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Poor fisheries management hurts the most vulnerable


The recent Chatham House forum on illegal fishing confirmed the importance of world fisheries as a source of food and income. It also showed that the most vulnerable people continue to bear the brunt of illegal fishing, over-fishing and latent geopolitical tensions, all increasingly compounded by the effects of climate change.

Presentations and discussions underlined the daunting complexity and extent of the problems but also the commitment to making sustainable and fair fisheries a reality. It was said that progress depended on political will and regional and international cooperation to devise joint measures and to provide the necessary means to those who need them to ensure effective implementation.  We know what has to be done but we don’t yet seem to know quite how to do it most effectively in practice.

A case in point is the overfishing of sardinella in Mauritania, a migratory stock that is one of the key staple foods in West Africa. The overfishing, it is said, is due in large part to the demand from locally-based factories processing this precious fish into animal feed. Effective action on this and other fisheries is overdue but regional governance structures and resources are lacking.

The current situation may be due to the law of unforeseen consequences: what may have started as rational decisions now risk undermining food security in the region.

Artisanal fishing boats in the port of Nouadhibou© Bertramz/CCArtisanal fishing boats in the port of Nouadhibou© Bertramz/CC

What is the problem?

A recently published study by the Sea Around Us Project shows that the proportion of commercial fish catches used for fishmeal and oil has remained quite constant at 18 million tonnes annually since the 1950s. A staggering 90% of this amount, however, is considered  fit for human consumption. This industry is, however, relatively new in Mauritania but its development is seemingly accelerating rapidly. From 6 in 2010, the number of processing factories jumped to 23 in 2016, and the increase seems set to continue as more companies are said to have been given the green light to join in.  The quantities of fish supplied to factories went from 50,000 tonnes in 2009 to 300,000 tonnes in 2013. The main markets for this fishmeal and fish oil are in South Asia and China for aquaculture purposes. 

How did it start?

As noted above, the initiative seems to have started from the premise that Mauritania and some neighbouring countries could tap into the potential offered by fishing hitherto unused pelagic fish species by turning them into fishmeal. Due to government measures, industrial fleets were soon replaced in this fishery by small-scale vessels, providing jobs and income to greater numbers. The concern is that growing demand from processors is being met by widening the range of species being sold to factories, with sardinella, an affordable source of fish protein in the region, being increasingly included. The expectation had been that non- or little exploited species would be targeted. Instead, the pattern of use of sardinella was turned on its head. While 82% of sardinella caught in Mauritanian waters in 2008 were sold for human consumption on West African markets, 83% of the catches made in 2013 went for processing into animal feed.  It is estimated that 200, 000 tonnes have been lost to human consumption over this period potentially hitting 40 million African consumers at a time when demand is increasing due to demographic growth. This trend is going in completely the opposite direction from what is required.

Not surprisingly, sardinella is now categorised as “fully exploited” by some and “over-exploited” according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).  This is of great concern in a situation where pressure on stocks is likely to continue to grow as a result of greater demand from more companies competing for supply. Climate change is also said to be a contributing factor to the depletion of sardinella.

A threat to regional food security is compounded by the threat to income and the local economy with all the concomitant adverse environmental, economic and social consequences.

Workers sorting small-pelagic fish for processing into fishmeal, Nouadhibou. Photo by FranciscoWorkers sorting small-pelagic fish for processing into fishmeal, Nouadhibou. Photo by Francisco

What is to be done?

There are a couple of sub-regional bodies but theirs is an advisory role.

Coastal states have flag, port and market obligations along with a duty of cooperation with others in the sustainable management of straddling and highly migratory fish. Having identified remedies, how should local, regional and international coastal states and other relevant parties organise to deliver the much talked about, but so far evasive, regional body with the power to take and implement decisions?  The African Union is developing a fisheries policy for Africa which will help guide policy and some donors should be ready to contribute. Experience has shown that aid is more likely to deliver positive and effective change when it is part of a coherent programme of action.  

The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) offer a rare opportunity to devise and implement cross-cutting strategies on delivering fisheries that are environmentally-, economically- and socially-friendly by contributing to a healthy diet and making livelihoods more secure. Making a success of the SDGs is a duty but it also represents formidable challenges to all parties concerned in bringing together multi-layered and interdependent linkages. Again, coordination and coherence across policies will be needed to maximise  benefits.

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