Earlier this month, Senegal’s recently elected president, Macky Sall, revoked 29 licenses of pelagic fishing vessels belonging to Russia, Comoros, Lithuania, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and Belize. This decision came a month after Sall’s first presidential speech in which he declared urgency to act in the country’s fisheries sector, and pledged to review the conditions for granting fishing licenses to foreign ships. Sall’s concern for the fisheries sector may be influenced by the need for a new, more engaged approach to the issue of food security, as well as the potential economic and national security implications of declining fisherman livelihoods.
Article 62, Section 2 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) states that a country may authorize other countries to fish in their exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Accordingly, Senegal and other West African countries have had fishing access agreements with foreign governments for decades. However, as demand for fish continued to increase in Europe and other parts of the world, fish stocks have decreased. According to a paper released by the United Nations Development Program, pressure on fish stocks in West Africa increased six-fold between the 1960s and 1990s – mainly due to fishing from European, Russian, and Asian fleet.
These large, mechanized fleets often employ fishing practices that damage the marine environment by dragging large nets across the ocean floor, unsettling fish breeding grounds and catching fish that are too small to be sold commercially or below the age of sexual maturity required for sustainable fish stocks. These fleets are also capable of catching, freezing, storing, and transporting large quantities of fish without needing to offload in nearby ports. The size of these fleets and the efficiency of their operations have decimated inshore fisheries and have made it harder for local artisanal fishers, who tend to use environmentally sustainable fishing practices, to make a living. It is estimated that one large trawler can catch up to 250 tons of fish per day, which is roughly equivalent to what 50 artisanal fishermen in pirogues would catch in a year.
Depleted fish stocks have implications for food security. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that fish provides 22% of the protein intake in sub-Saharan Africa, and 47% of protein intake in Senegal in particular. Fishing practices employed by foreign vessels exacerbate food insecurity by causing fish shortages, higher prices, and a decline in the quality of fish available for local consumption.
Depleted fish stocks have implications for economic security. A United Nations Environment Program report from 2002 estimated that Senegal’s fishing industry generates 100,000 jobs, of which more than 90% were in artisanal fishing. An additional 600,000 people are employed in related industries including building and repairing nets and transporting, selling, and processing fish. Additionally, fish caught and shipped in excess of government quotas or treaties, or illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing is believed to result in over $1 billion per year in lost government revenues in sub-Saharan Africa.
Depleted fish stocks have implications for national security. There has been speculation that the declining livelihoods of artisanal fishermen could drive them to engage in piracy, as some believe this to be the initial cause célèbre for Somali pirates. While I have yet to see data linking unemployed fishermen to piracy in particular, it is certainly plausible that declining livelihoods could lead to increased involvement in general illicit maritime activity – including trafficking in arms, humans, and narcotics. In fact, last year the United Nations Office on Drugs and Organized Crime (UNODC) released a report that found that fishing vessels around the world were used for a range of illicit activities. However, while local fishermen were recruited for their skills and knowledge of the sea, they were seldom the masterminds of criminal enterprises.
Regulation and Enforcement within the Fisheries Sector
Part of the solution to these challenges to Senegal’s fish stocks has to do with regulation – and Sall appears to be engaged on that front. Under Sall’s predecessor, there had been allegations that the government’s fishing licensing system was vulnerable to corruption, and that local politicians could profit by soliciting bribes in exchange for issuing licenses. Another issue raised has been that under international law, the country where a fishing vessel is registered is also responsible for ensuring that vessels flying their flags adhere to local fishing regulations. However, many foreign fishing fleets fly flags of convenience while operating in the exclusive economic zones of Senegal and her neighbors. Many countries that issue flags of convenience tend to have minimal capacity or intention to ensure that vessels registered in their countries are adhering to legal and sustainable fishing practices. (For additional details on the issue of flags of convenience, see Real and Present Danger: Flag State Failure and Maritime Security and Safety.)
The other part of the solution to the challenges to Senegal’s fish stocks has to do with local capacity to enforce regulations. At this point, I do not know if Sall intends to complement his review of fisheries regulations with a review of enforcement mechanisms. But in order to enforce fisheries regulations, Senegal’s maritime security forces would need to be capable of monitoring the country’s exclusive economic zone and being able to conduct boardings, searches, and seizures of vessels suspected of operating illegally. Increased enforcement capability could result in fines paid to the government, which could be reinvested into improving fisheries management and further building the capacity of the country’s maritime security forces.
That said, any progress made in Senegal with regard to marine fisheries regulation and enforcement would be compromised by lack of progress on these fronts in neighboring littoral countries. After all, fish do not respect international boundaries.