Illegal Fishing: Extracting Wealth from West-African Waters

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For over a decade, African waters have been plundered through illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing which has significantly contributed to the overfishing of stocks in Africa. What is more, the EU may have imported 1.1 billion euros worth of illegal fish according to estimates of Overseas Development Institute (ODI)[1]. These unsustainable practices are a threat to African economies as Olivier De Schutter states:


"Ocean-grabbing' – in the shape of shady access agreements, unreported catch, incursions into protected waters, and the diversion of resources away from local populations – can be as serious a threat as 'land-grabbing"[2]



IUU Fishing Harming West Africa


West Africa has become a hotspot for large commercial vessels from across the world: vessels from China, Europe, Russia and Korea all target African waters. However, African coastal states have benefited meagrely from the fishing activities in their waters as 40% or more of the catches go unreported. This accelerates the degradation of maritime environments and the depletion of fishing stocks, threatening the local fishing economy[3]


The problem of overfishing in western Africa is severe because of the high rates of extraction of several species for commercial use, which has brought them to the brink of extinction. The main culprit is illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU). A lack of strong international governance is at the heart of this problem. Across the world several voluntary codes and encouraging principles[4] have been adopted to tackle the issue, but the El Dorado at sea continues unabated.[5] Three practices in particular undermine sustainable fisheries management: transhipment, container fish exports and underreporting. 


Firstly, transhipment gives rise to abuse because it is either prohibited or inadequately monitored. Transhipment concerns the transferring of the catch from fishing boats to large reefer vessels and processing ships in open sea. This accounts for an estimated 16% of all West-African fish exports. Although several countries, like Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal, have forbidden transhipment, it has occurred in their waters. Through this practice African states lose revenue because the catches are not declared at the ports. The ODI revealed that of the 35 fishing reefers detected in West-African waters, the majority were sailing under flags of convenience (FOC). A flag of convenience is often different from the ship-owners’ home country, in order to avoid high financial charges and stringent regulations. Often these FOCs are from tax havens, for example Panama, Vanuatu and the Cayman Islands.[6]


Secondly, the exportation of fish in large refrigerated containers is a major concern to African coastal states, since container transport is subject to looser reporting regulations. While shipping vessels and reefers are required to give “reasonable notice” before unloading at a EU-port of entry to enable authorities to control the quantity of the catch and the legality of their activities, containers are exempt from such controls, which clearly increases the risk of murky activities.[7]


The EU is aware of the problem and has detained 135 containers on IUU suspicion. However, it is expected that this is merely the tip of the iceberg. For instance, in Las Palmas (Spain), a major hub for container transport, the ODI found that out of 349 boats coming from western Africa 348 were carrying containers with frozen fish, amounting to118,701Mt. The EU regulation on IUU fishing, which aims to prevent imports from IUU fishing, only applies to fishing vessels and reefers and not to containers! Given the sheer volume of container traffic, it accounts for 84% of all fish exports from western Africa. This is a major loophole in the EU-regulation. What is very worrying is that the European Commission apparently has no idea how many containers of fish arrive at EU-ports.[8]


Thirdly, underreporting of catches and gross tonnage (i.e. the capacity of a vessel) is harming the West-African fisheries sector as well as government revenue for these countries. In 2015 Greenpeace carried out research in Guinea, Guinea-Bissau and Senegal and found that Chinese companies or joint ventures have been underreporting their catches to the port authorities of these countries. It concerns the under declaration of their GT: gross tonnage.[9] This is fraud because coastal states calculate the fees of licenses on the basis of GT.  According to Greenpeace, one Chinese fishing company (CNFC) has underreported the GT of its vessels by 43% yearly between 2000 and 2014, for a total of foregone revenue for the Senegalese state of an estimated 566,000€, while the actual numbers could be higher.[10]


In addition, more fish is caught than reported and authorized, thus increasing the problem of overfishing. On top of that, underreporting GT gives vessels, that are in reality too large, access to fishing zones that are reserved for artisanal fishers in certain countries.  Moreover, these Chinese vessels sell a third on African markets, directly competing with African fishermen, undercutting their prices. Another third of their catch is sold on European markets which calls in question the enforcement of the EU regulation on IUU fishing.[11]



The impacts of industrial fishing on local communities


This quote from a Liberian fisher says it all : “I miss the time of civil war”, Kpanabum says, “ at least then the huge foreign fishing vessels fled from here and we had lots of fish.”[12]


IUU fishing by large industrial trawlers is squeezing artisanal fishing sector of African countries. They reduce the fish supply for local fishermen as well as carrying out their catching activities in artisanal zones. The techniques of industrial trawlers are highly destructive as their nets scrape the bottom of the ocean destroying ecosystems as they go along.[13] This is why the EU has prohibited this practice in a large part of its own fishing zones. However, this apparently does not apply to the “sustainable EU fishing vessels in Africa”.[14] Less fish available near the coast obliges local fishermen to venture further out to sea to catch their fish, for which their equipment is not suitable. Even worse, industrial trawlers have been destroying local fishing gear and sinking artisanal boats.[15]


Next there is the worrying fact of overfishing which has both severe consequences for biodiversity in the region’s oceans as well as on food security. Fish is a vital part of African food cultures, many traditional dishes include fish, for instance the famous Thiéboudienne (fish and rice) of Senegal and the various stews with fish from Ghana, Benin and Nigeria. In Ghana, Nigeria and Senegal fish provides 45% of protein in local diets.[16]


Furthermore, industrial fishing undermines livelihoods, revenues and food security: in Sub-Saharan Africa about 10 million people earn a living in the fisheries sector: not only the fishermen on boats, but also those involved in trade and processing of whom the majority are women. So the sector is a great source of employment throughout Africa: employing 600,000 (directly and indirectly) in Senegal and 160,000 in DR Congo.[17] In addition, the intra-regional fish trade is an important revenue provider for many. In fact, artisanal fishery and related sectors contribute more than their industrial counterpart to the local economy. However, as fishing stocks diminish, jobs are destroyed and this increases the pressure to migrate from coastal areas. If more efforts were put into implementing sustainable fishery principles, 300,000 jobs could be created in West-Africa.



Concluding remarks


In global fisheries, the economic logic of increasing profits once more prevails over sustainability and promoting local development. The principles on sustainable resource management are rife, but there are too few states who act upon it. It appears that the African fishing sector is at the losing end of the game. In general, industrial vessels increase the scarcity of fish in Africa, increase the price on local markets and so reduce the profitability of local producers. [18] 


The EU should act to close the loopholes in international governance which also undermine EU regulations on IUU fishing: in particular, by improving import controls, enforcing EU standards, tackling the flag-of-convenience issue and assisting in increasing the monitoring capacity of West African authorities.


Closing these loopholes should have priority over acquiring fishing quotas in developing nations, something the EU is acquiring from African states. These agreements will be discussed in the next edition of the Echoes.


Gino Brunswijck
Policy Officer

[1] Overseas Development Institute (ODI), “Western Africa’s missing fish: The impacts of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and under-reporting catches by foreign fleets”, June 2016, to be consulted : 

[2] The Guardian, “Fisheries in Africa are losing billions due to illegal practices”, May 2014, to be consulted,

[3] Guardian, ibid

[4] For example, « FAO’s Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries », Sustainable development Goal 14 « Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources », The core principles of the Common Fisheries Policy of the EU.

[5] Odi, ibid.

[6] Odi, Ibid.

[7] Odi, Ibid.

[8] Odi, p,24

[9] The TB of a fishing vessel is one of the main parameters used to measure fishing capacity ie the quantity of fish a vessel is able to fish for a certain period of time.  

[10] Greenpeace, « Arnaque sue les Côtes Africaines: La face cachée de la pêche chinoise et de sociétés mixtes au Sénégal, en guinée Bissau et en Guinée », May 2015.

[11] Greenpeace, Ibid. & Le Monde, « L’Afrique se mobilise contre les pêcheurs chinois illégaux », January 2016, to be consulted :

[12] Odi, Ibid.

[13] Euractiv (a), “Mauretania Fisheries Deal receives mixed response”, June 2016, to be consulted:

[14] Euractiv (b), “EU Ban on deep sea trawling”, July 2016, to be consulted :

[15] Odi, Ibid. & Euractiv (a) Ibid.

[16] Odi, Ibid.

[17] Odi, Ibid & Greenpeace, Ibid.

[18] Odi, Ibid

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