To tackle overfishing in West Africa, cooperation is needed

Foreign fishing fleets and fishmeal plants have diminished West African fish stocks. A new report reveals the need for better data sharing, and higher operational standards at the plants.
<p>Workers throw ice on fresh catch at the Tanji fish landing site, the Gambia (Image: Regina Lam)</p>
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Workers throw ice on fresh catch at the Tanji fish landing site, the Gambia (Image: Regina Lam)

In 2017, I witnessed the dumping of unwanted sardinella fish by a foreign-owned fishmeal plant in my home village of Kartong in the Gambia. The pollution prompted me to investigate and report on the rapid and unchecked expansion of fishmeal and fish oil production in the country and beyond.

My investigation and reporting for China Dialogue Ocean sparked debates on issues around these factories among activists and local communities. The conversations led me to believe a constructive dialogue between all relevant parties could effect change.

That was why in May, China Dialogue Ocean, Washington-based Stimson Center, and partners brought together a range of people from the Gambia and other West African nations to identify solutions and draw up recommendations for policymakers. The participants were from government ministries, civil society organisations, universities, and the fishing and tourism industries.

Given China’s footprint in West African fisheries and fishmeal production, members of civil society in China and their counterparts in West Africa also engaged in a civil society dialogue, understanding each other’s journey in pushing for sustainable fisheries.

A report of the recommendations discussed during the two dialogues has been launched today. It presents context to the issues derived from 40 hours of research interviews along with concrete actions that governments can take to sail the region towards sustainable fisheries.

Titled “Charting a blue future for cooperation between West Africa and China on sustainable fisheries”, the report recognises opportunities for more Chinese and West African cooperation while highlighting the need for West African regional collaboration to strengthen negotiation power on issues such as fishing-access agreements.

Trygg-Mat Tracking, an organisation that provides fisheries intelligence, the Institute for Oceans and Fisheries at the University of British Columbia, and the University of the Gambia also contributed to the events and report.

Unsustainable practices threaten livelihoods

Overfishing and one of its drivers – fishmeal and fish oil production – have long impacted West Africa. 

The region attracts massive foreign fleets from the European Union, Russia, China, and South Korea, according to the report. Some vessels operate without respect for local laws while capitalising on the region’s existing challenges of unrealistic fish stock data, limited surveillance, and inadequate enforcement capacity. Over 40% of the world’s illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, also known as IUU fishing, occurs in West Africa.

Local small-scale fishers in Guinea-Bissau often cannot compete with larger industrial fishing vessels (Image: Aliu Embalo / China Dialogue Ocean)

During the civil society dialogue, a member of West African civil society described the consequences of overfishing in the region: “Local fishers and national fleets simply cannot compete with foreign vessels on catches, and their sea doesn’t have enough fish for their harvest anymore.” Unsustainable fishing practices pose a risk to food security and the livelihood of the local communities.

On top of this, the expansion of foreign-owned fishmeal factories has increased the pressure on fish stocks since 2016. Small pelagic fish, including sardinella and bonga, caught off the West African coast are ground down into powders and oils, and shipped overseas for aquaculture and livestock industries.

Many locals saw fishmeal as an investment that could eradicate poverty, create well-paid jobs, and contribute to community projects, but none of these promises have been fulfilled. Instead, they brought air and water pollution to the communities near the fishmeal plants. Locals living near the factories no longer feel safe to swim in the sea, where the fishmeal plants discharge their untreated waste. Local tourism businesses that rely on beaches have also taken a severe hit.

During my reporting, I have talked to the fish market vendors and consumers in the Gambia and Senegal who lament the shortage of fish and frequent price hikes. They said the previously most affordable fish is now beyond the reach of most people in society.

However, the Chinese participants said food and economic security concerns caused by overfishing in West Africa were not widely known to them, and that the Chinese government cares deeply about its partnership with West African nations. 

To encourage free and open discussion, the closed-door dialogue sessions took place under the Chatham House rule. That means the information exchanged could be used by those present, but the identities and affiliations of the speakers cannot be shared.

Data sharing between China and West Africa to tackle overfishing

Comprehensive data can guide effective fisheries governance that tackles overfishing. 

During the dialogue, members of Chinese and West African civil society agreed that the lack of openness is a fundamental reason for the existing weak fisheries governance. A participant from the West African cohort said the region has limited transparency regarding fisheries access agreements, foreign investments, and data on the number of fish caught by foreign fishing fleets.

The members believe that open access to information and data sharing will bridge the trust gap between civil society and government, different governments in West Africa, and West African countries and China.

Therefore, the report suggests that Chinese and West African governments and relevant authorities share information with each other on fishing-access agreements, fisheries stock assessments, and incidents of IUU fishing. They also recommend building a regular communication channel between China’s agriculture ministry and West African fisheries authorities.

Boosting West Africa regional efforts

Small pelagic species are one of the most abundant and exploited fish stocks in the waters of the Gambia. The stocks move regardless of national borders and spread across a large migratory area. Managing them requires collective regional actions.

Many participants in the dialogue, and hence the report, point out the need for regional management of stocks and the establishment of a regional database of fishing vessels. The database should include all the industrial, commercial, and semi-industrial fishing vessels operating in West Africa. It should log vessel names, call logbooks, registration numbers, and active licences, with details of the equipment onboard each vessel, and which species it targets, the report adds.

The report also suggests that more united regional action can lead to the establishment of a more vibrant anti-IUU strategy, which will set standards for foreign fleet registration across the region. This is as opposed to individual country registration requirements, which usually lead to a flag of convenience.

Strengthen local regulation on fishmeal plants

Currently, the Gambia has no specific regulation on fishmeal and fish oil production. The nation relies on the National Environment Management Act and Fisheries Act to regulate environmental and fisheries affairs, but their enforcement is usually weak.

two men sitting on floor in front of stacks of burlap sacks filling a room
Stacks of fishmeal at a factory in Nouadhibou, Mauritania (Image: Alamy)

For instance, in 2017, the Golden Lead Fishmeal Plant in Gambia deliberately discharged untreated fishmeal factory wastewater in the nearby lagoon, causing the death of all aquatic animals. Gambia National Environment Agency, a body tasked with regulating environmental affairs, launched a legal suit against the factory. However, the Gambian government later announced that the matter would be resolved out of court, without stating any reasons. Many critics believed the government was motivated by its policy to attract investors. The factory was asked to pay US$25,000 for the damage. However, barely a month after the out-of-court settlement, the fishmeal company was authorised by the National Environmental Agency of the Gambia to discharge wastewater into the ocean.

The report calls for stricter air and water quality requirements for fishmeal plants. To keep unsustainable production in check, it advises the government to strictly enforce local laws on pollution and environmental protection, including upon foreign-owned fishmeal plants. Likewise, such plants should adopt the operational standards of host countries’ local laws.

The significance of the dialogues

As a journalist who has reported on overfishing and fishmeal operations in the Gambia for six years, I witnessed many ingrained challenges, like corruption, lack of political will, and community divides, that have hindered positive change.

However, when the government, fishers, activists, and regional and global NGOs gathered at the dialogues in May, their discussion and determination showed encouraging signs that changes can happen through more transparency, communication, and collaboration.

I hope that the recommendations in the report will strengthen the collapsing fisheries sector in West Africa and prompt governments in the region to enforce their laws properly.