By John Cannon
In a study published recently 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.”
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.”
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.
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