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WATER WORLD
Guinea struggles to reel in foreign boats' illegal fishing
By Abdoulaye BAH
Conakry (AFP) Oct 14, 2016


African leaders tackle piracy, illegal fishing at Lome summit
Lome (AFP) Oct 15, 2016 - Stemming the astronomical losses caused by crime in the oceans surrounding Africa is the focus of a major continental summit on Saturday in the Togolese capital, Lome.

"Over recent decades, the accumulated revenue losses resulting directly from illegal activities in the African maritime sector add up to hundreds of billions of US dollars, without counting the loss of human lives," the African Union (AU) said in an online statement about its Protect Our Oceans meeting.

Up to 30 African heads of state and government are expected to attend the gathering, whose full title is the AU Extraordinary Summit on Maritime Security and Safety and Development in Africa.

The long-term aim, according to the AU, is to "make maritime space the key driver of Africa's economic and social development".

While illegal fishing, smuggling, pollution and economic development are up for discussion, there is one particular issue set to take centre stage.

"Piracy comes first," Togo's Foreign Minister Robert Dussey told AFP.

"A few years ago, it was mostly shipping in the Gulf of Aden, off Somalia, that fell victim to pirates. Now it's in the Gulf of Guinea.

"Between 2005 and the present, we have suffered more than 205 attacks. Pirates give priority to raids on oil tankers but they also target merchant shipping," he explained.

Oil-rich Nigeria is at the heart of the problem, with many piracy attacks taking place off its coast or in the waters of neighbouring states.

Perpetrators are often offshoots of armed insurgents from the Niger delta, home to the continent's largest oil reserves.

- Poor cooperation -

That the billions generated from these reserves has done little to improve the lives of most Nigerians has been a key driver of violence in the delta and offshore.

Piracy has proliferated partly because of a chronic lack of cooperation and information-sharing between African countries, although steps to remedy this disconnect have already been taken at maritime security meetings in Cameroon in 2013 and in the Seychelles last year.

Building on those two gatherings, the hope is that leaders in Lome will adopt a binding, continent-wide charter on maritime security that as well as piracy encompasses the other issues on the summit's agenda.

"Most African countries that have a coastline are victims of one of these problems, which is why it's so important for African leaders to sit down and try to find solutions," said Dussey.

Large-scale illegal fishing also helps drive piracy as it depletes stocks, reducing the legitimate economic activities of coastal communities.

In West Africa alone, the AU estimates illicit fishing causes losses of 170 billion CFA francs ($285 million/ 260 million euros) every year.

One project on the table to reduce these losses is a catch certification scheme for the import and export of fishery products.

Idrissa Kallo's expert eyes dart across the waters off Guinea's port capital, Conakry, looking for fish that always seem fewer and far between his nets.

As African governments gather for a summit in Togo aimed at cracking down on illegal fishing, Guinea's corrupt officials and lack of resources to prevent the looting of its waters exemplify the problems facing the continent's west coast.

The Marine Resources Assessment Group (MRAG) has estimated that over $100 million (90 million euros) in marine products are caught illegally in Guinean waters every year, with the worst offenders being Chinese, South Korean and Spanish trawlers.

"They come here during the night and fish until five or six in the morning, then leave our waters," Kallo told AFP onboard his "pirogue", a narrow wooden fishing vessel typical to west Africa.

"Sometimes the inspectors are complicit, and cut the surveillance systems," he added. "It's the ones who hand out the licences who have been to blame for years now."

A report by Britain's Overseas Development Institute (ODI) estimated in June that more than 300,000 new jobs could be created in Africa if measures such as a global tracking system for fishing vessels were instituted, legal loopholes were closed and vessels who repeatedly infringed the law put on a global blacklist.

The sale of fishing rights to foreigners netted Africa $400 million in 2014, according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, but could in theory generate $3.3 billion if the continent's own fleets caught and exported the fish.

- Connivance -

Taking matters into their own hands when out on the high seas, Guinea's fishermen call their colleagues back on land if they observe suspect behaviour, who in turn pass on the information to the authorities, Kallo said.

"(We) proposed a system of joint surveillance," where fishermen would join inspectors on boats caught in the act. Authorities did not go for it, he said, because it risked unveiling -- and thus preventing -- corrupt practices.

"When they (inspectors) catch a boat breaking the law, the contents belong to them. It's a business," he claimed.

Due to the poaching, local fishermen's families lose out and so do the people on land whose livelihoods depend on fish. Conakry's famous smoke houses, for example, are almost all staffed by women who can ill afford a collapse in fishing stocks.

The suspicion of connivance between the authorities and illegal trawlers runs deep in Guinea, the sole country in Africa to have been slapped with a ban on imports by the European Union in 2013 for its failure to act on "illegal, unreported and unregulated" fishing.

But the ban was lifted this week after concrete steps were taken to deal with the problem -- a well deserved prize, said the man in charge of securing Guinea's seas, maritime commissioner Diomande Doumbouya.

A maritime operations centre monitored its waters 24 hours a day, seven days a week, he said, tracking information from GPS systems built into boats.

"If a vessel is engaged in illegal activities, it is reported. We can then board (the vessel) straight away," he added.

They have had some successes: two Chinese vessels were among 14 identified as operating illegally in a joint operation mounted by The Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau and Senegal between August 28 and September 1.

The crews face combined fines of more than three million euros ($3.3 million), though one of the vessels escaped.

Doumbouya is adamant that the problem is not one of greed, but of poor resources.

"If the state were able to provide speedboats and the means to send out patrols more frequently... that would put these people off," the colonel said, adding that the trawlers simply waited for days when there were no maritime police present.

- Regional solution? -

Guinea's fisheries minister Andre Louah believes the country now has the right data to inform the authorities of the problem, but admits it often lacks the means to do anything about it.

"More than once, I have been informed that there have been unauthorised vessels which were probably fishing illegally in our waters," the minister told AFP.

However, the National Centre for Surveillance and Protection of Fishing (CNSP) failed to respond, Louah said, underlining a fundamental disconnect.

"It's good to have information, but if we don't have the necessary means to get there and board these ships, it becomes a little difficult," he added.

The solution, he believes, is better regional co-operation, of the type that netted the Chinese ships during the summer.

That EU and World Bank-backed monitoring operation was a success of the type the summit in Togo hopes to encourage. Foreign Minister Robert Dussey said ahead of the African Union maritime security summit on Friday the problem had be resolved with a joint effort.

"Most African countries that have a coastline are victims of one of these problems (illegal fishing, pollution, piracy), which is why it's so important for African leaders to sit down and try to find solutions."


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