West Africa Sees Ever More Fishing Boats From Europe

‘Partnership Agreements’ allow the EU to pay for access to fisheries

News | Christian Cummins | June 2011

Harouna Ismael Lebaye from Mauritania says he rues the day that the big boats from Europe started turning up off the coast of his West African country. These waters have been called one of last great fishing grounds on Earth, and, as he describes it, Europeans have been depleting the marine resources that had nourished his coastal community for decades. Although already badly diminished, like much of the world’s oceans, they still support thousands of artisanal fishermen sailing 12-meter open-decked pirogues.

"After the arrival of the European boats our productivity has declined day by day," he told me. "We used to spend half a day at sea to catch enough fish to fulfill our needs, now it is often ten to fourteen days. We have to take more risks and go further from the coast. But still our productivity declines."

Two weeks at sea is no joke for fishermen like Harouna Ismael. I’ve spent half an hour on one of these rickety pirogues in Ghana, never out of sight of the Gulf of Guinea, and it was enough to scare me. They are buffeted by the waves and very dangerous in storms. The pirogues are dwarfed by the foreign ships competing for the fish. The factory trawlers flying the flags of European Union members are often over a hundred meters long. These "floating football fields" are equipped with the state-of-the-art technology, explains Anje Helms of Greenpeace, which allows them to follow the shoals and "hoover them up" with startling efficiency. They then store them in massive refrigeration vats before whisking them off to the ports of the European Union, the world’s largest market for fishery products.

The local fishermen can see their lights from their beach-side shacks. It must be a disheartening sight. The race for West African fish is a David vs. Goliath battle but, unlike the Sunday School story, this time Goliath is winning. Greenpeace estimates that at least 235,000 tonnes of fish are caught in the waters of Mauritania and neighboring Morocco every year. According to estimates by Mauritania’s own ministry of fisheries, the European trawlers take over 20 times more fish from the country’s waters than the pirogues.

"In one day," confirms Greenpeace, "these behemoth vessels can capture the same amount of fish as thirty or forty traditional pirogue boats would catch in one year."

The law is on Goliath’s side. This plundering of African marine resources is mostly legal and subsidized by us – the European taxpayers. European fishing grounds have been chronically over-fished and now the Europe Union, the biggest market in the world, gets an estimated quarter of its catch in foreign seas by signing Fisheries Partnership Agreements with developing countries like Mauritania.

These "cash for access" deals allow European boats to fish the waters in exchange for multi-million dollar payments that in principle should be used to encourage sustainable development benefitting the coastal communities. Greenpeace says that each year EU taxpayers contribute €158 million directly to other countries to secure access to their waters and fisheries resources – at about "half a million Euros per vessel per year."

But Mauritanian fisherman Harouna Ismael says his community, which is suffering from the reduced catches never sees the money. It has been siphoned off by the Mauritanian government, he suggests, to be used for other national priorities such as agriculture.  In a report called "To Draw the Line," the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation (SSNC) has criticized the lack of monitoring to assure that European taxpayers money reaches its intended destination. The SSNC’s Kajsa Garpe reported that "in three out of four countries, we found no evidence that money was being spent on the development of local fisheries management. Fish workers and coastal communities do not see any benefits of these agreements whatsoever." According to Greenpeace, our tax money is being used not to fund development but rather to "fuel the short-term profits of foreign companies at the expense of the environment."

While it is not surprising that the governments of developing countries are so easily seduced into selling off their fishing rights, economists also point out that the trickle down effects of Europe’s involvement too are minimal. The fish are processed on board these European factory boats and taken directly to the European market. There are no incentives for processing and cannery industries to sprout up along the coast in Africa. Once again Africa is being prized for its raw materials and little else.

Conservationists say the policy is not just economically damaging for African fishers but ecologically destructive for African marine life. Researchers say the traditional artisanal fishing is more ecologically friendly because the local fishermen are selective about what they catch, whereas the European trawlers take everything – before discarding much of the catch. They have complained that the government didn’t consult them before signing the deals with Europe and that the trawlers are causing the destruction of marine ecosystems.

According to Mikael Karlsson, President of SSNC, "the risk of an ecological disaster is imminent. EU is literally taking the food out of the hands of the local people. Depleted fish stocks may never recover and EU is contributing to a situation where millions of people will have to seek new livelihoods elsewhere."

It says the EU should only be able to sign new fishing agreements with developing countries if there is a scientifically-proven surplus of fish which would also be fished sustainably. They are calling for "scientific sustainability impact assessments" before each agreement is signed.

Not every country in West Africa has signed deals with Europe. Senegal has tried to protect its waters, but Senegalese fisherman Ameth says the foreign boats still get the big catches. "It’s true there is no agreement but still these boats fish our Senegalese waters. Our resources are dwindling and our catches have got smaller since the arrival of these boats." Ameth, 39, has fished his entire life using traditional seines, nets and hooks. Fishing is his sole source of income and encompasses all aspects of life in his village. "For the coastal communities it’s our source of life. "

It would be unfair to blame the situation entirely on policies hammered out in Brussels. Japan, China, Russia have all signed ‘cash for access’ deals. And then there is the added challenge of illegal "pirate fishing," thought to bring in $1 billion in illegal catch in sub-Saharan Africa annually, according to a 2009 Sunday Times report. Last month, for example, European authorities impounded 1,100 tonnes of fish on three refrigeration vessels docked in the Canary Islands following allegations they were caught off West Africa. The boats were flagged to South Korea, Panama and China. But that doesn’t necessarily absolve Europeans of responsibility since the illegal fish often lands on our plates. The Canary Island catch was destined for the kitchens and dining rooms of Europe. It’s our insatiable appetite for fish that’s driving the depletion of the West African marine life.

How should the European Union react? "the Europeans and other foreign fishing fleets should fish less and give more," writes journalist Fred Pearce, after visiting the fishing communities of Mauritania.

The Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) is up for review as of this June, giving the politicians at the European Parliament the chance to amend some of the problems. The lobbying battle has begun in earnest, with fishing industry representatives, fearful of job losses, up against a broad coalition of conservationists. Greenpeace hopes the politicians will also listen to the voices of the African fishermen and that’s why the group has invited Harouna Ismael and his Senegalese colleague Ameth Wade to Europe to tell their stories, where the pair met EU fisheries commissioner Maria Damanaki Apr. 27th. Isamel is confident that the politicians in Brussels will take his concerns seriously but he adds that it is equally important that European tax payers understand.

"I hope that the conscience of Europeans will be pricked", says Harouna Ismael, "because they don’t want to subsidize a policy that destroys other people’s lives."


For further information, see the report, "To Draw the Line" by the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation (SSNC)  (http://www.naturskyddsforeningen.se/in-english/About-us/)

Other articles from this issue