The fishing industry is of vital importance to the African continent: 38 of the 54 African countries have coastlines, the other 16 countries have significant rivers and lakes. Africa has been a net exporter of fish since 1985. The biggest exporters are Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Egypt, South Africa, Ghana and Senegal. Fishing is a considerable resource for African people, especially in times of food deprivation and socio-economic crises.
Fishing activities represent at least $24 billion of the African economy, equal to 1.3% of the gross product of the continent. More than 12 million African people work for the fishing industry but more importantly, more than 59% of those working in the processing departments are women. Given the place of women in socio-economic life, these figures are promising developments for the continent. Finally, the fisheries sector provides food security as it supplies high protein fish for African populations.
According to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), illegal fishing threatens biodiversity, violates international norms, and results in the loss of 11 to 26 million tons of fish stock and 10 to 23 billion dollars per year. A number of factors such as financial concerns, tax evasion, unstable regulations, lack of punishment, national/international legislation, large-scale corruption, and weak management and control mechanisms allow for illegal fishing to happen. The activities that constitute illegal fishing activities are as follows:
- Fishing and fishing-related activities in violation of national, regional and international laws.
- Not reporting, misreporting or incomplete information on fishing operations and fish capture.
- Fishing with “stateless” ships.
- Fishing in areas that belong to Regional Fishing Management Organizations (RFMO) with ships that do not have appropriate fishing licences.
- Fishing activities that are not regulated by states and which cannot be easily monitored and accounted for.
Foreign companies from countries such as Portugal, Italy, Spain, Greece, Russia, China and the USA carry out illegal fishing in Africa. However, in recent years, the names of Chinese fishing companies have become more prominent in illegal fishing cases in Africa.
Since China’s fish stocks have decreased, the number of Chinese ships fishing in various parts of the world has increased. The Chinese government spends hundreds of millions of dollars per year to support its global fishing fleet and the coast guard that escorts those ships. China’s distant water fleet, which has around 3400 ships, is currently the largest in the world. According to Greenpeace, in 1985 there were only 13 Chinese ships that were fishing in African waters, whereas today there are around 500 of them operating in the region, often ignoring the rules. Chinese fishing ships are particularly active in West Africa, which is rich in fish reserves.
Although most of these ships have a fishing license, evidence suggests that they do not act fairly. Greenpeace reported that there were 114 cases of illegal fishing over an eight year period in West Africa. In 2012, a Chinese fishing company signed a 25-year agreement with the Mauritanian authorities despite the fact that fish reserves were already over-exploited. The government did not inform the public in any way during the preparation and signing of this agreement, despite the fact that it would severely impact small-scale fishermen.
A different example is Guinea-Bissau. Legislation in Guinea-Bissau has kept large industrial fishing vessels from its coast. However, many foreign companies, including Chinese ones have deployed small boats that do not need licences from nearby countries like Senegal. Lastly, in 2018 in East Africa, Somalia granted 31 fishing licences to China. Local fishermen were against this deal because they are threatened by overfishing and environmental pollution caused by the waste from Chinese ships. Some researchers claim that some of these fishermen, now unemployed, became involved in pirate groups and terrorist organizations in their region in order to sustain themselves and their families.
China’s illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing activities excessively reduce the number of fish, degrade the environment and damage socio-economic structures in Africa. Chinese ships bring back about 3 million tons of fish to their country every year, leaving African countries facing various problems:
- African people’s difficulty in accessing protein-rich fish will reinforce the existing food crisis.
- Illegal fishing may cause unemployment among African fishermen. The likely resultant poverty and food crisis may increase criminality. The fishing sector is clearly closely related to the economic and social security of African societies.
- It may damage regional and international trade.
- It may destroy the sustainability of resources by destroying and reducing the number of fish species
- Conflicts between local fishermen and industrial fishing promoters may increase.
Recently, many international organizations and some African governments have mentioned the threat illegal fishing poses to their security. However, instead of focusing solely on illegal fishing actors such as Chinese companies, a multi-layered and large-scale solution should be taken to solve the problem.
This is because the problem stems not only from Chinese and other non-African fishermen. Corrupt African local authorities allow in large part these practices to continue, as does a lack of adherence to international norms and the lack of means to enforce existing mechanisms intended to safeguard fishing stocks.
Local, national and international measures should be taken to prevent illegal fishing in Africa. A mechanism should be created to ensure that both Africans and entrepreneurs foreign to the continent abide by the rules. An important factor here would be to encourage the parties involved to assess the long-term costs of these practices. Illegal fishing is a threat that could present serious security problems both nationally and internationally in the long run.
By Huriye Yildirim Çinar
PhD Student; Kocaeli University Department of International Relations
Huriye’s research interests include Turkey-Africa relations, African Security, Security Studies and Radicalism and Terrorism.