London — Mauritania has some of West Africa's richest fishing waters yet overfishing by foreign trawlers means that hundreds of pirogues, or wooden canoes used by small-scale fishermen, must go further out to sea to net ever smaller catches.
Fishing is an important part of the mostly desert country's economy, accounting for 7 percent of gross domestic product and providing about 40,000 jobs, according to the World Bank.
Last week, Mauritania's minister for economic affairs, Sid'Ahmed Raïss, warned that as West Africa's chronic food insecurity forces more people to try their hand at fishing, "overfishing by foreign boats is threatening our way of life".
"Other countries in the Sahel show us, for example, how poverty and unemployment make fertile ground for organised crime and terror. Take fisheries away from our people, and they will have little else to lose," he said in a statement.
More people could benefit from fisheries in Mauritania and elsewhere if there was better governance of the sector with greater transparency over licences and concessions agreements, the founder of Transparency International said in an interview.
"The benefits of good governance would be tremendous if the illegal and unreported fisheries were reduced. Many countries could have millions and millions of tonnes of fish or (millions of dollars in) revenues at their disposal," Peter Eigen told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone from Berlin.
West Africa alone loses at least $1.3 billion a year from illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, according to a 2014 report by the Africa Progress Panel, which campaigns for sustainable development in Africa.
Widespread corruption and few resources for enforcement mean huge foreign trawlers often venture into areas near the coast which are reserved for artisanal fishermen.
This allows them to drag off tonnes of catch in waters rich in snapper, sardines, mackerel and shrimp - putting the livelihoods and food security of millions of locals at risk.
The importance of the world's oceans was recognised last year when the United Nations adopted a set of goals aimed at fostering sustainable development, including one dedicated to the conservation of oceans, seas and marine resources.
One way of improving governance is for more information to be disclosed on the quotas being sold to foreign fishing firms and how licensing agreements are being implemented, Eigen said.
This could lead to wider discussions on whether companies were fishing outside the fishing season, using the proper equipment or landing a portion of their catch to allow locals to benefit from income earned through processing, he said.
"All this will be very helpful in creating peer pressure among various actors for better governance ... in a sector which is presently very poorly governed," Eigen said.
A former World Bank manager, Eigen was also founding chairman of the Extractives Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), a pioneering project that sets standards for companies to publish what they pay for oil, gas and minerals and for governments to disclose what they receive.
Modelled on EITI, a Fisheries Transparency Initiative (FITI) is in the works with Mauritania due to announce this week that it has set up a group of government officials, industry figures and campaigners to promote transparency in fisheries contracts.
"This will only work if not only one country does this but also if neighbouring countries, regional countries, global institutions participate," Eigen said, adding that he hoped Seychelles, Indonesia, Costa Rica and Senegal would set up similar groups by the end of the year.
Some experts say EITI - a voluntary effort - lacks teeth and argue that it has allowed companies with dubious track records on the environment to say they are acting responsibly.
They also say revenue transparency does not always translate into greater government accountability, especially in countries that stifle freedom of speech.
"Transparency is just one component," said Andre Standing, who works for the Coalition for Fair Fisheries Arrangements.
"A lot depends on how people are able to use that information and whether they can put pressure on governments and companies to change behaviours where needs be," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
However, Eigen said "information transparency creates a momentum" which can eventually lead to meaningful change.
- Editing by Ros Russell