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Crisis, what crisis?

In Africa nearly 10 million people depend on fishing, fish farming, fish processing and trading fish. Fishing produces 7.3 million tonnes of fish per year, more than 90 per cent caught by small-scale fishermen. Fish provide the main source of animal protein for the great majority of Africans and yet fish consumption per capita in sub-Saharan Africa is the lowest of all regions of the world. Sub-Saharan Africa is also the only region where fish consumption per capita is declining. Fish also provide exports worth some US$2.7 billion annually.

Unloading the catch, Shenge, Sierra Leone
Unloading the catch, Shenge, Sierra Leone

Historically, Africa's mighty rivers and extensive lakes, together with long stretches of coastline, have provided a rich harvest to its artisanal fisherfolk, while trade to the interior has offered the benefits of fish consumption to many living remote from fishing sites. But in the past three or four decades several factors have disrupted this long-established balance of supply and demand. First, the population has grown, in some areas doubling in a generation and then doubling again. Demand has also risen, from increasingly affluent urban consumers able to afford more fish and from rural communities now accessed by roads. Many marine fisheries have been over-exploited by foreign fleets, and some inland fisheries have declined because of pollution and environmental degradation. African governments must also accept a large measure of responsibility since few have given fisheries the attention and priority that they deserve. Most African countries have Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers but a review of PRSPs in Africa three years ago found that only two mentioned fisheries as a resource.

Stolen with impunity

By far the greatest impact on fish catch and fish availability in local markets has been due to over-exploitation of fisheries, by both national and foreign artisanal and industrial fishing. Of these, the growth of industrial fishing by foreign fleets, catching huge quantities off Africa's once fish-rich coasts, has gained most attention and criticism. A few fleet owners have negotiated agreements with coastal states that provide for the payment of a license fee or a share of income to the 'host' nation but most have not. Such foreign boats, coming mainly from eastern and western Europe and the Far East, fish within African territorial limits with impunity. They are know as IUUs - illegal, unregulated and unreported fleets, fishing in another country's territorial waters, which extend to 200 km off-shore. They operate largely without monitoring since few coastal states (Nigeria and South Africa being two exceptions) have the aircraft and naval vessels to spot, arrest and fine or impound intruders.

However, a start has been made to curtail these IUU activities by the Sustainable Fisheries Livelihoods Programme (SFLP), a partnership between FAO, DFID and 25 countries in West Africa. Since 2000, SFLP has supported Guinea's fishermen in the monitoring, control and surveillance of the areas reserved for artisanal fishing. The project includes training as well as supplying equipment so that artisanal fishermen can rapidly communicate information on illegal boats to the surveillance headquarters. As a result, between 2000 and 2002, observed incursions by industrial (often foreign) vessels in the artisanal zone dropped from 450 to 81, and the number of disputes at sea dropped from 240 to 35.

Multiple actions demanded

The fisheries crisis goes beyond the numbers of people affected: artisanal fisherfolk are amongst the poorest in most African countries, and include many women who are key players in the processing and trading of fish. Few fisherfolk have other livelihood options. It has been mooted that inland and marine farming of fish could provide alternative livelihoods and incomes, but people whose traditions and experience are rooted in capture fisheries find this as difficult and unattractive an option as a hunter-gatherer being told to convert to agriculture or pastoralism.

All these and other pertinent issues were discussed at the NEPAD Fish for All summit on African fisheries, held in Abuja, Nigeria in August. As Patrick Dugan, WorldFish Center Deputy Director General, said at the conference, fish harvests must increase by 32 per cent to keep pace with present levels of consumption as the population grows, adding the caution, "There are very few places where it is possible to increase the harvest from Africa's coastal fisheries." Since currently only 3 per cent of Africa's fish production is from aquaculture, compared with 38 per cent worldwide, there seems little alternative but to develop fish farming, and to do so as quickly as possible to avoid the continuing and unsustainable pressure on capture fishery stocks. Meanwhile, Africa's capture fisheries must be better protected, developed and managed to maintain their contribution to livelihoods and diets, and to protect coastal and freshwater environments.

To address these issues, FAO, the World Conservation Union (IUCN), the WorldFish Center, and the World Bank launched PROFISH, a new global programme on fisheries, at the Fish for All summit. PROFISH will assist developing countries to design and implement sector strategies for sustainable fisheries, and to integrate these policies and plans into national economic planning frameworks. At the global level, PROFISH will address issues of illegal fishing, subsidies, and raising awareness of sustainable fisheries policies. As highlighted by Warren Evans, Environment Director for the World Bank, "Over-fishing is not only bad for the environment - it also leads to fewer jobs, can increase the cost of fish to the poor that rely on fish for protein, and can reduce an important revenue stream for developing countries."

Date published: November 2005


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