Maputo — Mozambique's Minister of the Sea, Inland Waters and Fisheries, Agostinho Mondlane, on Friday denied all knowledge of mass licensing of over 100 Chinese fishing vessels to operate in Mozambican waters.
The report was carried in Wednesday's issue of the independent newssheet "Carta de Mocambique", which said that 114 Chinese fishing boats had been licensed by the Mozambican state and would shortly be arriving in Mozambique.
But the licensing is handled by Mondlane's ministry, and he told a Maputo press conference that he knew nothing about it, and had no idea where the story came from. "We are paying attention to this report", he added.
"Carta de Mocambique", citing sources within the fishing sector, gave a long list of Chinese companies whose vessels have supposedly been licensed to fish in Mozambican waters. Some of the boats are trawlers and some are longliners.
Mondlane told the reporters that fishing licences are not granted to foreign companies. Only companies registered in Mozambique can apply for licences, although they may acquire their boats from anywhere in the world.
"Any boat must be operated by a company registered in Mozambique", he insisted. The sole exception was for tuna fishing, since tuna is a migratory species and the boats might follow the shoals through more than one fishing jurisdiction.
But the tuna vessels too must be licensed, even if the operator is not registered in Mozambique. "They must be authorised to enter our waters, otherwise they may be seized", said Mondlane. "All fishing boats are inspected to ensure that the fishing gear used is legal, and that they comply with health requirements".
Mondlane said that fisheries production in the first year of the current government, 2015, was put at 290,915 tonnes. The estimate for 2018 is 394,000 tonnes - so the sector has been growing by about nine per cent a year.
But most of this growth comes from small scale, artisanal fishermen who account for 92 per cent of the total catch. Industrial and semi-industrial fishing boats only take eight per cent of the catch. This includes the high value prawns, lobsters and other shellfish, much of which is exported to Europe.
There are 492 licensed industrial and semi-industrial vessels said the minister. Of these, 250 are licensed to catch kapenta (Limnothrissa miodon, or Lake Tanganyika sardine) on Lake Cahora Bassa in Tete province, and only 242 are licensed to fish on the high seas.
All the industrial and semi-industrial vessels in Mozambican marine waters are subject to monitoring. They all contain electronic devices and are monitored by satellite. This, Mondlane said, means that their routes are tracked and any suspicious behaviour (such as stopping at sea to transfer catches from one vessel to another) can be noted.
Mondlane hoped that in the near future the electronic monitoring will be extended to the boats fishing on Cahora Bassa Lake.
The Minister said there have been 700 inspections of commercial fishing vessels so far this year, and in 101cases the fishing companies were fined. The total fines amounted to 80 million meticais (about 1.3 million US dollars).
The offences detected included under-reporting of catches, and fishing outside of the area for which the licence was issued. "When this happens repeatedly, the captain of the boat will be banned from Mozambican waters", said Mondlane.
He said the government is determined to increase the tax take from commercial fishing. In 2015-2016, the taxes collected were equivalent to about one per cent of the value of the catch. But this year they have risen to about 320 million meticais, which is three per cent of the value. "We intend to reach five per cent", said Mondlane.
He was heavily critical of the failure of Mozambican fishing companies to invest. Some of them are operating with boats that are over 40 years old. The companies, Mondlane stressed, "must limit the age of their boats, and use fishing gear that is environment-friendly".
The companies are also refusing to invest in aquaculture. Of the total catch, 99 per cent is wild fish and shellfish, and only one per cent comes from aquaculture.
"We could produce millions of tonnes of various species from aquaculture", said the Minister, and if the companies refuse to invest voluntarily in aquaculture, new regulations being drafted will force them to do so.
One recent improvement, imposed by the Ministry, was that no fishing vessel can refuel on the high seas, because of the risk of oil spills. The boats must come into port to refuel.
Asked if the tuna fishing company Tunamar has begun to operate, Mondlane confirmed that all its boats are still paralysed although he expected the company to start fishing soon. Tunamar is the reincarnation of the bankrupt company Ematum (Mozambique Tuna Company), one of the beneficiaries of Mozambique's "hidden debt" scandal.
Ematum was granted a loan of 850 million US dollars from the banks Credit Suisse and VTB of Russia, thanks to illegal loan guarantees issued by the previous Mozambican government, under President Armando Guebuza. But the 24 boats hardly did any fishing, and are currently lying at anchor in the Maputo fishing port.
A partnership with the US company Frontier Service Group (FSG) was supposed to bring Ematum to life under the name Tunamar. But, a year after an agreement was signed with FSG chairperson Eric Prince, nothing has happened.
Ematum currently has no fishing licence for any of its boats (the licences must be renewed annually). Mondlane said that, before Tunamar can start fishing, all the boats must be inspected to ensure that they are seaworthy and meet all health requirements, and all must pay their licenses.