Teach a Man to Fish, or Track an Illegal Fisherman

Africa is a continent of vast natural resources, and the West African coastline is no exception. Large portions of the West African population rely on the coast for their livelihoods. In the region, 1.6 billion tons of fish, estimated at a value of $3 billion, is caught off the coast of West Africa. This figure directly or indirectly employs over 3 million people, and represents up to 10% of GDP in countries, such as Guinea-Bissau and Sierra Leone. It is also estimated that up to two-thirds of the animal protein consumed in coastal West African states is fish, highlighting its importance as an economic and nutritional resource for West Africans. Unfortunately, Africa is also a continent used to exploitation from people outside of their borders. In West Africa, this has manifested itself in the form of massive trawlers, particularly from Europe and Asia, appearing along its coasts.

Traditional West African pirogue in front of a Spanish trawler

These trawlers are largely involved in what is known as IUU fishing, or Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated fishing. This is a more comprehensive way of thinking about fishing, as it involves not only the act of fishing, but also the illegal trade of the fish and the demand by consumers for those products. The trawlers usually fish in areas near the shore and then either mix them with legal catches in the Canary Islands or in refrigerated vessels known as “reefers”. The effect of IUU fishing in most of these countries are unsustainable practices of overfishing. It also takes away the livelihoods of some of the poorest people on earth. Illegal trawling has been estimated at $1 billion, while the Ivory Coast reported in 2010 that their catch was down by 30%. The end destination tends to be vessels from China, South Korea, Belize, and the EU, with 25% of European fish coming from West Africa.

Haidar el Ali, the Senegales Fisheries Minister

It has been difficult for the West African governments and their populations to cope with the international trawlers. Corruption is a big issue with the granting of licenses for some of these vessels. Even when caught, most of the captains or crew members offer policemen and fisheries officers a bribe to look the other way, typically in the thousands of dollars according to a source in the Guinean military. These West African states also tend to be weak in the international arena. The largest fine ever levied against one of these trawler operators was $1 million by Liberia in 2013. However, according to the Senegalese Fisheries Minister, Haidar el Ali, these vessels can haul in 3,000 tons of fish with an estimated value of $100,000 in one trawl, highlighting how weak a deterrent some of these fines can be.

Map of West Africa

Even against these long odds, governments and civil society organizations are starting to turn the tide. Greenpeace has been active in mobilizing Senegalese fishermen against the Common Fisheries Practice of the EU, which defines how EU fishing vessels are allowed to operate worldwide, particularly by pushing the cancellation of subsidies for fishing fleets far from EU shores. Furthermore, 29 fishing licenses were cancelled in 2012 in Senegal after 52,000 small-scale fishermen threatened action against both the illegal fishing fleet and the government over alleged impropriety of the granting of licenses. The aforementioned Mr. el Ali has also been more active in his pursuit of justice, seizing vessels and establishing fines for repeat offenders. Internationally, there has been a call by the former UK foreign secretary and current president of the International Rescue Committee, David Milliband, to an international ocean-police force to stop the estimated illegal fishing of $10-24 billion worth of fish worldwide. At a more practical level, the Environmental Justice Foundation has raised money to equip local fishermen in Sierra Leone to track illegal trawlers and identify them so that they can be passed on to EU and African authorities, while pushing South Korea and Panama to act on vessels under their flags. The actions of illegal trawlers have been extremely problematic for the West African population, but continued action and coordination of governments, along with continued success by civil society organizations there may be hope for West Africans along the coast.

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