African Fisheries: Reeling in the Big Fish

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About 1.26% of Africa’s entire GDP comes from fisheries (including processors), and about 12.2 million Africans are directly involved in the harvesting and processing of fish. Fishing is male-dominated: virtually no women are engaged in marine fishing, and only 7.2% of those fishing inland are women. Women do, however, dominate the processing sub-sector, where they comprise 69% and 71% of all inland fish and industrial marine processors, respectively.

Though fishing is big business in Africa, the industry faces many challenges. Africa’s fisheries and fish farming production lags behind the rest of the world, yielding just 1.7 tonnes per fisher or fish farmer versus 2.2 in Asia, 24.7 in Europe, 6.6 in Latin America and the Caribbean, 20.8 in North America, and 11.4 in Oceania.

A few key factors play into Africa’s relative poor performance in fish yields. One is the very nature of where fishers operate. More than half of all fishers on the continent operate on inland bodies of water such as rivers or lakes, even though inland catches are valued much less than ocean catches. In terms of value per fisher or fish worker, inland fish earn just 70% the value of artisanal marine catches, and less than half the value of industrial marine catches. Africa earns $15 billion from marine fishing operations compared to $6 billion from inland captures. In support of these operations, more than 60% of all fishing vessels on the continent are for inland use, making Africa the only region where there are more vessels dedicated to inland than marine fishing (the global average is 32%). Globally, 11.6 million tonnes of fish are captured inland, compared to 79.7 million captured in marine environments.

One of the primary reasons behind the preference for inland fishing is related to capital. Marine fishing requires more advanced equipment than inland, and Africa is the only region where the majority of fishing vessels (64%) are non motorized, compared to a global average of 30%. In fact, the only African nations where industrial marine fishing is the predominant method of fish cultivation are three of the richest: Namibia, South Africa, and Mauritius.

Since 2000, Africa has had the highest annual aquaculture production growth rate in the world, at 11.7 percent. Africa is now home to 2.23 percent of global aquaculture production. Still this sector remains the smallest in the African fishing industry, with annual earnings of $3 billion dollars. Most of it is concentrated in North Africa, particularly Egypt.

Supply, demand, and West Africa’s position

Over the last half century, the global market supply of fish has been increasing by 3.2% each year—double the rate of population growth. Unfortunately, global demand has also been growing quickly; per capita consumption levels in the 1960s were 9.9 kilograms, compared to 19.2 kilograms in 2012. The dramatic increase in fishing, combined with the doubling of per capita consumption, population growth, and rising global incomes all are having a devastating impact on the world’s fish stocks. The percentage of global fish stocks that are now overfished beyond biologically sustainable levels is between 30 and 60 percent.

Reductions in fish stocks have had the world looking for more fishing resources over the past several decades. Since the 1950s, global fishing efforts moved southwards at a rate of almost 1 degree of latitude every year, as fishers pursue the most profitable resources, leaving depleted fish stocks in their wake. This has meant that many countries have set sail for African territorial waters and their poorly protected fish.

A lack of investment and resources available for the fishing industry has not only ensured that most African fishing remains inefficient, but it has also meant that countries lack the capacity to adequately protect their precious marine resources.

In West Africa, about one quarter of all jobs are linked to fisheries, and most of the region’s fishers are small-scale and artisanal. From Mauritania to the shores of Ghana, the Atlantic Ocean provides the resources to maintain a fishing industry that generates roughly $4.9 billion every year. But fishing is much more than a major employer: it is a key piece in West Africa’s food security puzzle, accounting for two-thirds of animal protein consumed in the region.

Murky waters

Illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing is a major issue threatening fish stocks almost everywhere. “Illegal” activities in this context refer to fishing behavior that breaks international or national laws, such as capturing fish in a country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) without permission. “Unregulated” fishing covers fishing practices carried out by players not a party to regional management organizations, and who as a result tend to engage in unsustainable harvests. Unreported fishing can include illegal behavior if the fishing vessel fails to report its catch from an area where it is required.

West Africa is home to the highest rates of IUU fishing activities in the world. Sierra Leone recorded 252 cases of illegal fishing by 10 industrial ships from early 2011 to July 2012, and neighboring Liberia has investigated more than 40 ships since 2011. Estimates suggest that about half of all fish caught in West African EEZs are caught illegally.

IUU fishing costs the world about $23 billion each year, but such practices are most prevalent in West Africa, where they cost the region $1.3 billion annually. Most West African countries have limited information regarding their available fish stocks and the amount that is captured every year. Some countries even have difficulty determining which government agency has jurisdiction over sea resources, let alone the capacity to fund necessary enforcement teams, like a coast guard.

Every vessel in West Africa, down to the smallest canoe, has likely been engaged in some form of IUU fishing, maliciously or otherwise. But the biggest players on the IUU scene hail from Russia and East Asia. In addition to taking advantage of weak or corrupt regulatory environments in West African waters, IUU fishing operations take advantage of other key enabling factors, particularly the availability of flags of convenience (FOC).

A FOC allows a ship owner to register vessels in a state other than their own. Under international law, all states have the right to sail fishing vessels, but they are also responsible for controlling and regulating the vessels that sail their flag. However, many countries that are unable or unwilling to enforce any regulations on ships that fly their flag are more than willing to collect registration fees from interested vessels. Ships flying these flags of convenience thereby avoid scrutiny.

It is notoriously easy for IUU vessels to obtain a new FOC and they may change them a number of times within a season. The International Transport Workers’ Federation lists 34 countries as hosting FOC—including Bolivia, Mongolia, Liberia, Comoros, and São Tomé and Príncipe. There is no global registry for distant water fishing vessels, nor are these ships required to have unique identification numbers. It is therefore very difficult to track, or lay fines against, IUU vessels seeking to hide their identities.

Many nations and authoritative bodies have taken steps to curb IUU activities but progress has been slow. In 2010, for example, Sierra Leone became the first flag of convenience host to close its international shipping registry to foreign-owned vessels. This action gave IUU vessels one less option for flying a FOC. More effective measures need to come from the destination markets for illegally caught fish—a list which is dominated by places such as the EU, Japan, and the United States.

The EU has made strides against FOC countries whose vessels have engaged in excessive IUU activity. Imports to the EU are now banned from Guinea, Belize, and Cambodia, and in November 2013 the EU issued “yellow cards” against Ghana and South Korea, threatening to blacklist the nations if they did not take action against IUU vessels under their flag. Both of these countries were given extensions on avoiding sanctions in July 2014 due to good progress they had made.

Fishing agreements

A number of African countries have also been historically somewhat complicit in the plundering of their ocean resources by signing off on extremely unfavorable fishing agreements. International fishing agreements can come in a few standard forms: reciprocal, in which two parties grant fishing access to each other’s exclusive economic zones (EEZs), and unidirectional, in which one party grants access to another. Terms may also be bilateral, between two parties, or multilateral, between three or more.

The vast majority of fishing agreements with African countries are unidirectional and bilateral. Individual economies will agree to a certain set of terms in order gain access to a country’s EEZ. In 2011, foreign states paid just over $400 million in fishing agreements which allowed them to capture 25% of all fish caught in African territorial waters that year. That sum is insignificant in comparison to what African nations could earn were they to capture those fish themselves. Fish captured by African countries in the same area have been valued at around $10 billion.

Some of the fairest agreements are those which, beyond payment to gain access to territorial waters, provide services that aid in the development of local fishing industries. For example, in exchange for allowing 100 ships to operate within Mauritania’s EEZ, the EU pays the government $97 million, agrees to use Mauritanian crew, and gives the government 2 percent of the catch. This contract, though still criticized as inadequate, is one of the more equitable examples.

Other less constructive agreements involve a simple transfer of a percentage of the unloading value of a catch caught within a country’s EEZ. EU countries commonly sign contracts in Africa which provide the host nation with 6% of the value of the catch. The percentage has been known to be less than 4% with certain fishing nations such as Taiwan and South Korea.

The worst designed contracts are known as “pay, fish, go” agreements, that only specify the number of boats a country may use within a year opposed the volume of fish that can be captured. Therefore, for an insignificant sum, a fishing nation can arrive in the host nation’s EEZ and collect as many fish as possible without concern for sustainability.


There is an essential need to establish stricter controls that will protect sovereign African waters. Beyond the critical societal factors of food security, environmental protection, and economic development which are being undermined by IUU fishing, regional stability is also at risk. Somalia offers the most tragic example of the negative effects of illegal fishing. Somali waters have been plundered for decades, and the emergence of its now infamous pirates (which have threatened Somalian waters for several years), has been largely linked to illegal fishing by foreign countries. As IUU fishers drained the country’s fish stocks, many fishermen turned to violence and hijackings as an alternative source of income.

African countries need to exercise more control over their exclusive economic zones. As for the countries that seek to fish in African waters, there need to be stricter controls over their fleets and punitive measures for offending nations need to be more robust. Preventing imports from egregious FOC abusers has been a useful step, but greater controls at ports around the world will be critical. Currently, regulations are too lax. Even European and African countries are host to ports which welcome FOC-flagged fishing vessels.

Countries must also demand more equitable terms when negotiating fishing agreements with foreign nations. In addition to avoiding “pay, fish, go” contracts, which leave ocean resources open to exploitation, a focus on equipping local industries with knowledge, technology, and investment is essential. African fishing industries would benefit from more appropriate fishing technology, such as motorized boats, as well as a greater focus on value-adding processes. In countries like Mauritania for example, only 5% of current fish exports are processed in any way.

Africa must act urgently. The longer it takes to make a concerted effort at protecting the continent’s sea resources, the more devastated the fish stocks become. Already, 48% of fish stock in the Eastern Central Atlantic is fished at unsustainable levels, and the Southeast Atlantic is producing just a third of the catch that it did in the late 1970s. Furthermore, thirty-five years of African net fish exports ended in 2010.

Africa can benefit more equitably and sustainably from its rich waters, but it must catch this opportunity quickly, before it manages to slip through its nets.

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