West Africa: The Fight to Save Its Waters

Date: September 25, 2017

Source & Author: The Market Mogul

Normally, it’s Chinese fishermen that make the headlines, as they sail farther and farther to trawl foreign waters after having depleted the seas closer to home. With its growing middle class hungry for seafood, China is certainly having the biggest impact on the world’s oceans – above all, off the coast of less-developed West African countries like Senegal, the Gambia, and Guinea.  But according to a new report, Beijing isn’t the only villain in this trade.

For more than three years, EU member states authorized illegal fishing off the West African coast in contravention of numerous regional laws and norms. Using data from an online monitoring tool, Oceana, it was found that Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Spain awarded private fishing authorisations, granting individual vessels access to these waters in violation of EU law. These kinds of authorizations are hugely problematic because they’re negotiated with no transparency, with vessels hiding key information on target species, harvesting methods, and catches. The news lays bare the enforcement gaps in the protection of marine resources, and how even vessels from countries with strong legal frameworks routinely engage in illegal activities. With 90% of all fish stocks fully exploited or facing total depletion, West African governments need to take matters into their own hands to reap the full benefits of their maritime resources before it’s too late.

The Impacts of Overfishing:

First, overfishing by foreign vessels in West Africa, no matter whether they’re Chinese or European, has devastating economic and environmental effects, destroying the livelihoods of fishing communities, damaging fragile marine habitats, and driving species toward extinction. Above all, illegal, unlawful, and unreported (IUU) fishing threatens small-scale fisheries, which are among the most important employment sectors in the region, accounting for up to 25% of all jobs in some countries. Fisheries also contribute an enormous amount to these countries’ economies – but far less than their potential. According to the Overseas Development Institute, the sale of fishing rights to foreign fleets brought Africa roughly $400m in 2014, but this could have theoretically generated $3.3bn and created 300,000 more jobs if the continent fished its own waters instead.

Rather than handing over the rights to some of their most precious resources, West African governments could take a major step towards making the “blue economy” the foundation for their future if they made a concerted effort to crack down on foreign fleets and invest in their fisheries. For one, they should follow the lead of the EU, which passed a new law in June to help ensure the transparency of all fishing that takes place outside of European waters – and will help prevent its vessels from engaging in IUU in the future. It’s critical that all of the world’s flag states – especially in hard-hit zones like West Africa – follow suit. Otherwise, certain vessels will always be able to get away with unlawful activity.

Tackling Overfishing:

West African states must also make stronger efforts to combat the devastating environmental effects of overfishing, which threaten the remaining fish stock that hasn’t been depleted by overfishing. Here, they can also take a cue from other initiatives by multilateral organizations, state and non-state actors. For instance, the Ocean Conference, held in June, resulted in a political declaration, partnerships dialogues, and almost 1,400 voluntary commitments to help combat marine pollution and strengthen governance on issues like overfishing. The conference gave a major boost to deliver on Sustainable Development Goal 14 (the “Ocean Goal”), which most West African governments have yet to comprehensively incorporate into their policy planning.

Although there is still no regional framework for protecting the West African coastline, by the end of the Ocean Conference a number of African heads of state submitted voluntary commitments that could form the foundation for more robust regional or national action. For instance, Gabon’s President Ali Bongo Ondimba used the occasion to announce the designation of Africa’s largest network of marine-protected zones, which will protect 26% of the country’s seas and cover more than 50,000 square kilometres. The project was the result of years of work by NGOs and government agencies, including National Geographic’s Pristine Seas project, which is supported by a number of philanthropists like the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, the Waitt Foundation or the Philip Stephenson Foundation. With the new protected zone, Gabon has created what scientists are calling the most sustainable fisheries management plan for the region – and one that its neighbours would do well to imitate.

Nonprofits like the Stephenson Foundation have also been supporting initiatives to protect fragile marine habitats in places where governments lack adequate resources to do so. For instance, the foundation has been working with another NGO, CLEAR Caribbean, to help restore damaged coral reefs off the coast of Petit St. Vincent. While it might seem – in an age when even the Great Barrier Reef is dying – that these ecosystems are past the point of no return, protected zones combined with restoration projects have been proven to help marine ecosystems adapt to climate change. Gabon’s neighbours should aim to strengthen partnerships with NGOs specialized in marine protection to save what’s left of their own coastal habitats.


Fortunately, only a few months after the UN’s first-ever Ocean Conference, there is a new chance for West African governments to turn some of their voluntary commitments on marine protection into concerted action. Fisheries and Aquaculture Ministers from across Africa, the Caribbean and Pacific met this month in the Bahamas, where they discussed joint approaches to ensure the sustainable development of some of their most valuable resources. By joining with other officials from the global South facing the very same threats – from foreign illegal fishermen to climate change – West African governments have a real chance to save their coastal assets before it is too late.

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