For Local Fishers to Compete, African Leaders Must Urge WTO Members to End Harmful Subsidies

Other governments prop up their distant-water fleets, hurting fisheries throughout the region

Mauritania’s waters are rich in biodiversity: More than 600 fish species live in the northwest African nation’s territorial waters. The fishing industry provides jobs for 180,400 people and accounts for up to 10% of the country’s gross domestic product, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization.

But that wealth of marine resources is also the reason that fishing fleets from foreign nations flock to Mauritania’s coast.

These vessels are often powered by harmful government subsidies that pay for fuel and other expenses, artificially lowering the cost of fishing and enabling fleets to fish in areas where it would otherwise not make economic sense.

One hundred thirty-five foreign vessels, primarily from Asia and Europe, traveled across the ocean in 2018 to fish in Mauritania’s waters, also known as its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), according to a new research-based tool created by scientists from the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), and funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts. That kind of distant-water fishing is only possible because of government subsidies.

Researchers from the University of British Columbia estimate that governments worldwide give out $22 billion in harmful fisheries subsidies every year, nearly two-thirds of which comes from six countries and the European Union. About $7.2 billion of the global total—or one-third—goes toward distant-water fishing, according to UCSB’s tool.

Mauritania’s EEZ is the fifth-largest target of subsidized distant-water fishing in the world. It’s a challenge shared by other African countries, which are losing out to aggressive foreign fleets from big fishing nations, primarily in Europe and Asia, that have depleted fish populations in their own waters and come to Africa to fill their nets—often hunting for fish not only within African EEZs but in the areas just outside them, known as the high seas.

Twenty-nine nations—led by Spain, China, Indonesia, and Japan, which together accounted for 83% of the government subsidies to foreign fleets operating in Mauritanian waters—spent nearly $110.5 million in subsidized fishing in Mauritania’s EEZ in 2018, outcompeting many of the country’s own artisanal fishers and putting them at an economic disadvantage.

Mauritania’s EEZ is the fifth-largest target of subsidized distant-water fishing in the world. It’s a challenge shared by other African countries, which are losing out to aggressive foreign fleets from big fishing nations, primarily in Europe and Asia, that have depleted fish populations in their own waters and come to Africa to fill their nets—often hunting for fish not only within African EEZs but in the areas just outside them, known as the high seas. Fishing on the high seas on the fringes of another country’s waters allows foreign vessels to catch migratory species, such as tuna or billfish, before they enter EEZs, further hurting nearby nations’ fisheries.

Ghana made headlines earlier this year when a study by the Environmental Justice Foundation discovered that almost 75% of Ghanaian fishers reported encountering industrial trawlers more frequently than five years ago; the majority of the trawlers were controlled and financed by distant-water fishing companies based in China. Foundation researchers estimate that Ghana misses out on $14.4 million to $23.7 million every year in uncollected fishing license fees and fines due to lack of transparency among Chinese trawlers in Ghana’s waters.

Farther west, 56 vessels from just 16 places—most of which require long-distance travel, from countries including China, Italy, Belize, Spain, and South Korea—collectively spent more than 60,000 fishing hoursin Sierra Leone’s EEZ in 2018, the UCSB tool shows. That’s the equivalent of almost seven years on the water, fueled by approximately $55.9 million in damaging subsidies.

WTO members’ trade ministers could strike the deal when they gather in Geneva for a ministerial conference Nov. 30 through Dec. 3. In these last weeks leading up to the conference, Africa’s leaders should urge their counterparts around the world to support an ambitious treaty that would eliminate the distant-water fishing subsidies that make it hard for their domestic fishers to compete with foreign fleets.

Similar activity occurs throughout Africa, not only in EEZs but also on the high seas beyond them. In 2018, for example, 306 vessels were stationed just outside the national waters of West African countries such as Senegal, Ghana, Cape Verde, and Guinea, according to the tool. These fleets were powered by an estimated $219 million in harmful subsidies, and their fishing effort even encroached into countries’ EEZs at times.

But a solution is within reach. After negotiating for more than two decades, the World Trade Organization’s 164 member governments are closer than ever to reaching a globally binding agreement that could end the destructive subsidies that drive distant-water fishing within other nations’ waters as well as on the high seas just beyond them.

WTO members’ trade ministers could strike the deal when they gather in Geneva for a ministerial conference Nov. 30 through Dec. 3. In these last weeks leading up to the conference, Africa’s leaders should urge their counterparts around the world to support an ambitious treaty that would eliminate the distant-water fishing subsidies that make it hard for their domestic fishers to compete with foreign fleets.

Large fishing nations are trying to dilute the language of the potential agreement so they can continue catching fish in distant waters. That’s why African trade ministers must advocate for the prohibition of distant-water subsidies, ensuring that African fishers can benefit from their natural resources in a fair and equitable way.

Ernesto Fernández Monge works on The Pew Charitable Trusts’ reducing harmful fisheries subsidies project. U. Rashid Sumaila is a University Killam Professor and director of the Fisheries Economics Research Unit at the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries and the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia.

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