What's at Stake in African Waters

Saturday, 15 Sep, 2018

The rich biodiversity of the African coastline provides vital habitat to a wide range of marine wildlife. Sea Shepherd’s first partnership in Africa to combat illegal fishing began in Gabon. Described as “Africa’s Last Eden”, Gabon recently established the continent’s largest network of marine protected areas, with pristine waters where many species of tuna, leatherback sea turtles, hammerhead sharks, manta rays, and migratory species such as whale sharks, humpback whales and Bryde’s whales can be found. Tuna and sharks migrate along oceanic wildlife corridors that run through the Guinea Current Large Marine Ecosystem including the West African coast of Liberia and Gabon’s newly-established marine protected areas; and in Tanzania in the Western Indian Ocean Region, mangrove forests provide critical habitat for fish nurseries, migratory birds, marine turtles, dugongs and porpoises.

Artisan fishing boats on the beach in Tanzania. Photo by Christophe Loebl/Sea Shepherd.

Most people know Africa’s iconic elephants, rhinos, and gorillas need protection from poachers, but few people realize that illegal fishing activities are also wiping out Africa’s precious marine wildlife. As overexploited fisheries collapsed in other parts of the world, foreign fishing fleets started coming to the waters of African countries to take advantage of the continent’s rich fishing grounds. With the modern industrial fishing technologies we have today, such as bottom trawls, purse seine nets and fish aggregation devices (FADs), these fleets can easily strip African coastal waters bare if strict quotas and sustainable practices are not respected. Further, as the economic resources of many African coastal states are stretched, there are challenges in monitoring, control and surveillance; a problem exploited by fishing vessels that fish without a license, fish using prohibited fishing gear and/or fish illegally in restricted or protected areas.

Fish trapped in an industrial fishing vessel net. Photo SImon Ager/Sea Shepherd.

Unfortunately, the waters of many African coastal and island states are plagued by illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing. Some are outright poachers, stealing fish from the waters of African coastal states without permits. Others may be legal commercial fishing fleets who are taking more fish or different fish than their license allows. There are rarely accurate records of the number of sharks, turtles, whales, rays, and other non-target -- and often endangered -- species (known as bycatch) accidentally killed by indiscriminate fishing gear. The surveillance and monitoring of fishing fleets at sea is often under-resourced, allowing unscrupulous fleets to operate with complete impunity, decimating local fish populations, fishing with illegal gear such as banned gillnets, and destroying the marine habitat with bottom trawling and trafficking of protected mangrove timber. If current trends continue, then by 2048 many of the world's major fisheries will collapse. Currently, two-thirds of the world's fisheries are fully-exploited, another 26% are over-exploited, meaning that just 10% of the world's fisheries are healthy. When IUU fishing accounts for 15-40% of the global catch, then stopping these illegal operators is essential to saving the oceans from collapse. Additionally, illegal fishing offenses are often committed alongside convergence crimes such as forgery, fraud, tax evasion and human trafficking. Wildlife trafficking has become so lucrative, and the risk of getting caught so low, that it generates more money for organized crime syndicates than guns or drugs.




Sharks killed as by-catch by a commercial fishing vessel in Gabon. Photo by Alejandra Gimeno/Sea Shepherd.
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