The Bleak Future of Fishing in Africa

“These problems may seem far away, but they are crucial to the global market and economy.” So said Piero Sardo, President of the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity, opening the Water Workshop “The Future of Fishing in Africa” at Slow Fish on Sunday.
Speakers from Italy, France, Uganda, Senegal and Mauritania then proceeded to prove this statement correct, showing how the problems of overfishing and globalized demand, leading to the loss of livelihoods and the destruction of the environment and biodiversity, were primarily caused by industrial fishing fleets from developed countries and massive fish exports to Japan, the United States and the European Union. In competition from industrial fleets, artisanal fishers were struggling to make a living and with most fish exported, local food security was seriously threatened.
Margaret Nakato, Director of the Katosi Women Development Trust in Uganda, had some shocking statistics about Lake Victoria. In 1999, she said, there were an estimated 1.9 million tons of fish resources in the lake, but by last year this had gone down to just 370,000 tons. European Union imports of Nile perch fillets doubled from 1997 to 2005, and the fish export business generates $300 million a year for the three countries bordering the lake, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. But even so the standards of living for fishing communities were not improving.
The situation in West Africa is similarly dire, said Edoardo Isnenghi, a scientific consultant for the World Wildlife Fund Italy. The rich fishing grounds off the central West African coast have been decimated, with 90% of fish species at maximum exploitation level. Already 20% of stocks have collapsed completely, while 30% are exploited above their capacity for regeneration. With no fish left to catch, local fishermen often choose to emigrate, becoming what he termed “environmental refugees.” The majority of illegal immigrants who arrive in Europe are escaping environmental degradation, he said.
Bringing the focus to Senegal, Awa Djigal, an artisanal fish processor, confirmed this story. Senegalese women, she said, were active in processing and selling fish, but when the men emigrate there is no more fish to process. With 80% of women’s income spent on food, if their income is threatened so is the whole community’s food security.
Nedwa Moctar Nech of the NGO Mauritanie 2000 said that 95% of Mauritania’s fish production was exported, and that European fleets were using environmentally harmful fishing techniques banned by international agreements. “In Holland they aren’t allowed to catch mollusks, so they come catch them here,” she lamented.
What can be done to improve the situation? Nakato said that sustainability needed to balance economic, social and ecological issues. In Africa, she said, the economic issues had to be addressed first. “We have basic needs of food, healthcare and shelter. In Iceland they can address ecological needs first because they already have food and shelter.”
Diversification of economic activities would help provide local communities with other sources of income. Cooperation between international institutions like the FAO, individual governments, NGOs and local development agencies to control illegal fishing and limit overexploitation is crucial, as is greater traceability and transparency along the whole length of the supply chain, from fisher to consumer. Capacity building and improving women’s access to credit and involvement in decision making would also help, as would increasing ways for communities to add value to their catch at a local level, such as access to hygienic processing and conservation technology.
Piero Sardo, however, concluded the workshop by stating: “There is only one solution. We have to eat a third of the fish we currently consume. We’ve used up our stocks, and now we’re using up theirs.”

Carla Ranicki

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