Africa Defense Forum
ADF is a professional military magazine published quarterly by U.S. Africa Command to provide an international forum for African security professionals. ADF covers topics such as counter terrorism strategies, security and defense operations, transnational crime, and all other issues affecting peace, stability, and good governance on the African continent.

Report: Time for West African Nations to Rethink Fishing Deals


West African governments should consider renegotiating deals with foreign distant-water fishing companies that often offer little benefit to either party, according to a maritime expert at Duke University.

Analyzing 2017 data, John Virdin, director of the ocean and coastal policy program at the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke in the United States, noted that most bottom trawlers in Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Ghana, Liberia and Sierra Leone are owned by Chinese companies. The foreign trawlers notoriously engage in illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

In Ghana, Liberia and Sierra Leone, foreign industrial fishing fleets generated little or no economic benefits for the coastal nations or the fishing companies in 2017, Virdin wrote for China Dialogue Ocean. In Ghana that year, foreign fishing companies took 84% of the country’s fishing profits, which were estimated to be as much as $7.7 million.

Foreign fleets fared better that year in Guinea, where they collected 86% of the nation’s $31 million fishing revenue, and Guinea-Bissau, where they collected 93% of the country’s $38 million fishing earnings, according to Virdin.

In Sierra Leone, estimates suggest that foreign fishing fleets lost money in 2017, while the government collected just more than $2 million in licensing fees.

“In the case of West Africa and the China-registered coastal bottom trawler fleet, the economics of some of these deals seem to be a lose-lose for all concerned,” Virdin wrote for China Dialogue Ocean. “In others, they are a loss for the coastal states, at least.”

Foreign industrial bottom trawlers, particularly, harm the region’s ecosystems by dragging nets across the ocean floor, indiscriminately catching all manner of marine life, and damaging reefs and plants crucial to the survival of fish species.

Foreign fishing boats also are commonly “flagging in” to African nations, meaning they use and abuse local rules to flag a foreign-owned and operated fishing vessel into an African registry and fish in local waters.

There is little oversight of the online open registries. This means that a fishing company in China can register to fish in Ghana and pay the registration fee electronically. China, which has targeted West Africa since the 1980s, is the world’s worst IUU fishing offender, according to the IUU Fishing Index.

Illegal marine trade costs the region almost $1.95 billion across the fish value chain and $593 million per year in household income. IUU fishing also has been linked to other crimes such as piracy, kidnapping and drug trafficking.

Driving Food Insecurity

Illegal fishing, overfishing, and the proliferation of fishmeal and fish oil factories in the region have led to widespread food insecurity.

— an increase of 40% from record levels in 2020, according to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies.

Although the center noted that COVID-19, conflict and political mismanagement contributed to the food crisis, the region’s fish stocks have been in decline for decades, driving unemployment and hunger. Prices for available fish products simultaneously soared.

Virdin argued that West African countries should examine the terms of their foreign fishing deals and possibly renegotiate them.

“For example, they may look alternatively to increase access fees, prioritize local small-scale fleets, and/or limit industrial fishing,” Virdin wrote for China Dialogue Ocean. “At the same time, the fishing companies may need to think critically about how viable these operations are, particularly in places like Sierra Leone, where they appear to have lost money in 2017.”

“Wealth Blindness”

Ian Ralby, a maritime security expert and CEO of I.R. Consilium, told ADF in an email that he agrees that West African states should rethink how they engage with “foreign fleets of any kind,” including those from the European Union.

However, Ralby said that many African nations suffer from “wealth blindness,” meaning that officials don’t completely understand the value of their waters. That, combined with the opaque nature of many fishing agreements, often leads to “bad deals, very low fees and a real loss of national treasure.”

“That is further compounded by the often-pervasive issue of corruption and outright bribery by some of the foreign fishing actors,” Ralby said.

He added that foreign fishing fleets are not likely to abandon West African waters anytime soon, even in areas like Sierra Leone, where they have lost money.

“China, in particular, has a strategy of using its distant-water fishing fleet to project presence,” Ralby said. China “has written in a 2010 strategy: ‘Occupying brings about rights and interests.’ Their interest in occupying the waters of the world is not just about the economic value it brings, but potentially the sovereign interests and rights that may accrue from having had that presence. There are other things besides money that may enter the fold.”

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