Site icon Conservation news

Illegal industrial fishing hampers small-scale African fisheries

  • A new analysis shows that industrial fishing fleets operating in the waters of African countries and territories spend an average of nearly 6% of their fishing effort inside zones set aside for small-scale fisheries.
  • In some countries, foreign fleets spend the bulk of their time — more than 90% in Somalia, for example — within the prohibited zone.
  • Communities along Africa’s coasts are often dependent on fish as a source of food and protein.
  • But incursions by large-scale fishing vessels, called “the most common form of illegal fishing in the region,” can threaten the sustainability of the resource, create conflict over it, and endanger the lives of fishers themselves.

Fish are an indispensable source of food and protein for communities in many African countries. But the growth in industrial-scale fishing fleets around the continent has put that resource and the livelihoods it supports at risk, according to a recent analysis.

In a study published Dec. 30 in the journal Fish and Fisheries, a team of researchers shows that nearly 6% of the industrial fishing effort in the waters around 33 African countries and territories occurs in zones reserved for small-scale fishing communities. In some places, that figure is much higher in what the authors describe as “the most common form of illegal fishing in the region.”

These incursions threaten the sustainability of fish stocks, create conflict over those resources, and endanger the lives of the fishers themselves, said Dyhia Belhabib, the study’s lead author.

“In West Africa, for example, 250 people every year die in collisions with industrial vessels within their artisanal waters,” Belhabib, principal investigator for fisheries at the NGO Ecotrust Canada, said in an interview. “And this is not a small number.”

Wooden fishing vessels on a beach in Senegal. Image by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

The study builds on data from the research platform Global Fishing Watch, which tracks the positions of fishing vessels through their onboard automatic identification system, or AIS. This system was initially designed to keep ships from running into each other. But it has since become an indispensable tool for authorities and conservation groups to verify that fleets are complying with the laws of the country in whose waters they’re operating.

In 2018, researchers developed an algorithm based on how a fishing vessel moves through the water that uses the satellite-relayed AIS information to pinpoint when and where it’s actually hauling in fish. For this study, Belhabib and her colleagues compared this information with maps of the slice of the ocean that each country or territory controls — what is known as an exclusive economic zone, or EEZ — along with the boundaries of any designated artisanal fishing areas. Most, but not all, of the coastal countries and territories in Africa set aside part of their marine environment for local fishing communities. In general, such regulations prohibit some or all forms of industrial fishing within a specific range, up to 44.4 kilometers (24 nautical miles) from shore.

The team calculated fishing effort in kilowatt-hours using the time spent fishing and the size of the vessels. In their analysis of where that effort occurred between 2012 and 2016, the researchers found that large fishing boats have levied a heavy toll on some countries’ artisanal zones. In Somalia’s waters, for example, 93% of industrial-scale fishing happened in a zone where the law prohibits fishing by these boats.

“This is massive,” Belhabib said. “It means that they barely fish outside of the prohibited zone.”

A Lithuanian super trawler, 30 miles off the coast of Mauritania. Image © Pierre Gleizes / Greenpeace.

The team also verified each ship’s name and country of origin using data from Global Fishing Watch along with official records and media reports. It can be tricky to parse this information, since vessels sometimes fly a different country’s flag to disguise their origins: A Chinese ship might fly a Ghanaian flag, for example. But the data showed that South Korean, European Union — of which most were Greek, Spanish and French — and Chinese flags were most common after flags from African countries.

Belhabib said the origin countries must follow through on sanctioning their ships caught breaking the law to deal with this often-unchecked illegal fishing.

“The flag state is heavily responsible and accountable for what their fleets are doing in these waters and anywhere in the world,” she said.

Fishers at work in artisanal fishing pirogues with seine nets off of the Senegalese coast, Kafountine, Casamance. Image © Clément Tardif / Greenpeace.

Belhabib said each African country faces a unique set of challenges, ranging from their capacity for monitoring to their stage of development to the political will behind enforcement. Even with those hurdles, though, several have made strides toward protecting their homegrown, small-scale fisheries.

Madagascar recently ended an agreement that would have allowed 300 Chinese fishing vessels into its waters. Sierra Leone requires that ships use their AIS and be licensed to operate in the country’s territorial waters. And consortiums such as the Fisheries Committee for the West Central Gulf of Guinea aim to ensure sustainable fisheries for their West African member states.

Still, Belhabib said, more must be done.

“As far as political engagement goes, I think there needs to be much, much more done to be able to address this issue.”

Banner image of villagers fishing on a beach in Maroantsetra, Madagascar, by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

John Cannon is a staff features writer at Mongabay. Find him on Twitter: @johnccannon


Belhabib, D., Cheung, W. W., Kroodsma, D., Lam, V. W., Underwood, P. J., & Virdin, J. (2019). Catching industrial fishing incursions into inshore waters of Africa from space. Fish and Fisheries. doi:10.1111/faf.12436

Doumbouya, A., Camara, O. T., Mamie, J., Intchama, J. F., Jarra, A., Ceesay, S., … Belhabib, D. (2017). Assessing the effectiveness of monitoring control and surveillance of illegal fishing: The case of West Africa. Frontiers in Marine Science, 4, 1–10. doi:10.3389/ fmars.2017.00050

Kroodsma, D. A., Mayorga, J., Hochberg, T., Miller, N. A., Boerder, K., Ferretti, F., … Worm, B. (2018). Tracking the global footprint of fisheries. Science, 359, 904–908. doi:10.1126/scien ce.aao5646

FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the author of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.