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Millions of people in west Africa rely on fishing to make a living. Robert Paarlberg/Salata Institute | The Conversation

West Africa’s falling fish stocks: illegal Chinese trawlers, climate change and artisanal fishing fleets to blame

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Thursday, April 11, 2024, 01:00 (GMT + 9)

The following is an excerpt from an article published by The Conversation

Average fish catches by traditional fishing communities along the west African coast have declined significantly over the past three decades.

Along the Gulf of Guinea, stretching from Côte d'Ivoire to Nigeria, fishers launch their wooden canoes from the beach to catch small pelagic fish, like sardines and anchovies, which they sell into local informal markets to make a living. They have done this for generations, but since the 1990s, a decline in the catch has put their livelihoods at risk.

In Ghana, total landings of small pelagic fish fell by 59% between 1993 and 2019, despite increased fishing efforts. Landings of Sardinella aurita, a favoured species, declined from 119,000 tonnes in 1992 to just 11,834 tonnes in 2019.

Côte d’Ivoire has experienced a parallel fisheries decline, with its catch plummeting nearly 40% between 2003 and 2020.

The continuing decline in fish catches has serious implications for some of the poorest families in the region. Ghana, for example, has more than 200,000 active fishers. More than two million others along the value chain, including thousands of women who process and sell fish at markets along the coast, are now at risk as well. Already living at or below the international poverty line (US$2.15 per person per day), these communities now face further income loss. In essence, they are falling deeper into poverty.

I have researched food and agricultural policy in a dozen African countries over the past three decades, but the current west African coastal fishing crisis in the Gulf of Guinea is complex because it has multiple and reinforcing origins: climate change, illegal fishing by China, and too many African canoes in the water.

My work on this crisis is part of a three-year study (2023-2025) funded by the Salata Institute at Harvard University. To pursue this work I spent three weeks in 2023 visiting coastal communities in Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire and Nigeria. On a return trip to Ghana in 2024, I will share the preliminary findings with local stakeholders, including fishing community leaders, local advocates and government officials. Meanwhile I set out the main findings below.

Vessels managed by these joint ventures often use the flag of the host country, as in this photo taken in the port of Bissau: vessels with Chinese-sounding names flagged in Sao Tome. Photo: CFFA.

Climate

Among the multiple threats from climate change, ocean warming is probably the least appreciated. Plenty of warming is experienced on land, but roughly 90% of the extra heat trapped by greenhouse gas is absorbed into the ocean. This helps contain warming on land in the short run, but in the long run it brings a cascade of larger climate threats.

When ocean waters warm they expand in volume, and this thermal expansion is now the source of almost half of all sea-level rise. Warmer ocean waters also hold less oxygen, creating a threat to all marine life. But for human populations that catch fish for a living, ocean warming becomes an acute threat when it results in fish stock migrations.

Fish are cold-blooded, so if the water becomes too warm the only means they have to regulate their body temperature is to move away. This is what they have been doing along the warming equatorial currents in the Gulf of Guinea, and it accounts for some of the fish catch decline.

Current systems and oceanographic features influencing the study areas: CC, Canary Current; GC, Guinea Current; NEC, North Equatorial Current; NECC, North Equatorial Countercurrent; nSEC, northern South Equatorial Current; NEUC, North Equatorial Undercurrent; SEUC, South Equatorial Undercurrent; EUC, Equatorial Undercurrent; sSEC, southern South Equatorial Current; GUC, Guinea Undercurrent; OMZ, Oxygen Minimum Zone. Green stars represent sampling areas. Source: Lophelia reefs off North and West Africa–Comparing environment and health

Dynamic bioclimate models allow us to project what continued ocean warming of this kind will do to Africa’s fish stocks. The models are widely used to forecast range shifts of organisms due to climate change and predict the eventual ranges of invasive species, among others.

One study found that the maximum catch potential for Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire and Nigeria would be reduced 50% by mid-century, compared to a zero ocean warming scenario. Another study published in 2018 was in rough agreement. It projected that climate change alone would reduce maximum catch potential in the Guinea Current System by 30% or more by 2050, even if the fisheries were well managed.

Unfortunately, Africa’s coastal fisheries are not being well managed.

Chinese trawlers

Lax regulation of international fishing trawlers is a second source of the recent fish catch decline.

Countries like Ghana, Nigeria and Côte’ d'Ivoire have laws that prevent foreign trawlers from getting a licence to fish within national exclusive economic zones, which extend 200 nautical miles beyond territorial seas. However, Chinese trawlers get around this barrier by using local companies as legal “fronts”. Chinese companies, thinly disguised as Ghanaian companies, currently own over 90% of Ghana’s licensed bottom trawlers. The Chinese vessels are damaging fish stocks by using illegal nets to catch too many undersized fish, including juveniles that have not yet had a chance to reproduce.

Chinese trawlers are occasionally fined for illegal practices in Ghana, but some fail to pay the fines and still do not lose their licence. This damaging non-enforcement of fishing laws is hard to understand, since the foreigners pay minimal taxes and licence fees, and most of the fish they catch are exported, adding almost nothing to national food supplies.[continues...]

Author:  Robert Paarlberg, Associate, Sustainability Science, Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard University | Read the full article by clicking the link here

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