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The Bartlett Development Planning Unit


Collective reflections about development practice and cities


The New Fishing Imperialism

By Liza Griffin, on 13 September 2012

Fish are amongst the most extensively traded commodities in the world, with a global export value of almost US$ 60 billion. In the Global South, sea food products comprise 20 % of agricultural and food exports, that’s more than nuts, spices, cotton and sugar put together. Much of this trade is facilitated by distant water fishing fleets from the Global North entering Southern waters under bilateral access agreements between countries like Mauritania and trade blocs like the EU. However, these agreements effectively displace the EU’s own overfishing problem to the Global South. Despite pledges to make agreements fairer and more environmentally sustainable, distant water fleets continue to out-compete with national fishers and to over exploit Southern waters providing woeful compensation in the process. Does this state of affairs represent the new fishing imperialism?


Photo by flickr member ©Ferdinand Reus

The EU’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) is widely considered to be a failure for not meeting its objectives. Evidence from scientists, the fishing industry and environmental groups demonstrates that the policy has not succeeded in conserving stocks, protecting the marine environment or ensuring the economic viability of many European fleets. In addition, it has not solved the basic problem of overcapacity: the EU fleet is still too large and technological sophisticated to be compatible with a sustainable fishing effort in European waters.

The CFP’s problems have been exacerbated by the recent emergence of ‘super trawlers’: vessels that can catch and process around 200-250 tonnes of fish per day in their on-board factories. As well as taking huge catches, these ships’ powerful refrigeration equipment enables them to go vast distances for long time periods. For example, the Atlantic Dawn, a boat owned by an Irish entrepreneur, accounts for a staggering 15% of Ireland’s entire fishing capacity and can drag behind it a net twice the volume of the Millennium Dome. Its hull can store over 7,000 tonnes of fish: enough for 18 million meals!

According to Greenpeace, there are over 50 pelagic freezer trawlers (super trawlers) operating in 2012, mainly from Western European countries, but also from China, Russia, Lithuania, Peru and elsewhere. Under CFP reforms planned for 2013 new restrictions in catch quotas and fleet sizes will come into force, in an attempt to restrict the overcapacity problem. But these restrictions may encourage super-trawler operators to find alternative fishing opportunities further afield. That is, to stay financially viable these boats must increasingly venture outside European waters.

But already, EU fishermen do not fish only in European waters; the European Community has long negotiated access for its fishers to the Global South’s fertile fishing grounds, including those off Morocco, Sierra Leone, Mauritania, Senegal and Ghana. Today, over 25% of all fish caught by EU vessels comes from outside Europe. Economically developed countries, or trading blocs like the EU, negotiate Fisheries Partnership Agreements (FPAs) with countries where their fleets want to fish. Spain, for example, had agreements with 18 countries as long ago as 2004, 16 of which were developing countries as far apart as Cape Verde in Atlantic and Kiribati in the Western Pacific.

Under these deals, the recipient government is paid a lump sum to allow foreign boats to fish in their waters. FPAs with developing countries should provide foreign exchange and contribute to sustainable development. So for developing countries, FPAs can be a significant source of revenue. However campaigners have argued that these agreements represent a displacement of the EU’s own problems to the Global South by effectively exporting overfishing to some of the world’s poorest countries. NGOs express deep concerns over the development of so called EU-third country ‘partnerships’, for they can facilitate large scale fishing in poor countries, causing damaging footprints on local communities and the environment. These NGOs have exerted considerable pressure to make access agreements coherent with other EU policies and subject to the same environmental and social standards. But, despite a series of reforms to ostensibly make access agreements more equitable, there has been continued concern about the EU’s current partnerships, for according to many commentators they represent a scarcely disguised form of neocolonialism.

In principle, the EU will fish the partners’ waters only where there is a surplus stock which the local fleet doesn’t have capacity to catch. In practice, however, it’s feared that short-term economic interests have taken priority and the EU fleet has fished beyond sustainable levels. 80% of the economic benefits of the EU’s external fishing agreements go to the Spanish fleet, with Portugal, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Greece, Poland and Lithuania also benefiting. By paying financial compensation for FPAs to third countries, the EU in effect subsidises its Member States’ fleets.

Most notably, the EU has negotiated fishing rights for the West African coastline, once known for being one of the world’s most productive fishing grounds. However, since the 1990s and the introduction of super trawling there, West African stocks have rapidly declined. Today the UN’s FOA warns that the region’s fisheries are fully or over exploited. But despite this, vessels registered to the EU catch hundreds of thousands of tonnes of pelagic species (like sardines) from Mauritanian and Moroccan waters every year. Greenpeace emphatically maintains that this industrial exploitation of fisheries is unsustainable. At the same time, fishing opportunities are much reduced for African artisanal fishers, who are often forced to fish further from shore in dangerous waters unsuitable for their boats.

In Mauritania, artisanal fishers cannot compete with the super trawlers now fishing in the region. For their boats are small and outdated, and African fishermen may only expect to earn $500 to $1,000 per year. By contrast, a super trawler can gross over $2m for each trip. €600 million worth of fish is caught every year by EU vessels, whereas Mauritania only receives about €100 million in return. Again, in countries such as Senegal around 15% of the economically active population get their livelihoods from fisheries, with fish providing 75% of the protein in the population’s diet, and up to 50% of export earnings come from fish. Fish are an important source of nutrition for the average Mauritanian, but most fish caught there by EU boats is destined for other markets, despite famine in parts of Mauritania itself.

Photo by flickr member ©Ferdinand Reus

Radical environmentalists campaign for a ban on access agreements, but this would not be easy to implement since, first, governments of Global South countries have come to rely upon earnings from them and, secondly, EU boats might quickly be replaced by Icelandic, Chinese and Russian trawlers or illegal pirate ships which cannot be regulated.

Nonetheless, some form of action in order to strengthen regulation of factory fishing seems essential. There have been about 15 FPAs between the EU and developing countries over the past 4-6 years. But recently several important partners, such as Senegal and Angola, have declined EU offers to renew Agreements. According to Gorez of the Coalition for Fair Fisheries Arrangements, potential partners lack confidence that the EU will keep its promises, and they don’t like the secrecy which surrounds negotiations. Gorez therefore argues for fundamental change in the guiding principles for EU fisheries relations with developing countries, which would give priority to democratic governance and environmental sustainability whilst providing an enabling environment for small scale fishing communities.

For this to happen the objective of the external dimension of the CFP needs to be changed – it should be to contribute to the establishment of just and sustainable fisheries, not primarily to secure long term EU access to third countries’ fish resources and maintain the European fleet’s presence in those countries and international waters. And for this to happen, EU dialogue with non-EU partners should henceforth emphasise transparent and genuinely democratic negotiation. In the longer term it might be desirable for these unfair resource relationships between the North and South to end, and for Southern countries to develop their own capacity to exploit fish stocks in a sustainable way, taking heed from the disastrous overfishing situation in regions like Europe.

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