‘Distant’ industrial fisheries
In 1982, decades of international negotiations came to fruition with the signature of the ‘Constitution’ of the global ocean, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)1. Besides inscribing the now widely-accepted concept of ‘Exclusive Economic Zones’ (EEZs) in international law, UNCLOS also formalized a number of customary laws and rights that already existed in less formal or specific ways. In particular, Article 62 stipulates that any coastal State may choose to abandon its ‘surplus’ of allowable catch to the benefits of another State, which allowed pre-existing ‘fishing access agreements’ — i.e. commercial contracts that govern the exploitation of the waters of one party by the fishing fleets of another party, sometimes in a reciprocal way — to find a global legal basis.
‘Distant’ industrial fishing
Largely as a result of this new legal framework, the fleets of developed fishing countries, whose capacity exceeded sustainable levels, expanded southward in the waters of tropical countries.2,3,4,5,6 Although the main goal of UNCLOS’ Article 62 may have been to avoid disrupting the economic model of foreign vessels previously operating in the newly-created EEZs, the declaration of EEZs in the northern hemisphere effectively resulted in the expansion of fishing effort and in the fishing fleets of developed countries to move southward and negotiate fishing access agreements with developing coastal countries.7
Via agreements, two blocs of countries have developed a wide presence in African waters: those from the European Union (EU), and those from Asia, including the Russian Federation and Turkey.
The European Union
The EU has openly encouraged the establishment of joint ventures and fishing agreements in the fish-rich and under-exploited waters of non-Member States to reduce the excess capacity of its own domestic fishing fleet.8 As a result, the UE has become one of the main historical expansionists in terms of fishing access agreements and spatial footprint of its fleets.
Although the EU has one of the largest fishing fleets in the world in terms of engine power,9 only 259 of its vessels are reported to be engaged in fishing activities outside domestic waters.10 Despite the marginal contribution of these vessels in terms of fishing units, these large-scale vessels contribute a significant part of the EU’s total landings in terms of volume and value.11
A common figure is that around of quarter of the European market is supplied by catches made in the High Seas and under access agreements,12 although the latter only account for 4% of Europe’s fish consumption according to industry representatives.13 It is thus arguable that fishing agreements are not instrumental in terms of securing the Europe’s food market supply, although they certainly are crucial for specific segments of its fleet, e.g. the fleet of tropical tuna purse seiners.
Record of European fishing access agreements in Africa
European agreements are known to have radically changed in scope and content since the first agreement was initiated with Senegal in 1979. Firstly, in terms of of scope, as they have moved from targeting a wide range of species — including coastal and demersal ones, also targeted by local communities — to predominantly offshore, large pelagic species such as tuna.14
Secondly, in terms of content, as they have gradually abandoned their original and much-criticized ‘pay, fish and go’ model to increasingly include social and environmental clauses.15 Although numerous criticisms remain regarding their structural weaknesses in monitoring, control, and surveillance, but also their impact on marine ecosystems as well as intense competition with local fishers,16 European agreements are widely considered as the most transparent.
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Other ‘distant’ countries
Although the activities of EU vessels in African waters are the easiest to track and the ones on which BLOOM has dedicated most of its time so far, many other fishing nations are active in these waters — the most obvious being China.17,18
Since 2015, the Global Fishing Watch platform allows anyone one to track fishing vessels via the Automatic Identification System (AIS). Although this platform is not perfect — many vessels often turn it off — it is the best tool at our disposal, and it provides critical insights into foreign fisheries in Africa.
Foreign countries active in African waters, 2021-2022. Source: Global Fishing Watch.
From this data, it appears that China is the most active country in African waters, although it barely surpasses the combined fishing effort of EU countries. Behind China and Spain, Taiwan, Russia, and Japan are the most significant countries; fishing efforts are low or even inconsequent for most of the other countries. However, this data only covers vessels that are sufficiently large to be equipped with AIS. For European vessels, the legal framework only requires vessels of 15m and more to be equipped with such a system, so smaller vessels operating from the French islands of Mayotte and La Réunion, for example, do not appear in this data. This is also the case for the fleet of gillnetters from Iran, Oman etc., which largely goes unreported in this data.
When looking at the fished EEZ, West Africa appears to be much more intensively fished than the eastern coast of the continent. This is chiefly the result of a larger continental shelf on the west coast, which allows a vast armada of bottom trawlers to target demersal species such as hake, shrimp, octopus etc.
However, this second graph also highlights something crucial: the industrial fleet of very large “purse seiners”, which target species of tuna, are strikingly absent from this data. In fact, tuna purse seiners — chiefly those from the EU — were recently identified as “going dark” most of the time,19 therefore escaping surveillance platforms such as Global Fishing Watch.20
African EEZ fished by foreign countries, 2021-2022. Source: Global Fishing Watch.
Beyond the fishing carried out by foreign flagged vessels, many African vessels are also, of course, present in these waters. In many African coastal countries, fish and other marine animals are of vital importance for the food security of coastal populations. This is for example the case in Madagascar, the fourth largest island in the world.
Well known for its rich and unique terrestrial biodiversity, Madagascar also has highly productive marine ecosystems, with more than 5,000 km of coastline and an EEZ of more than 1.2 million km2. Just over 50% of its population of 26 million lives in one of 13 coastal regions,21 where fishing is crucial for the food supply of many coastal and inland communities. It is estimated that people in Madagascar consume about 7kg of fish per year, or 1.3 times per week,22 but also that fishing and associated activities (aquaculture and fish processing) are the main, if not the only, source of income for many people.23 24 In some areas of the southwest of the island, up to 95% of households in coastal communities depend on fishing as their main source of income!25
Besides these essential food and artisanal activities, there are industrial fisheries in most of the coastal countries of Africa. But is this artisanal fishing truly domestic?
A domestic… foreign fishery
According to the data made available by Global Fishing Watch, 23 of the 32 coastal countries (excluding North Africa) are engaged in industrial fishing activities. Only the following countries show no fishing activity: Benin, Congo-Brazzaville, Congo-Kinshasa, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Western Sahara, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, and Togo. The fishing activities of the other countries are distributed as follows:
African countries that fished between 1 January 2021 and 31 July 2022, according to Global Fishing Watch.
Several facts can be learned from this graph. In particular, that South Africa is the largest “domestic” fishing country, which makes sense given the information available and the level of development of the country.26 There is domestic industrial fishing, and the few foreign interests that exist are difficult to assess.
The story is different for the other countries, where foreign interests seem to be omnipresent:
- In Namibia, the second country in the ranking, the Spanish company Pescanova is very present. This company owns many of the most active Namibian vessels, such as the Giuseppe, the Kainab, the Natale Senior, the Mar Del Cabo, the Novanam One, the Ribadavia, the Novanam Two, the Lalandii 1, etc.
Pescanova is nothing less than one of the most powerful fishing fleets in the world, as pointed out by the Stockholm Resilience Centre of Stockholm University in Sweden;27
- In Morocco, the third country in the ranking, all the vessels named Pascabona […] — belong to the armament of the same name, co-owned by the Spanish armament company Mariscos Rodriguez. Many other vessels with Hispanic names leave little doubt as to their real beneficiaries, although there is also a genuine Moroccan fishing fleet.
These are not isolated cases, as the situation seems similar in most of the following countries. For example:
- In Senegal, where Spanish, Korean and Chinese interests are omnipresent — as the names of the ships suggest;
- Or in Nigeria, where all the vessels named Star Shrimper […] — all of them among the most active vessels — belong to Primstar, the local subsidiaryof the Dutch giant Cornelis Vrolijk;
- Or again in the Seychelles, where all the tuna seiners are owned by European companies, and all the longliners by Asian companies.28
What this data tells us is that a great portion, if not almost all, of African fisheries other than subsistence or very small-scale fisheries are in fact owned by foreign interests, notably European or Asian ones.
THE ROLE OF PRIVATE INTERESTS
Governments are the main players behind these fisheries agreements. However, behind these trade agreements, with their high economic stakes, are other players such as industrial lobbies and supermarket chains. By defending their private interests, these non-state players bear a great deal of responsibility for shaping these agreements.
The fish caught in Africa by European manufacturers is used to stock the shelves of European supermarkets, where the economic model is based on large volumes at low prices, leading to a race to overfish.
European distributors are supplied with tuna, the French and European’s favourite fish, most of which is caught off the coast of Africa. These tuna fisheries are associated with serious human rights violations and the destruction of marine ecosystems. Despite numerous documented warnings from scientists and NGOs about the consequences of tropical tuna fishing – warnings that have been known to supermarkets for years – too little action, too little ambition, has been taken by supermarkets.
BLOOM has drawn up a ranking of ‘Willfully Ignorant‘ European retailers on their tuna sourcing policies. With an average score of 2.2/10 for cooperation and 3.7/10 for sourcing policies, the conclusion of our report is clear: supermarkets are refusing to put policies in place that respect the environment and human rights.
Despite this, a few players have distinguished themselves by showing a cooperative attitude and/or developing more ambitious tropical tuna purchasing policies, although these are still far from perfect. These are Marks & Spencer (UK; average score of 6.9/10), Système U (France; average score of 5.1/10) and Les Mousquetaires (France; average score of 5.1/10). The relatively low scores of the top performers speak volumes about the widespread failings of the supermarket sector. E.Leclerc stands out for a particularly poor performance: the chain maintains total opacity over its tuna sourcing and sells a significant quantity of yellowfin tuna from the Indian Ocean, a species classified as overfished since 2015.
1 United Nations (1982) United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Montego Bay (Jamaica), 10 December 1982.
2 Bonfil et al. (1998) The footprint of distant water fleet on world fisheries.
3 Swartz et al. (2010) The spatial expansion and ecological footprint of fisheries (1950 to present).
4 Coulter et al. (2019) Using harmonized historical catch data to infer the expansion of global tuna fisheries.
5 Le Bail (1994) Les accords de pêche C.E.E.-Pays A.C.P.: Outil de développement ou facteur de crise ?
6 Anon. (2002) Evaluation of the relationship between country programmes and fisheries agreements.
7 Bonfil, Munro, Sumaila, Valtysson, Wright, Pitcher, Preikshot, Haggan and Pauly.
8 European Commission (1980) Proposals relating to structural policy in the fisheries sector.
9 Rousseau et al. (2019) Evolution of global marine fishing fleets and the response of fished resources.
10 STECF (2021) The 2021 annual economic report of the EU fishing fleet (STECF 21-08).
12 Beurier (2014) Droits Maritimes 2015–2016.
13 Europêche (2015) European fishing access in Africa — Sustainable Fishing Partnership Agreements (SFPAs).
14 Le Manach et al. (2013) European Union’s public fishing access agreements in developing countries.
17 Pauly et al. (2014) China’s distant-water fisheries in the 21st century.
18 Mallory (2013) China’s distant water fishing industry: evolving policies and implications.
19 Rattle and Duncan-Jones (2022) Fishing outside the lines — Widespread noncompliance in Indian Ocean tuna fisheries.
20 Welch et al. (2022) Hot spots of unseen fishing vessels.
21 INSTAT (2011) Population & démographie – Effectif de la population de Madagascar.
22 Breuil et Grima 2014
23 Laroche et al. (1997) The reef fisheries surrounding the south-west coastal cities of Madagascar.
24 Lilette, 2006
25 Barnes-Mauthe et al. (2013) The total economic value of small-scale fisheries with a characterization of post-landing trends: An application in Madagascar with global relevance.
26 Baust et al. (2015) South Africa’s marine fisheries catches (1950-2010), in: Le Manach and Pauly (Eds.), Fisheries catch reconstructions in the Western Indian Ocean, 1950–2010. University of British Columbia.
28 Le Manach et al. (2015) Artisanal fisheries in the world’s second largest tuna fishing ground — Reconstruction of the Seychelles’ marine fisheries catch, 1950-2010, in: Le Manach and Pauly (Eds.). University of British Columbia.