A fishy business

Current Affairs

A fishy business

African coastal and small island states cry foul over distant fishing nations in Europe and elsewhere abusing access to fishing rights in their territorial waters, reports Wanjohi Kabukuru.

A preparatory meeting for the third international conference on Small Islands Developing States (SIDS), which will be held in Samoa next year, was convened in Mahe, Seychelles, in July. In his opening remarks, Seychelles President James Michel made a poignant revelation.

“When harvesting the oceans for fish or other resources they seem to belong to everyone,” President Michel said. “But when it comes to dealing with the sustainability of resources, of marine conservation or pollution or piracy, the oceans seem to belong to no one.”

Fishing figures rightly underscore President Michel’s viewpoint. According to the UN’s Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), Africa’s fishery resources generate 3.6 million jobs and some $5bn gross revenue annually. In other words, even without looking at other aspects of the ocean as economic activities, fisheries have far-reaching ramifications. In the national economies of the Western Indian Ocean nations alone, fisheries provide between 5% and 99% of national agricultural exports.

Over 9,700 people are employed in tuna processing firms in Kenya, Maldives, Madagascar, Seychelles and Mauritius alone. According to the Seychelles-based Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC), some 1.34 million tonnes of skipjack, albacore, bigeye, swordfish and yellowfin tuna are caught in the Indian Ocean annually. The IOTC is an intergovernmental organisation established under the FAO constitution to manage tuna and tuna-like species in the Indian Ocean. Currently the IOTC, which is domiciled in Seychelles, has 31 member countries – all Indian Ocean coastal and island states. Seychelles is also home to one of the largest tuna canning factories in the world, the Indian Ocean Tuna factory in Port Victoria. According to Oliver Knowles of the environmental advocacy organisation Greenpeace, “The Indian Ocean is a major source of tuna, providing about 24% of the global tuna catch. This translates into around 1.2 NA Markets Seychelles million tonnes, though catches have declined a little in recent years and for various reasons, including piracy.”

In the last two months, aboard Greenpeace’s largest expedition and research ship Esperanza (Spanish for “hope”), Greenpeace members have been conducting a campaign in the Indian Ocean targeting illegal fishing practices. At the core of the campaign is the inequality of fisheries’ revenues between the African small island nations on the one hand and the European bloc and other distant nations on the other hand. Knowles explains that distant nations’ fishing fleets use access rights agreements and the free access guaranteed within international waters to fish in territorial waters of developing nations and sell their catch in distant markets.

“Our campaign addresses many of the issues around European and other distant water nations catching fish in the region and exporting them to distant markets,” Knowles said. “This major source of inequity is something we hope to address in time. It is certainly true that Indian Ocean coastal states and their people stand to gain much more from their tuna resources through well-managed, sustainable, and equitable fisheries.”

Spain, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Indonesia, and Iran are the top five tuna fishing nations in the Indian Ocean using highly mechanised purse seiners and long liners. However, not all fishing vessels adhere to the rules. A number of them have been involved in illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing practices together with the usage of destructive Fish Aggregating Devices (FADs).

“Most regional fisheries bodies, such as the IOTC are investigating the environmental impact of FADs and other destructive fishing practices,” reveals Gail Lugten, the FAO’s liaison officer, who is in charge of 50 regional fisheries bodies across the world.

“The last IOTC meeting,” Lugten continues, “gave considerable discussion to biodegradable fishing gear that will break down in the ocean environment rather than float in perpetuity and continue to ‘ghost-fish’ while it floats. These are costly
measures for member states to address and they are sensitive issues as well.”

Currently, the European Union (EU) has two types of fishing agreements with non-EU nations. The first is called the “Northern Agreement”, which is between the EU and Norway, Iceland, and the Faroe Islands. The second is called the “Fisheries Partnership Agreement” (FPA), which covers developing nations in Africa and elsewhere in the Southern Hemisphere. The FPA allows the EU to give financial and technical support to signatory countries in exchange for fishing rights. These “rights” allows EU vessels to pursue migrating tuna species in the exclusive economic zones of island and coastal nations.

According to the EU, these bilateral agreements provide fishing opportunities to some 3,000 boats and the direct employment of 40,000 EU nationals in the fisheries sector. Indeed these figures, which are indicative of the high subsidies the EU accords to its member states, overshadow the combined numbers of those employed in the countries that make up the Western Indian Ocean bloc.

The fisheries agreements have been quite controversial as many of the EU vessels have been found to flout the rules through overfishing and unfair payments for fish access rights. According to the civil society group, Transparent Sea, the EU fish agreements allow unsustainable fishing in foreign nations as the agreements end up giving undue advantage to EU vessels at the expense of domestic and small-scale fishermen. Criticism from local artisanal fishermen has also been growing as the locals have been pushed out of their traditional fishing grounds by the huge vessels.

Pascal Mangi, an artisanal fisherman in Mombasa, Kenya, who has been fishing for 40 years concurs: “There is no way my dug-out canoe can compete with the huge European purse seiners who have been given preference by our own government in our waters,” Mangi says. He operates from Kenya’s Bamburi beach landing site, and he is not happy with what is happening. “In my 40 years at sea, I can tell you there is very little help I have received from the [Kenyan] government other than warnings of overfishing.”

But subsidies are not just limited to the EU, China too has heavily subsidised its fisheries sector with an annual subvention of $4bn. A study conducted by the Sea Around Us project at the University of British Columbia found that between 2000
and 2011 China caught some 3.08 million tonnes of fish in the African Atlantic and Indian Ocean regions, which was estimated to be worth $7.6bn.

“Too often, global trade and investments is driven by multinational companies extracting resources from oceans, without enough thought given to either protecting the resource or ensuring that the people of that region are benefitting enough,” said
Seychelles President Michel during the Delhi Summit on Sustainable Development held in India early in the year.

“So many developed and industrialised nations are prepared to subsidise unsustainable fishing practices and unsustainable resource extraction, and yet there is never talk of subsidising marine-protected areas,” President Michel further lamented.

With such a frank assertion, it is clear that in the near future the Western Indian Ocean nations are likely to take advantage of increased awareness of their fishing rights and demand more say and profits from the major powers exploiting ocean resources.

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