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Fisheries management - a new approach needed

The decline in Africa's fisheries must be stopped and reversed, but this can only be achieved by much improved management of this vital resource. In the past in Africa, management of fisheries has too often meant mismanagement. The difficulty of regulating fisheries, in all their variety and interconnectedness with other resources and activities, has been compounded by many regulators not having the necessary knowledge or experience to understand fisheries or the people involved in the capture, processing and trade of fish. A senior African fisheries official, Uganda's Commissioner for Fisheries Dick Nyeko, put this into context recently at the NEPAD Fish for All conference in Abuja, Nigeria, saying, "The biggest problem with capture fisheries is poor, weak fisheries governance. Weak governance has meant that the old style management still pervades the system of command and control where headquarters prepare a fisheries management plan for the whole country. And yet the country consists of many lakes, rivers, streams, reservoirs and dams. Unless you are God I think this is an insurmountable task."

Fishers on the shore of Lake George, Uganda (James Brown)
Fishers on the shore of Lake George, Uganda
James Brown

Centralised control cannot do justice to fisheries any more than it has been able to manage agriculture in those countries that have attempted it. Fisherfolk are numerous and disparate and, whether harvesting inland or marine waters, respond to and take risks with local conditions that can change on a hourly basis. The solution is to devolve management to the fishing communities, believes Nyeko. "At the end of the day, the community must be told that the resource belongs to them and not to governments. They have a stake in the resources that support their livelihoods. They must have control of access: who fishes, how they fish, what they fish and where the benefits should go."

Decentralise but not abdicate

Total abdication of responsibility by government to fisherfolk is not the answer either; there must be an over-riding national policy framework and laws providing a code of conduct for responsible fisheries, reflecting international agreements such as the Convention on Biodiversity. Thus, decentralised local management must still be informed by scientific research and regulated through by-laws that provide parameters for local decisions and actions. Uganda provides one example. "On Lake Victoria, we have one of the biggest co-management initiatives," says Nyeko. "In the last three months the communities have elected leaders and committees, and these committees are charged with legal powers, including those to restrict entry."

In Kenya too there has been a shift from central 'command and control' management to participatory management involving communities, as Nancy Gitonga, Director of Fisheries, explains. "We had many stakeholder meetings and discussed how best we can run fisheries management so that the resource can last for ever. We have agreed net sizes that can be used, and they have vigilante groups so that if people don't use the right nets they report them and action is taken. The primary institution is the Beach Management Unit (BMU), which comprises the fishermen in a village or landing site. These people are empowered so that they can regulate their fisheries; they agree the number of people that are going to fish, because access is a problem, and they also make sure that quality control is observed." The BMU concept has now been adopted in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.

Government's role

Where does this leave government fisheries departments? They retain the important role of monitoring and recording fisheries activities and of advising their governments on formulation of fisheries policies based on best practice and with the aim of sustainable production. They also have the responsibility to work with other government departments that can impact on fisheries, and to devise mutually beneficial strategies. "In most cases, African fishery managers have been handling only fisheries and have not traditionally interacted with other departments. The most important department, which a manager might have to interact with, is the department for water resources, or the Ministry of Finance, or the Ministry of Planning," says Nyeko. He adds that when you see how few Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers make any mention of fisheries, it signifies the level of ignorance of national government planners regarding fisheries as a national resource.

If the decline in African fisheries is to be arrested and even reversed, management at government level will have to address several issues that it cannot devolve through decentralisation. Assisting fishers and fish processors to improve fishing gear, chilling plants and processing premises through provision of financial credit is one role for government, which would improve productivity by reducing the post-harvest losses that can amount to almost one-third of the catch. Developing new or improving existing road structure and market sites can also be funded by government, aiding and abetting the rapid distribution of a highly nutritious but highly perishable commodity. The prevention and control of pollution of inland waters is also a duty of government, to safeguard the health of consumers and ensure the continuing productivity of waters.

Finally, only governments can act at international level, negotiating trade agreements and putting pressure on governments of other countries which fish their waters to establish some form of income from or control over illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fleets. This must be a high priority. If coastal states cannot patrol their own territorial waters they may have to consider shared security cover with neighbouring states. If left unchecked, the destruction of marine fisheries could leave tens of thousands of fisherfolk without their livelihoods and millions of people with even less fish to eat that they have now.

Fortunately, there seems to be a growing understanding of the importance of small-scale fishing, though more in some countries than in others. At the Fish for All summit in Abuja, Patrick Dugan, Deputy Director General of the WorldFish Center, instanced Mozambique. "There are major investments being made through the public sector in Mozambique, the private sector at local level, and through international donors. In some other countries that understanding is not quite as well developed," he said. "One of the things that has been done through the Summit has been to raise awareness of these issues."

Date published: November 2005


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