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Overfishing linked to food crisis, migration

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Inter Press Service (Johannesburg) | 11 August 2008

Overfishing Linked to Food Crisis, Migration

By Hilaire Avril

According to a recent report by the nongovernmental organisation ActionAid, West African seas are being devastated by legal and illegal overfishing, while local fishing industries decline.

Moreover, the economic partnership agreements in their currently proposed form only exacerbate this problem.

The overfishing of West African coastal waters, often by large European trawlers and sometimes by "fishing pirates" who trawl without any authorisation, has largely depleted local fish stocks.

This has a direct impact on the rising rate of unemployment and on the ever-increasing flow of West Africans who embark on perilous journeys to Europe, in search of a better life.

"The largest numbers of unemployed fishers ever are trying to emigrate to Europe, using their small fishing boats and pirogues, which leads to a number of people dying on the high seas," says Moussa Demba Dembele, a Senegalese economist who coordinates the Forum for African Alternatives’ research on development.

The ActionAid report is titled "Selfish Europe: How the Economic Partnership Agreements would further contribute to the decline of fish stocks and exacerbate the food crisis in Senegal".

It indicates that one in six of the working population is in the fishing industry and that fishing generates over 600,000 direct and indirect jobs.

Nevertheless, many West African countries have agreed to grant European fishing vessels access to their territorial waters in exchange for fees, as set out by Fishery Access Agreements initiated in 1979.

According to ActionAid, "the European Union can satisfy only 50 percent of its internal demand for fish from its own fish resources. The deficit has been filled for years through access" to the fishing waters of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries.

Especially West African coastal waters, relatively close to Europe, has been plundered in recent years.

Senegal’s catch volumes have fallen from 95,000 tons to 45,000 tons between 1994 and 2005, according to an estimate of the Senegalese department of maritime fishing.

"European fishery operators present in Senegalese waters contribute significantly to the overexploitation of fishing stocks and provide little long term gains for the industry," the ActionAid report argues.

Senegalese fishers, like most of their West-African counterparts, fish from pirogues which do not allow them to go far out at sea, where large-haul trawlers operate.

As a consequence of the depletion of stocks, "from a peak of 10,707 pirogues in 1997, the fleet declined to a mere 5,615 in 2005", the report indicates.

"Many fishing companies are only operating part time due to the severe supply deficits of high value species and the average volume of fish exports has fallen by a total of 32 percent over the course of the past 15 years. This has led to companies laying off 50-60 percent of their staff," it adds.

Dembele estimates that those Senegalese fisheries which have not gone bankrupt now operate at less than 50 percent of their capacity.

This has led the Senegalese government to decline renewing its fishing agreements with the European Commission in 2006 in an attempt to limit access to its fish and protect its industry.

Similarly, this was a factor in the Senegalese government’s decision not to sign the economic partnership agreement (EPA) the EU proposed, as according to ActionAid "the full economic partnership agreements proposed by the European Commission, which include services and investment provisions, are likely to lock in and worsen such practices".

But putting the proposed EPA on hold has not stemmed the problem, as many European trawlers catch more fish than they are allowed to.

"Companies which fish with a proper licence routinely exceed the quotas they are granted, as Senegal doesn’t have enough resources to patrol its waters," Dembele explains.

Additionally, many industrial vessels routinely fish in areas reserved for small-scale fishing, which extends to six miles (9.65 km) off the coast.

"Fishing authorities also have problems controlling boats that move from one fishing zone to another while crossing borders," the report adds.

"Trawler owners play with different licenses and, if they can’t get a license from Senegal, they have no problem obtaining one from a neighbouring country," the report quotes Dame Mboup, director of Senegal’s fishing protection and surveillance agency, as saying.

Many large trawlers also fish without any form of authorisation license.

According to the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), a London-based nongovernmental organisation that monitors illegal fishing, the scourge of "pirate fishing" affects the entire region.

"Between 1997 and 2001, aerial surveys of Guinea’s territorial waters found that 60 percent of the 2,313 vessels spotted were committing offences. Surveys of Sierra Leone and Guinea Bissau over the same period found levels of illegal fishing at 24 percent (of 947 vessels) and 24 (of 926 vessels), respectively," the EJF writes.

Other European fishing companies have eluded the limits of quotas by resorting to the "senegalisation" of their fleet: "A European ship owner forms a joint venture to enable his boats to fly the Senegalese flag. This allows him to avoid strict controls and access to fish in waters reserved to Senegalese boats," the report explains.

Such considerations drive ActionAid to recommend "a permanent suspension of the fisheries agreements, the imposition of biological rest periods and reinforced surveillance of territorial waters".

But restoring this policy space for West African governments would conflict with the interim EPAs. As currently drafted, the EPAs require ACP countries to further open their economies to European competition.