The growing price of fishing: How international practices are destabilising traditional livelihoods in West Africa

by Melissa Mouthaan

Pirogues st louis

Pirogues, Saint Louis, Senegal. Ji-Elle via Wikimedia Commons

The scarcity of fish off the coast of West Africa is becoming a crisis with a wide-ranging impact. For countries such as Senegal and Mauritania, the fishing sector is the economic backbone of the nation, employing around 20% of the working population. However, in recent years West African fishermen, faced with the rapid disappearance of fish from their seas, have found themselves struggling more and more to maintain their livelihoods. They are being forced to range farther and wider, undertaking increasingly riskier journeys and straying into other nations’ territories, in search of catch.

The scarcity of fish has direct links to the industrial fishing practices of countries such as Spain, Japan and China. Large trawlers haul fish out of the seas at a rate and scale that dwarf the fishing capacities of traditional pirogues, leaving little in their wake. In November 2014, Senegal signed a five-year Fisheries Partnership Agreement (FPA) with the EU, tacitly renewed every five years, that allows French and Spanish trawlers to fish for tuna and hake in Senegalese waters. The rationale of the EU’s FPAs is that they allow access to ‘surplus’ fish populations not targeted by local fleets. This line of reasoning starkly contrasts with a 2012 Greenpeace report that shows how fish populations off West African coasts are heavily overexploited. Other West African countries that have an active FPA with the EU are Côte d’Ivoire and Mauritania – Cape Verde’s FPA expired in December 2018.

African states are losing out on an exponentially larger profit by selling fishing rights to foreign fleets

While the EU’s FPA with Senegal comes with a payment of €8.69 million to the Senegalese state and a €750,000 annual investment in the local fisheries industry, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that, in the long term, African states are losing out on an exponentially larger profit by selling fishing rights to foreign fleets. Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing is similarly a huge source of revenue loss for West African countries. While EU Member States are by no means the only culprits in the exploitation of West African seas, legal loopholes and the EU’s status as one of the largest importers of seafood mean that a large portion of the products of illegal fishing make their way into European markets despite the EU’s pledge to combat IUU fishing.

The capacity of West African states to attain a fair negotiation with richer nations or economic blocs on a critical resource is somewhat limited. They also lack the capacity to adequately patrol their shores to combat illegal fishing, or to regulate the catches of fishing vessels to ensure these are within legal limits. Corruption, too, plays a part as officials accept bribes in exchange for turning a blind eye to over-fishing. West African governments are increasingly aware that a better deal lies in the direction of reinforcing their own fish processing industries and building more indigenous fishing fleets, rather than selling fishing rights to foreign operators.

The socioeconomic impact of over-fishing by international fleets is extensive, and has facilitated the gradual destabilisation of traditional fishing communities. The gradual disappearance of fishing as a stable and secure livelihood has thrown local communities into insecurity, as well as reducing the diversity of fish available to local markets and increasing its costs prohibitively: a significant blow to a nation like Senegal where fish is also traditionally a major source of protein for much of the population. In addition, it has been shown to have a direct knock-on effect on emigration, as the growing precarity has made West African fishermen, and fishing communities, increasingly turn to migration as a means of income diversification. Viewed as such, there is an inherent contradiction in the EU’s external policy towards West African countries. While the EU’s 2016 Partnership Framework with third (non-EU) countries states an intent to address the ‘root causes’ of migration through targeted development interventions in migrant departure zones, it fails to adequately account for the negative externalities of unsustainable fishing practices of its Member States that contribute to the pauperisation of fishermen and their communities in developing countries. There is a distinct gender dimension to this pauperisation, as women often constitute a large part of the fisheries labour force in post-harvest jobs, such as fish-processing activities.

The  disappearance of fishing as a stable livelihood has thrown local communities into insecurity

These developments are already a source of political tensions between West African states. The ranging of Senegalese fishing boats into Mauritanian waters, prompted by the scarcity of catch in Senegalese waters, has caused tensions between the two nations. While a bilateral agreement allowing cross-territorial fishing previously existed between the two countries, this expired in 2016 – and was not immediately renewed – due to Senegalese grievances over a newly proposed Mauritanian requirement that all catch be offloaded and checked on Mauritanian soil. The eventual shooting and death of a Senegalese fisherman by a Mauritanian coastal patrol in January 2018 sparked protests in the northern Senegalese town of Saint Louis. Senegal and Mauritania eventually signed an agreement in July 2018 allowing Senegalese fishermen to fish in Mauritanian waters under conditions that include the contentious clause of offloading all catch on Mauritanian soil, and a fee of 15 euros to be paid for each tonne of fish. The cost of this fee is borne partly by the Senegalese state, but mainly by fishermen.

Without more stringent regulation of the fishing practices of international vessels, and more concerted efforts to combat IUU fishing, local fishing communities in West African states will remain vulnerable as they continue to bear the brunt of these developments. For its part, the EU could do more to build the capacity of indigenous fishing fleets and fish processing industries in the countries it partners with, and to move beyond lip service in the pursuit of a sustainable fisheries policy.

About the author

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Melissa Mouthaan is a PhD student at the Centre of Development Studies, University of Cambridge. Her research interests include EU external affairs, migration, EU–African cooperation, social policy and political economy.

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