Overfishing in Mauritania

Grace Russell

Overfishing has grown to become a threat to the global industry and well being. The World Wildlife Fund stated last year that the amount of fish in the oceans has halved since 1970 in a plunge to the “brink of collapse” caused by overfishing and other ocean threats. Damage to coral reefs and mangroves, which are nurseries for many fish, add to problems led by overfishing. This issue specifically affects the future and livelihood of fishermen and their families around the world.

Mauritania, located in the North-West of Africa, has some of the world’s richest fishing grounds along its 720km Atlantic coast. The strongest driver of the economy for purposes of local consumption and exports is fish. But overfishing, and other climate challenges seek to destroy its gains. The Mauritanian coast possesses high levels of biodiversity, promoting a rapidly growing fishing trade, most of which is required by law to be sold through the state managed Société Mauritanienne de la Commercialisation de Poissons (SMCP). The country’s coasts are among the richest fishing areas in the world, and fishing accounts for 25% of budget revenues and GNP, 50% of foreign currency earnings, with 70% of the 100,000 tons of annual production exported yearly. Fishing, in turn, generates 45,000 jobs accounting for 36% of all employment. However, due to policy failures on the part of the Mauritanian government, overfishing is threatening the Mauritanian coastal biodiversity and the fishing livelihood of the people who depend upon it.

The president himself stated, “Our African continent suffers an abnormal situation characterised by the existence of numerous resources yet the citizens are often suffering from poverty. The only way to improve this situation is with good governance.” Overfishing is destroying traditional livelihoods along the coast of Senegal, which borders Mauritania. Fish catches are collapsing there after years of overfishing, mainly by foreign trawlers, some of whom are fishing illegally. Meanwhile, Senegal’s traditional fishermen have been evicted from the rich waters of neighbouring Mauritania, leading to a vicious circle of rapidly falling catches, economic desperation and yet even more overfishing. Some have continued crossing the border, provoking an armed response from Mauritania’s coastguard. Foreign journalists in Mauritania discovered an insatiable onshore fish processing industry now being encouraged across the region, and consuming catches on a vast scale. Much of the industry is fed by big foreign trawlers, and the end product, known as fishmeal, is exported to wealthier countries to feed livestock and aquaculture. Mauritania has a fisheries and transparency initiative which is an attempt to end secretive contracts that aid overfishing. It has sought to enlist the support of businesses and civil society in embracing responsible fishery management. Such an initiative has been hailed by the industry as a major milestone in taming overfishing, which costs west African countries up to €1.1bn in depleted stocks every year.

Experts say closing fishing grounds and cracking down on illegal fishing gives stocks a chance to recover. Safeguarding the oceans can help economic growth, curb poverty and raise food security.

The EU has renewed a four-year fishing agreement with Mauritania that will allow more than 100 EU vessels into Mauritania’s waters in return for funding of local fishing communities. But the deal has its critics. Since 2009, EU fish imports have risen by 6% each year. The agreement, which dates back to 1987, is considered crucial because it is the most comprehensive agreement the EU has had with any African country. It forms part of a series of partnership agreements that give EU vessels access to a third country’s fishing waters. The new deal will come under the EU’s common fisheries policy, which has committed to work on more sustainable fishing, in stark contrast to the overfishing of the African coast that was undertaken in the past. The agreement now allows EU vessels to catch shrimp, tuna, demersal fish and pelagic fish totalling up to about 280,000 tonnes each year. The EU will pay for the catches and commit €59m every year to the partnership, with €4m supporting the fishing communities in the west African country including environmental sustainability, job creation, and tackling illegal and unregulated fishing. The EU vessels covered under this arrangement come from Italy, Portugal, Spain, Greece, Germany, Ireland, France and Latvia. But the fishing deal has received growing criticism from researchers and environmentalists who have accused the EU of exporting its problem of overexploitation to African waters. The argument is that although Mauritania has received more than €1bn in return for EU fishing rights for the past 25 years, there is little to show how the money is benefiting local fishing communities or improving the country’s fishing sector. Trawlers are almost obsolete and even the marked growth in traditional fishing techniques has been without government participation. The EU’s presence is unsustainable and a hindrance to Africa developing its own robust fishing sector.

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