Why illegal fishing off Africa’s coast must be stopped

Illegal fishing was a threat to Africa’s coastal communities even 25 years ago, when I lived and worked in Tanji, a fishing village on the Gambian coast. If you got up before sunrise, you could see groups of six or seven young men sailing out towards the Atlantic Ocean in their precarious wooden pirogues.

I worked with the fishermen as part of a European project. They told me how foreign trawlers were creeping closer to the shore, catching their fish and mangling their fragile nets. With their catches declining dramatically, the fishermen were forced to sail further and further out.

One day, the pirogues did not return. Thirteen young men perished at sea, leaving families emotionally and economically devastated.

A quarter of a century later, West Africa suffers proportionally more from illegal fishing than any other region of the world. Up to a quarter of jobs in the region are linked to fisheries, which is part of a vast intra-regional trading network in which women play a central role.

Rising global demand for fish has made African waters a magnet for fleets from around the world. European trawlers remain the primary foreign presence, but fleets from China, the Philippines, Russia, South Korea and Taiwan have also expanded in recent years.

Every year, the region loses US$1.3bn worth of fish to illegal fishing. Apart from draining the region of revenue, overfishing reduces fish stocks, lowers local catches and harms the marine environment. It destroys communities, who lose opportunities to catch, process and trade fish.

The silver lining around this stormy cloud is that these issues are now where they should be, at the top of the international political agenda. This week the Global Ocean Commission will issue recommendations, including on illegal fishing, that – if fully implemented – will restore the ocean to ecological health and sustainable productivity. This follows a high-profile meeting at the State Department to mobilise the international community around ocean protection. The US secretary of state, John Kerry, hosted the meeting.

Last month’s Africa Progress Panel report on this issue sets out a detailed agenda to halt the plunder. African governments should increase fines on vessels that fish illegally, support artisanal fishing, increase transparency, and provide full disclosure of the terms on which commercial fishing permits are issued. It’s time to limit the unequal and unfair competition between industrial fishing fleets and artisanal fisheries.

Financing the plunder must also stop. Rich nations’ taxpayers spend $27bn a year in subsidies to those depleting the oceans, through, for example, cheap fuel and insurance. Major subsidisers include the European Union, Russia and east Asian nations with large “distant water fishing fleets”. At least part of these subsidies goes to fleets that are implicated in illegal fishing in Africa.

Too often African nations lack the capacity to monitor and enforce compliance. They are weakened by the inaction of states that are unwilling or unable to carry out their regulatory responsibilities. A registry of fishing vessels that sail under a flag of convenience should be established, so African governments have the option of avoiding agreements with such vessels.

Governments can also improve controls in ports where the fish catch is landed and reported. As Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary general who chairs the Africa Progress Panel, has said: “Commercial trawlers that operate under flags of convenience, and unload in ports that do not record their catch, are engaging in organised theft disguised as commerce.”

Illegal fishing is a form of theft that has major costs for the global community, which should back an initiative by Norway to establish illegal fishing as a “transnational crime”. This could bring it under the remit of Interpol, with police, customs agencies and justice ministries playing a more active role in enforcement. Furthermore, all nations should ratify and implement the Port State Measures Agreement, which would allow coastal nations to deny port entry and services to foreign vessels suspected of illegal fishing.

Concerted international action to protect Africa’s fisheries is urgent because the stakes are high – and not just in fishing villages like Tanji.

Illegal fishing is putting the livelihoods and nutrition of millions of people on the continent at risk. Ultimately, this carries serious consequences for the rest of the world too, in terms of a sustainable supply of fish and protection against climate change. People in Tanji and many other coastal villages in Africa and across the globe will want to know that the international community is taking steps to end this plunder.

Caroline Kende-Robb is executive director of the Africa Progress Panel.