Site icon Conservation news

To renew or not to renew? African nations reconsider EU fishing deals

Fishermen in Dakar, Senegal.

Fishermen in Dakar, Senegal. Image by Toon van Dijk via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0).

  • The European Union currently has fisheries access deals with 11 African countries, several of which are up for renegotiation this year.
  • Under the deals, called Sustainable Fisheries Partnership Agreements (SFPAs), European fishing companies gain access to resource-filled foreign waters, while the African countries get cash.
  • Senegal was the first country to sign such a deal, in 1979, but President Bassirou Diomaye Faye was elected in March after proposing to suspend it altogether in response to concerns that it’s unfair to local fishers. It’s not yet clear whether he will follow through, but his rhetoric reflects shifting arrangements in African fisheries, where the EU no longer dominates as it once did.
  • Experts see this as a possible win for local control of precious marine resources, but they also caution that many of the alternative arrangements African governments are turning to instead of SFPAs are more socially and environmentally problematic, and less transparent.

Senegal now faces a decision it’s faced before. In the mid-2000s, small-scale fishers there mobilized in opposition to a fishing agreement with the European Union that allowed in many dozens of EU industrial vessels to target various fish species. Under this pressure, Senegal’s then-president opted not to renew the deal when it expired in 2006. A new administration eventually signed a smaller, narrower EU deal in 2014 that allowed 36 tuna vessels and two trawlers into the country’s waters. That deal, renewed in 2019, is set to expire in November. And expire it may well do.

Bassirou Diomaye Faye, Senegal’s new president, was elected in March on a platform that included proposing to suspend the deal. It’s not yet clear whether he will follow through, but his rhetoric reflects shifting arrangements in African fisheries, where the EU no longer dominates as it once did.

Since 1979, when it signed a bilateral fisheries deal with Senegal, the European bloc has made deals with developing countries, mainly in Africa. Under these deals, now called Sustainable Fisheries Partnership Agreements (SFPAs), European fishing companies gain access to resource-filled foreign waters, while the host countries get cash.

Over the last two to three decades, European catches in Africa have declined and SFPAs have contracted somewhat in scale, with fewer big “mixed” deals for multiple species, thanks to depleting stocks and local resistance, and a narrowing of focus onto tuna. Experts see this as a possible win for local control of precious marine resources, as the mixed deals often have the most directly negative impact on small-scale fishers. However, they also caution that many of the alternative arrangements African governments are turning to instead of SFPAs are more socially and environmentally problematic, and less transparent.

With the state of Africa’s fisheries in flux, and several SFPAs up for renegotiation this year, local people and their allies are working to create fairer, more sustainable fisheries arrangements, and observers are watching developments closely.

“What we consider a ‘fairer’ agreement is an agreement that respects the rights of partner country small scale fishers (particularly their right to access resources),” Béatrice Gorez, coordinator of the Coalition for Fair Fisheries Arrangements (CFFA), a Brussels-based advocacy group that works with small-scale fishing groups in Africa, told Mongabay in an email.

Fishers and traders on a Saint-Louis beach in Senegal.
Fishers and traders in Saint-Louis, Senegal in 2016. Image by Toon van Dijk via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0).

Prices and transparency

The EU has 11 active SFPAs with African countries. Most are exclusively for tuna and tuna-like species. However, roughly half of the total catch by weight comes from small pelagics such as sardines, thanks to three large mixed deals, notably with Mauritania. The two other mixed deals, with Morocco and Guinea Bissau, are currently up for renegotiation. Morocco negotiations have been paused due to a court case dealing with sovereignty over Western Saharan waters. Guinea Bissau and the EU had their first round of negotiations in early April.

SFPAs are negotiated with a degree of transparency: NGO observers are sometimes present, and the EU publishes them once they’re signed. This sets the bloc apart from most other countries, industry associations and firms fishing in Africa.

In recent years, European companies have operated nearly 200 fishing vessels in Africa under SFPAs, catching roughly 285,000 metric tons of fish annually, according to an EU evaluation of SFPAs for 2015-2020. The EU pays roughly $91 million, and European fishing companies pay roughly another $33 million, in annual access fees; this money goes into African countries’ treasuries. (A coalition of NGOs, including the CFFA, argues that the companies should, in time, pay all access fees, rather than rely on a massive government subsidy.) The EU also pays roughly $27 million annually in “sectoral” support for things like monitoring and surveillance of industrial fishing, fisheries infrastructure, or safety equipment for small-scale fishers, according to the evaluation. This money usually goes to fisheries ministries, and regulators more closely track its use.

Experts have long been saying that these payments aren’t nearly enough, given the high value of the catch at market in Europe. For example, in 2019, European companies paid Senegal $90 per ton of tuna caught, while earning $1,687 per ton at first sale, according to a recent paper in the journal Nature Communications. Senegal did receive more than $90 per ton in 2019 — perhaps two to three times that much, this reporter roughly estimated — if the access fees and sectoral support from the EU are factored in, but the disparity with the market value was still pronounced.

Yet, the alternatives, which include European-owned vessels registering and fishing under other nations’ flags and, notably, the introduction of Asian fleets, aren’t necessarily better. A 2015 study in the journal PLOS One found the EU pays 8% of first-sale price in access fees in West Africa, on average, while China pays just 4%. The complexity of fisheries deals, which often include undisclosed provisos or considerations — regarding aid or road-building projects, for example — make such calculations tentative.

Fish sellers in the Soumbédioune neighborhood of Dakar, Senegal.
Fish sellers in the Soumbédioune neighborhood of Dakar, Senegal. Image by Lawon Olalekan for Mongabay.

In Senegal, after the EU deal expired in 2006, many Spanish-owned vessels reflagged as Senegalese, making them no longer subject to EU regulations or future fisheries deals. And in the last decade Chinese and South Korean fleets have moved into the country, though the extent is unclear because the government hasn’t historically released information on vessels operating in Senegal.

That changed on May 6 when the new government released a list of authorized vessels. It shows authorizations for 132 Senegalese vessels and 19 EU vessels that operate under the SFPA (meaning only half of the 38 SFPA slots have been filled). The newfound transparency push was big news in Senegal and covered by international Francophone media outlets. The government also announced plans to audit the Senegalese-flagged vessel list to determine beneficial ownership, which may reveal that many or most of the boats aren’t Senegalese-owned.

The list shows no Asian vessels, despite fishers saying they are visible at sea. “[O]ver the last 10 years or so, a whole fleet of Asian vessels has been plying Senegalese waters,” Alassane Dieng, secretary-general of GAIPES, a group of large-scale domestic seafood businesses in Senegal, told Mongabay, speaking before the May 6 release. He said the government had long declined his group’s requests for information about these vessels.

The new administration offers hope for change, as the long-standing lack of transparency has been a major problem, leaving civil society in the dark, Gaoussou Gueye, president of CAOPA, a Senegal-based coalition of small-scale fishers’ groups from many African countries, told Mongabay.

Dieng and Gueye said they both support President Faye’s intention to, at the least, reevaluate the SFPA. Dieng said the current deal was “biased against Senegal” and Gueye said the two trawlers, which target hake, must definitely not be part of any future deal, as they compete with small-scale fishers and threaten Senegalese food security. Black hake (Merluccius spp.), which makes up most of the hake catch in Senegal, is overexploited, according to a 2019 FAO report.

Mactar Diallo, secretary-general of Senegal’s fisheries ministry, said his office couldn’t grant Mongabay an interview for this article because it was occupied with the handover to the new administration.

Alassane Dieng and Gaoussou Gueye
(Left) Alassane Dieng, secretary general of GAIPES, a group of large-scale domestic seafood businesses in Senegal. (Right) Gaoussou Gueye, president of CAOPA, a Senegal-based coalition of small-scale fishers groups from several African countries. Dieng and Gueye said they support President Faye’s campaign pledge to at least reevaluate Senegal’s fisheries deal with Europe as it is renegotiated this year. Images by Lawon Olalekan for Mongabay.

Still powerful

Though not what it once was, EU influence over African fisheries remains strong, partly because African countries want access to European markets. Some countries are “locked in” to the economic benefits SFPAs provide, especially if they have processing facilities like canneries, Liam Campling, a political economist and fisheries expert at Queen Mary University of London, told Mongabay. Nearly all African countries with SFPAs also have trade agreements with the EU that allow them to send products such as canned tuna into Europe without a tariff; otherwise, it would likely be 24%. Yet they must also adhere to EU rules of origin, which dictate what can be imported into the bloc, and a straightforward way to do that is to use fish caught by EU vessels. So African governments sign SFPAs not just for the access fees and sectoral payments but also for the EU-approved fish they need to keep exports flowing.

European industrial fishing companies operating in Africa, most of them based in Spain and France, are among the beneficiaries of this system, Campling said.

“An SFPA is a very obvious way [in which] the EU [is] using its diplomatic and geopolitical and geoeconomic power to negotiate access to a natural resource in a very often much weaker and smaller state on behalf of its big business,” Campling told Mongabay. “There’s a massive subsidy coming from EU taxpayers essentially to prop up Spanish and [to a lesser degree] French capital,” he added.

“[T]he Commission represents the EU as a whole, not any particular industry or constituency,” a spokesperson from the European Commission, the executive branch of the European Union, told Mongabay in an emailed statement. The spokesperson declined to confirm that SFPAs have diminished in scope in the last two decades: “The data at our disposal does not allow us to confirm a continuous decrease in catches and EU financial contribution. We see variations that are multifactorial (number and type of active agreements, fleet strategy, petrol prices, impacts of climate change on fish behaviour) and inherent in fishing activity.” The spokesperson declined to be named, citing EC policy.

Fisher in Essaouira Harbor, Morocco.
Fisher in Essaouira Harbor, Morocco. Negotiations between Morocco and the EU to renew their fishing deal have been paused due to a court case dealing with sovereignty over Western Saharan waters. Image by Thomas Maluck via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0).

Go domestic or band together?

One option for African countries seeking better fisheries outcomes is to stop granting foreigners access to their waters.

“[I]n an ideal world what we’d like to see is coastal states having their own fleets, extracting their own resources where it’s sustainable, purchasing and exporting or using it for domestic food security,” Campling said.

In practice, however, this hasn’t happened when African countries have stopped signing access agreements with the EU. Countries such as Ghana, Namibia and Angola have foresworn SFPAs and adopted some version of laws requiring all vessels to be at least 50% domestically owned. But foreign capital, buoyed by subsidies from home governments, often moves in under nominally domestic ownership. Outside of its SFPA, Senegal has a law requiring 51% domestic ownership for a vessel to flag as Senegalese. Yet in many joint ventures, the Senegalese owners are suspected of acting as a front for what is effectively 100% foreign ownership. Foreign firms that register as domestic in African states also often receive benefits such as reduced fuel taxes and port fees — meaning governments are forfeiting revenues that could be used on health or education, Campling said.

If dealing with foreign interests is the only viable option, there’s the possibility of a new tactic: negotiating as a bloc. The idea was studied in the aforementioned Nature Communications paper, titled “A fish cartel for Africa.” The authors found that forming a cartel would increase fish biomass and profits for African nations, improving ecological health and human welfare. Nine Pacific island nations already negotiate their fishing agreements as a bloc, “much like OPEC does for oil,” and they make five times as much as Senegal in access fees for tuna, the paper states.

The diverse nature of African fisheries, which involve many non-tuna species and dozens of fishing nations, would make it harder to create and sustain such a bloc than it was in the Pacific. There are regional blocs within Africa that cooperate on fisheries issues: the Sub-Regional Fisheries Commission in West Africa, ATLAFCO across the whole western African coast, and the Southwest Indian Ocean Fisheries Commission. Each has established minimum standards on access agreements or is trying to do so, to reduce the “race to the bottom” effect that comes when low-income nations compete against one another. But adherence to the standards remains weak, and the groups aren’t anywhere near negotiating together as a bloc, experts told Mongabay. Yet improved cooperation remains a civil society goal, however challenging.

“The stocks are shared and … it’s important to move toward regional fisheries management,” Gueye of CAOPA said.

Banner image: Fishermen in Dakar, Senegal, in 2016. Image by Toon van Dijk via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0).

Additional reporting by Lawon Olalekan from Dakar.

Norwegian salmon farms gobble up fish that could feed millions in Africa: Report

Citations:

Belhabib, D., Sumaila, U. R., Lam, V. W., Zeller, D., Le Billon, P., Abou Kane, E., & Pauly, D. (2015). Euros vs. Yuan: Comparing European and Chinese fishing access in West Africa. PLOS ONE, 10(3), e0118351. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0118351

Englander, G., & Costello, C. (2023). A fish cartel for Africa. Nature Communications, 14(1), 7124. doi:10.1038/s41467-023-42886-z

Exit mobile version