The African marine fisheries sector is huge. It's valued at more than US$24 billion per year.
The sector is comprised of two main players. One is the continent's artisanal or small-scale fishers, a form of fishing conducted on small fishing boats by coastal communities. The other is industrial fisheries, including trawlers and distant water fishing fleets.
These vessels are sometimes owned by African nationals but mostly overseen by international fishing companies or as part of a joint venture. Fishing by non-African fleets is done through access agreements or licenses issued by African states.
Perhaps surprisingly to some, the small-scale fisheries make a greater contribution to the continent's economy than their industrial counterparts. They're also vital to the livelihoods and diets of millions of people.
In Africa, the fisheries and aquaculture sector employs about 12.3 million people. Half of these are fishers, the rest work in fish processing and marketing, or fish farming. Their catch feeds millions.
But all is not well in Africa's oceans. Distant water fleets are over-exploiting fish stocks through overfishing and illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing. This is because there's limited domestic or regional capacity to monitor the activities of these trawlers and enforce existing laws.
It's hard to provide exact data, because the actions of some of these fleets are unsanctioned, but it's estimated that in west Africa, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing is the equivalent of 40% to 65% of legally reported catch.
The marine fisheries sector is under threat due to these unsustainable rates of fishing, and also because of weak fisheries governance.
Some African states are trying to address the problems of unsustainable fishing through the introduction of new policies and management practices. In a recent paper, we reviewed four case studies of such measures, from Ghana, Liberia, Madagascar, and Somalia.
Our findings demonstrate two things. First, fisheries governance measures in Africa are largely constraining small-scale fishers, while failing to contain the industrial fisheries sector.
Second, despite a higher incidence of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing in industrial fisheries than in small-scale fisheries, efforts to develop and regulate fisheries continue to advance the industrial sector. African states have continued to enter new agreements and issue new licenses to distant water fleets. They also fail to institute stringent measures to curb their illegal activities.
We argue that the small-scale fishing sector is better adapted to meet the continent's nutritional and socioeconomic needs. States must therefore redirect efforts to govern fisheries towards regulating the industrial sector. They must also ensure small-scale fishers have priority access to nearshore fishing grounds and fish stocks.
We found that African governments are introducing measures that target small-scale fishers while maintaining a "business-as-usual" relationship with the industrial sector.
For instance, in Ghana, a "closed season" was introduced in 2015. This means fishing is prohibited in the period that the restriction is in place. The aim is to protect fish stocks.
According to the plan the industrial sector must observe a two months closed season, first implemented in 2016, while the artisanal sector observes a one month closure implemented in 2019. This has increased poverty and vulnerability within fishing communities because they are expected to stay at home without an alternative source of livelihood and with little to no support from the state.
Meanwhile, the government gave licenses to three new trawlers despite protests from the artisanal sector and NGOs. This ignored a moratorium on the licensing of new trawlers. It also happened despite a 2015 fisheries management plan flagging that the industrial sector was operating at an unsustainable level.
A Guest Editorial