On the pretext of fishing in international waters, fleets of vessels from China and some European Union countries often cross red lines at sea to trawl African waters and loot the continent’s most sought-after fish species.
For the countries situated along the African coasts, this theft of ocean resources means economic losses worth more than US$10 billion annually, a study by the University of British Columbia (UBC) had estimated.
The phenomenon which has been globally labelled as Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing costs developing countries like Nigeria and Kenya between 8 and 14 million metric tonnes of fish annually, according to the study by UBC.
Extrapolating the data, the study went further to say when the full economic effects of illegal catches are multiplied, overall economic losses resulting from illegal catches and plundering of African waters could jump from the estimated $10bn to between $26bn and $50bn
Checks carried out in Nigeria and Kenya for this report indicate that major IUU fishing activities common in the Gulf of Guinea (West Africa) and the Western Indian Ocean region — along East Africa’s coast — include fish trans-shipment; unauthorized fishing in closed areas or seasons; illegal fishing by foreign vessels (distance water fleets); catching undersized, threatened and endangered fish species as well as taking fish in excess of the approved quota, according to Mr Andrew Mwangura, a marine consultant with the Kenya-based maritime think-tank, Seafarers Assistance Programme.
China is consistently ranked as the worst offender for IUU fishing in a global index of 152 countries.
The fish market in Lagos, Nigeria, takes its name from Liverpool, UK – thanks to centuries-old trans-shipment history between the two port cities dating back to the infamous slave trade era. Now, illegal fish are sold there.
“They’re often sold alongside the legally caught fish, so consumers here can’t tell the difference,” says fish vendor, Biola Jadesola, as she smokes her new arrivals from the sea.
The Liverpool fish market sees more than US$2,900 worth of profit from fish sales each day, according to estimates by the Nigerian Institute for Oceanography and Marine Research (NIOMR).
Illegal fish trans-shipment is popularly called ‘Yamayama business’ in Nigeria. That literally translates as ‘filthy business’ and is popularly referred to as ‘Saiko’ in Ghana, whose skilled artisanal fishers are all over the Gulf of Guinea, which comprises six West African coastal states: Nigeria, Benin Republic, Togo, Ghana, Cote D’Ivoire and Liberia.
In Africa, most industrial vessels licensed for shrimping catch fish, though they have shrimps as their target, which generates as much as $50m annually in export for Nigeria.
“For fishing vessels the size of the mesh — the net size– that can retain the catch is 76mm, while for shrimping vessels it’s 44mm,” said Mr Akanbi Williams, a top Nigerian marine researcher working with NIOMR. He noted that the reduced mesh makes it possible for the shrimping vessels to catch more fish as by-product.
Nigeria’s Sea fishing Act 1992 — considered as obsolete — mandates every vessel fishing in Nigerian waters to land catches at the ports for proper fisheries management. But in practice the trans-shipment of by-catch between the refrigerated vessels and boats often takes place at sea, bypassing port inspection and regulations, or mixing legal and illegally caught fish.
On top of revenue loss is the depletion of African waters by foreign IUU vessels who at times illegally fish in Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) — an area of the ocean, extending 200 nautical miles (230 miles) beyond a nation’s territorial sea.
A report titled ‘How Europe’s Dark Fishing Fleets Threaten West Africa’ by the Fisheries Committee for the West Central Gulf of Guinea says Europe’s involvement in the flourishing fish trans-shipment business of West Africa has been growing.
Across the continent, in Kenya’s Old Port in Mombasa City, first-time visitors seeing the fish market are likely to be greeted by a sight of desperation and hopelessness.
On a recent visit, the market was empty with little or no fish to go round as operators watched canoes and boats swinging at anchor. They explained that their canoes can only fish in shallow territorial waters.
“There is no fish for us to sell today because the sea is rough as we are in the South-East monsoon fishing season and we don’t have the equipment to venture into the deep sea like the international fishing fleets,” says Faiz Ali, the Vice-chairman of the Old Port Beach Management Unit (BMU), a fishermen’s lobby.
The Director General of Kenya Fisheries Service (KFS), Mr Daniel Mwangi, said the fishing sector was losing US$ 381 million a year.
“This is the perceived loss due to IUU fishing in the whole fisheries sector including marine and inland fisheries. The loss emanates from unregulated fishing and unreporting or underreporting catches and other illegal practices as stipulated in the law,” he said.
Mr Mwangi said the national loss from Kenya’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) due to IUU fishing is estimated at about $ 110.4 million annually.
However, he said, Kenya had enacted the Fisheries Management and Development Act in 2016 in order to reduce IUU and signed the international Port State Measures Agreement.
Members of Bamburi Beach Management Unit (BMU), a lobby for fishermen in Kenya’s north coast, said most of the vessels linked to IUU fishing in Kenya’s territorial waters are from China and at least five European countries.
They added that most of the fish caught in Kenya’s territorial waters including in the Exclusive Economic zones end up being declared in Seychelles and not at the Mombasa port as is required by law.
In West African waters, an estimated 40 to 60 percent of fish caught were reportedly caught illegally, a situation described as among the highest levels of illegal fishing globally by the Fisheries Committee for the West Central Gulf of Guinea (FCWC).
On one Thursday morning in June, just as the rising sun was casting shadows on the Lagos lagoon, it was a beehive of activity at the Liverpool jetty. Wooden boats laden with sacks containing varieties of fish species were already moored along the lagoon shoreline. Biola, the fish vendor, said the canoes had gone to ferry fish from industrial fishing vessels at sea.
As they were being offloaded to land, the fish housewives mobbed the boats, struggling to grab the best combination of varieties for retail.
“Each sack goes for between $24 (N10,000) and $120 (N50,000, as per Naira’s official rate). The kilogram and the species of fish stuffed in the bag determine the price. Some contain croakers, mackerel and so on. You can be lucky to get the right mix and at times you might find a single species in the sack.”
Nigeria does not have fishing agreements with so-called Distant Water Fishing Nations (DWFNs) of the EU and China, however, maritime sources said vessels carrying the flag of those countries, with massive fishing subsidies, often manage to fish in Nigerian waters through the back door.
“The fact that Sao Tome and Principe has bilateral agreements with some of these developed nations could complicate regulations for Nigeria,” says Williams. The West African nation and the Island nation share a Joint Development Zone (JDZ) at sea.
But Mr Imes Umoh, Director of Nigeria’s Federal Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture, said: “Nigeria didn’t licence any vessels to fish in the Joint Development Zone owned by Nigeria and Sao Tome and Principe.”
He indicated that foreign vessels trawling there are likely to be entering the water rich in tuna from Sao Tome, exploiting the agreement that the island nation had with some foreign countries.
Umoh who insisted “There’s no IUU fishing in Nigeria,” had earlier noted that the Nigerian government was yet to procure two patrol vessels already approved for his Department to monitor IUU fishing in addition to the regular oversight at sea by the Nigerian Navy.
He added that tracking devices had been installed on all 164 fishing and shrimping vessels licensed in 2022 to monitor their activities at sea, following the country’s recent ratification of the Port State Measures Agreement (PMSA).
The PMSA came into force more than five years ago and was designed to prevent, deter and eliminate pirate fish entering ports by strengthening and harmonising controls. So what more can be done?
Williams, the Lagos-based marine researcher, said: “African countries who have bilateral agreement with foreign countries must ensure foreign flagged vessels fishing in their waters land catches in their own ports in line with PMSA provisions for proper management of fisheries resources.”
Citing how cooperation among FCWC member-states in recent years has been helping to jointly address illegal fishing in the Gulf of Guinea, Williams said foreign IUU vessels plundering African waters often look for where regulation and surveillance is weak.
Mwangura of the Kenya-based Seafarers Assistance Programme said countries affected by IUU fishing need to adopt the United Nations Fish Stocks Agreement and the International Plan of Action to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate IUU Fishing (IPOA-IUU). He said there should also be a system for global registration of fishing vessels.
Mr Teddy Majaliwa, a project coordinator with Tsunza Conservation Development Programme, a marine ecosystems lobby based at the Kenyan coast, says activities of international fishing fleets affect the socio-economic activities of coastal communities in Africa as well as the environment.
“Trawlers fishing along the coast in Africa are notorious for the destruction of the environment,” he said, pointing to the loss of nesting grounds of sea turtles and fish breeding habitats in Kenya.