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Africa's blue economy--time to take control.

Millions of Africans depend on the oceans for their livelihoods and the sustenance for a large number of industries. But Africa's seas are under assault from over-fishing, pollutants, plastic waste--and the continent's coastline, its vital economic link to the rest of the world, is under threat from piracy as well. In this special report, we look at the challenges facing African governments as they seek to take control over their marine treasures.

The perils of plastic

In the words of Peter Thomson, the 71st president of the UN General Assembly, "The ocean is in deep trouble ... Marine pollution is taking us to a point where, by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than there will be fish."

Thomson's dire warning is not a hyperbolic flourish: about 80% of ocean litter is plastics that, when ingested, can kill fish, seabirds, turtles, oysters and other creatures. Also, plastics washed ashore often damage agricultural land and discourage tourism.

Africa is primarily concerned with the livelihoods of its millions of citizens, especially those who live along the continent's 30,500km coastline and depend on fish for food and income. Every year Kenya's supermarkets alone use about 100m plastic bags, many of which end up in the ocean. And more plastics, which do not rot, in the ocean means more deaths of sea creatures. Africa's coastal communities also grapple with a changing climate and overfishing. As a result of coastal erosion, whole communities in Mozambique have had to relocate, while Togo has suffered economic losses of about 2.3% of GDP, according to a 2016 World Bank report.

Africa's policy makers and prominent Africans, including former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, are unhappy over the billions of dollars lost annually to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. The cost of illegal fishing to Somalia alone is about $300m annually.

Mostly perpetrated by foreign fishing fleets, overfishing also disrupts ecosystems and endangers biodiversity. Currently, some 37 types of fish are on a growing list of species becoming extinct in Africa, including octopus and grouper, which are hardly found these days in Mauritanian waters on the West African coast.

When scientists and representatives of governments and civil society gathered at the UN headquarters in New York for the crucial Ocean Conference, they discussed ways to prudently manage ocean resources for sustainable development, which is Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14. But individual African governments, with support from the World Bank, the UN and other institutions, are already taking measures to tackle climate change, overfishing and plastic in the ocean.

The Rwandan and Seychelles governments have banned plastic bags; Liberia and Sierra Leone have enacted acts to regulate fisheries and installed ocean surveillance systems; fishing communities in Cape Verde have organized to protect fishing zones, and Mozambique has carved out an area for conservation that includes coastline.

Sylvia Earle, a renowned American oceanographer, says that she's hopeful that life in African seas, though in trouble, is not dead. Sounding a note of optimism, Thomson says, "I have no doubt that we will break this problem."

Africa fighting back against fish piracy

Destructive overfishing by mostly foreign trawlers and illegal, large-scale fishing have been the bane of African coastal communities for decades. Many once-thriving species are nearing extinction. The economic impact on maritime nations has been enormous. But Africa is fighting back and chalking up major successes. Report by Kingsley Ighobor of Africa Renewal.

It was midnight on 14 December 2016, when five fishermen in Tombo village near Freetown in Sierra Leone revved up a small outboard engine and powered their boat far out to sea. They threw in their net and soon bagged a good quantity of fish. But as they hauled in their catch, a terrible storm blew in. When the waters finally calmed, one of them, an 18-year-old named Alimamy, could not be found.

Alimamy had stood precariously on the canoe's edge to load the fish--something he was used to doing--when the storm waves hit. He was tossed overboard and drowned, despite his colleagues' frantic efforts to save his life.

"It was a sad day for us in this village," said Samuel Bangura, the local harbour master. Bangura, whose job includes the search and rescue of fishermen missing at sea, had dispatched a search party to recover Alimamy's body.

Tragedies such as these are common in Africa's coastal nations, but fishing itself is in deep trouble. Fish populations are being lost due to overfishing, forcing boats like Alimamy's to sail far from home. "There are no fish nearby any more," lamented Bangura.

Overfishing occurs when more fish are caught than can be replaced through natural reproduction. This is linked to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU) or fishing piracy.

Some 37 species were classed as threatened with extinction and 14 more were said to be near threatened', from Angola in the south to Mauritania in the north, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Bangura lays blame on the foreign trawlers scooping ashore almost every life form on the ocean floor. "We are competing with big trawlers," he said. "They take all the fish and they destroy our nets."

The sturdy fishing trawlers, owned mostly by Asian and European companies, are able to drag better and stronger trawl nets over a large expanse of seabed. The trawlers can easily withstand sea turbulence and are able to mechanically haul netted fish into pre-positioned storage rather than haul them by physical labour.

In Somalia and Tanzania, trawlers "deploy giant, non-selective nets, wiping out entire schools of tuna, including the young ones, which they discard dead," reports IUU Watch, a European Union-based organisation whose website is sponsored by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), Oceana, the Pew Charitable Trusts (Pew) and World Wide Fund for Nature in the cause of ending IUU fishing.

Some trawlers are licensed in Africa while others operate illegally, the licensed ones pay taxes, although the dynamic nature of the fishing business complicates tax computation. Many governments lack the capacity to monitor the operations of fishing fleets, thus undercutting efforts to fix fair tax rates, let alone collect revenues.

Bangura expressed outrage that illegal fishing vessels operate with impunity in Sierra Leonean waters, but it is also a situation that puts African countries in a bind. Governments need revenues, no matter how meagre, to invest in agriculture, social services and other sectors that can expand economic opportunities. Yet fishing revenues are low compared to the tons of fish that are carted away.

"The revenue generated by these catches doesn't make it back into state coffers," observes Dyhia Belhabib, research associate and fisheries scientist at the University of British Columbia, Canada. "Boats from China and Europe caught fish valued at $8.3bn over 10 years (from 2000-2010) from the [West African] region. Only $0.5bn went back into local economies."

An additional $2 billion-worth of fish is "either taken out without prior consent from local governments or is never reported due to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing," maintained Belhabib.

In July last year, the Spanish trawler 'Gotland' was impounded in Spain for illegal fishing in Senegalese waters. The vessel, registered in Mauritania with a Russian crew, fled to the Exclusive Economic Zone waters of Mauritania after it was spotted by Senegalese security authorities.

In October 2016, Somali authorities observed a Panamanian-registered fishing vessel named GREKO 1, flagged to Belize, seeking port access in Mombasa. The vessel escaped to Kenya where it was arrested under the FISH-i protocol. The FISH-i is a programme by Comoros, Seychelles, Somalia, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique and Tanzania to combat IUU through information-sharing and enforcement.

The Somali authorities settled out of court with the registered owner and a $65,000 fine was paid.

In 2015, two of six fishing vessels (dubbed the 'Bandit 6') on Interpol's wanted list were captured on the Cape Verdean coast, off the port of Mindelo, as they poached toothfish--a tasty relative of cod typically sold in North America. Their capture followed a campaign by the ocean conservation group Sea Shepherd.

Endangered species

West African waters are powerful magnets for foreign fishing operations because they "are amongst the most fertile in the world ', notes Greenpeace, while underscoring that the resources are fast dwindling.

Some of the endangered fishes include Osteichthyes, popularly known as bony fish, which has 1,288 species, the majority of which are found on Africa's west coast. The Madeiran sardine is overfished in West and Central Africa, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the world's largest environmental network. The IUCN reported in January that due to overfishing, "the endangered Cassava croaker is estimated to have declined by 30% to 60% over the past 10 years".

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) further estimates that 57% of fishes are exploited while 30% are overexploited or depleted.

As far back as 2013, the journal Fish and Fisheries reported that the octopus and grouper fish were hard to find in Mauritanian waters, having been fished away by trawlers from Europe and Asia.

Destroying livelihoods

IUCN director-general Inger Andersen insists that the livelihoods of local coastal communities still could depend on properly managed marine fish species.

"Fish provides a major source of animal protein for the coastal communities, which account for around 40% of this region's population," says Andersen, adding that the current situation undermines Sustainable Development Goal 14, which refers to life below water.

Africa loses billions to illegal fishing, corroborates Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary-General and head of the Africa Progress Panel, a group of 10 distinguished individuals who advocate for the continent's sustainable development. Somalia alone loses hundreds of millions of dollars each year to pirate fishing.

A direct consequence of overfishing is that communities relying on fish as a source of protein have less to eat. This leads to malnutrition, especially in children. Women who mostly process the fish earn less than they did previously. In West Africa, times are rough for the nearly seven million people who depend on small-scale fisheries.

Efforts underway

To combat overfishing, Greenpeace recommends countries set up regional fisheries organisations, reduce the number of registered trawlers operating in African waters, increase monitoring and control and ensure that fish processing operations are managed by Africans.

The World Bank's West Africa Regional Fisheries Program (WARFP), whose participating countries are Liberia, Sierra Leone, Cape Verde and Senegal, has empowered countries with information, training and monitoring systems.

Under WARFP, small-scale fishers receive training in the use of GPS-enabled cameras to take photos of illegal trawlers. As a result, by 2016, Liberia had collected $6.4m in fines from IUU fishing, while the percentage of foreign vessels committing IUU infractions fell from 85% to 30%.

Liberia also enacted a fisheries regulations act in 2010 and installed a satellite-based monitoring system. Sierra Leone's sea monitors recently arrested over 14 industrial vessels. In 2015, Senegal enacted a fisheries code, focusing on community-led fisheries management. Some of the 12 participating fishing communities are reporting up to an 133% increase in returns.

Fishermen in the Cape Verde fishing communities of Palmeira and Santa Maria have organised themselves to protect fishing zones. In southern Africa, Mozambique created and is protecting a conservation area, including a coastline.

The FAO in 2009 framed the Port State Measures Agreement (PSMA) to stop pirate fishing. But it was not until 2016, after the US signed and inspired other countries to join, that the treaty became operational. The agreement makes fishing control easier by, among other measures, designating ports for use by foreign-flagged vessels. This is expected to contribute to stopping IUU.

The efforts of ocean resources conservation advocacy groups, policy frameworks, the capacity building of coastal nations spearheaded by international organisations such as the UN and the World Bank--and increasing awareness among countries and citizens of the consequences of IUU, could potentially slow, if not reverse, overfishing in Africa, experts say. Time will tell.

Caption: Opposite: Plastic litter on a Mozambican beach. Below: Ghanaian fisherman in Accra preparing their nets

Caption: Somali vendors preparing fish for sale at Bosaso beach in Puntland, northeastern Somalia. Local communities have been greatly impacted by illegal fishing, which lowers catches and costs Somalia $300m annually
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Title Annotation:THE BLUE ECONOMY
Publication:New African
Geographic Code:6SOMA
Date:Aug 1, 2017
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