing, “the endangered Cassava croaker is estimated to have declined by 30% to 60% over the past 10 years.”
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization further estimates that 57% of fishes are exploited while 30% are over-exploited or depleted.
As far back as 2013, the journal Fish and Fisheries reported that the octopus and grouper fish were hard to find in Mauritanian waters, having been fished away by trawlers from Europe and Asia.
IUCN director-general Inger Andersen insists that the livelihoods of local coastal communities still could depend on properly managed marine fish species.
“Fish provides a major source of animal protein for the coastal communities, which account for around 40% of this region’s population,” said Mr. Andersen, adding that the current situation undermines Sustainable Development Goal 14, which refers to life below water.
Africa loses billions to illegal fishing, corroborates Kofi Annan, a former UN secretary-general and head of the African Progress Panel, a group of 10 distinguished individuals who advocate for the continent’s sustainable development. Somalia alone loses $300 million annually to pirate fishing.
A direct consequence of overfishing is that communities relying on fish as a source of protein have less to eat. This leads to malnutrition, especially in children. Women who mostly process the fish earn less than they did previously. In West Africa, times are rough for the nearly seven million people who depend on small-scale fisheries.
To combat overfishing, Greenpeace recommends countries set up regional fisheries organisations, reduce the number of registered trawlers operating in African waters, increase monitoring and control and ensure that fish processing operations are managed by Africans.
The World Bank’s West Africa Regional Fisheries Program (WARFP), whose participating countries are Liberia, Sierra Leone, Cape Verde and Senegal, has empowered countries with information, training and monitoring systems.
Under WARFP, small-scale fishers receive training in the use of GPS-enabled cameras to take photos of illegal trawlers. As a result, by 2016, Liberia had collected $6.4 million in fines from IUU fishing, while the percentage of foreign vessels committing IUU infractions fell from 85% to 30%.
Liberia also enacted a fisheries regulations Act in 2010 and installed a satellite-based monitoring system. Sierra Leone’s sea monitors recently arrested over 14 industrial vessels. In 2015, Senegal enacted a fisheries code, focusing on community-led fisheries management. Some of the 12 participating fishing communities are reporting up to 133% increase in returns.
Fishermen in Cape Verde fishing communities of Palmiera and Santa Maria have organized themselves to protect fishing zones. In southern Africa, Mozambique created and is protecting a conservation area, including a coastline.
The FAO in 2009 framed the Port State Measures Agreement (PSMA) to stop pirate fishing. But it was not until 2016, after the US signed and inspired other countries to join, that the treaty became operational. The agreement makes fishing control easier by, among other measures, designating ports for use by foreign-flagged vessels. This is expected to contribute to stopping IUU.
The efforts of ocean resources conservation advocacy groups, policy frameworks and capacity building of coastal nations spearheaded by international organisations such as the UN and the World Bank, and increasing awareness among countries and citizens of the consequences of IUU, could potentially slow, if not reverse, overfishing in Africa, experts say. Time will tell.