Global Policy Forum

Exploitation of African Seas and Fisheries: Time to Stop Turning a Blind Eye

This article, by the former UK diplomat Bob Dewar, calls attention to the ongoing destruction of environment and livelihoods in Africa's fishing grounds. Having already depleted stocks in their native waters, European and Asian fleets are illegally and unsustainably raiding the African coast, to the detriment of local communities’ food and economic security. In February of this year, GPF wrote on the illegal fishing and toxic waste dumping off the coast of Somalia, and its direct influence on the proliferation of piracy in the region.  Dewar's article further highlights the importance of international action in this area, for the future stability and security of African economies. 

By Bob Dewar

African Arguments
March 29, 2012

The history of Europe’s fishing agreements with African and other developing countries has been chequered. In late 2011, there were 9 current and 5 dormant African fish protection acts (FPAs). The first phase ended in 2002 when it was acknowledged that the ‘pay, fish and go’ approach had to convert to ‘partnership agreements’. But the next phase also came up short, not least because these agreements weren’t integrated into food security or anti-poverty planning.

So the 2012 reform of the Common Fisheries Policy, with stated objectives to bring (over)fished stocks to sustainable levels in order to benefit EU citizens and stewardship of the seas, is a welcome opportunity to do better. The Europeans need real reform in their own back yard – dramatically rebuilding stocks, preventing over-capacity, over-fishing and damage to the environment. And the mirror of better behaviour should then be shone abroad, so that African and other developing countries get maximum benefit. The Africans, in turn, need to think through how new ‘Sustainable Fisheries Agreements’ (the new name given to EU fisheries agreements with developing countries, emphasizing ‘partnership, development and sustainable fisheries’) can help bring better governance, food security and poverty reduction.

A big challenge in today’s economic context is converting good intentions into practice. Vested interests want ‘business as usual’. Thinking longer term- vital if fish stocks are to regain health – can seem a political luxury. Scientific data is sometimes mysteriously lacking and compliance weak. Meanwhile, it’s the interests of the poor coastal communities and the fishermen with smaller boats and less damaging gear which are usually overlooked.

Why do many of us in Europe and Africa forget the sea when thinking about conservation and food security? It’s not as if we do not read reports about disastrous drops in fish stocks of some species from over fishing, with all the consequences for national economies and jobs; about the drop in catches and average size of fish caught; about unmonitored factory ships, damaging gear and illegal fishing; about the ‘discards’ nonsense; or about how lack of fish has fuelled emigration and poverty along some African coasts.

Why then the blind eye? Perhaps the high seas are part of the tragedy of the commons, merely someone else’s problem?

We have inter-generational responsibilities, so what would European and African children want, if we asked them? I suspect they’d want both good conservation and healthy fish stocks. Win-win.

A combination of conservation policies and fisheries management tools does exist that might achieve that.

For Europeans this is an opportunity to walk the talk. To implement full transparency; have an eco-system approach; be science-based; and fit the precautionary principle (don’t fish where a surplus is not proved). It’s an opportunity to aim for food security by reviving healthy stocks, by moving on from the weaker management tools (eg quotas) to a toolkit incorporating the stronger measures like no-take reserves, seasonal closed areas, banning or restricting damaging gear and limiting days at sea. Fishing agreements should also be integrated into development policy – after all they are about food and nutrition.

For African partners this is an opportunity to ensure transparent and good use of fishing revenue, building domestic capacity and access for national fleets; and keeping healthy seas for artisanal and small scale fisheries, deploying a range of measures to help such communities including aquaculture.

Of course this isn’t just an issue for Europe and Africa. West Africa used to have some of the world’s richest fishing grounds, but Asian, as well as European fleets, have taken their toll over the decades. There are some similar worries off the coast of the Indian Ocean side of the continent too.

There needs to be a planetary level playing field and that’s where Regional Fisheries Management Organisations (RFMOs) come in. A genuinely reformed CFP and better EU agreements with Africa might influence behaviour of other world fleets. Better international fisheries governance should surely benefit every country’s fisheries, including developing ones.

We can’t take our magnificent marine eco-systems for granted any more. Nor can we take our traditional fish suppers – fish and chips or ceebu jen- for granted. The time of turning a blind eye is over.


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