EU-registered vessels overexploit and export small pelagic fish in African waters, investigation shows

Juliet Efemena, a fish processor in Guinea-Bissau. Credit: Gideon Sarpong, iWatch Africa, November 2023, used with permission.

This story was originally published by iWatch Africa, and a shorter version is republished on Global Voices as part of a content-sharing partnership agreement.

An investigation led by Gideon Sarpong in partnership with the Pulitzer Center’s Ocean Reporting Network sheds light on the export of overexploited small pelagic fish by European Union (EU) registered vessels operating in West Africa.

According to the research report, the Ocean Whale Fishing Company, founded in 2016, has emerged as a shadowy player in the African fishing industry. Operating a fleet of five fishing vessels across the continent, Ocean Whale’s practices have raised eyebrows, as it exploits regulatory gaps and threatens West Africa’s small pelagic fish stocks, a lifeline for local artisanal fishers.

The report also states that the company which owns the Pilot Whale purports to be a legitimate entity officially registered in Malta under the registration number C76874. However, the investigation reveals that the company’s operations transcend borders, exposing an unsettling discrepancy between its registration and the scope of its activities.

What adds a layer of intrigue to this story is the peculiar choice of flags for its five industrial-sized vessels: the Right Whale, Pilot Whale, Sei Whale, Grey Whale, and Crystal Hope. Despite operating well outside the boundaries of Cameroon, these vessels proudly fly the Cameroonian flag, sparking questions about the motivation behind such a choice.

The heart of this controversy lies in Ocean Whale’s voracious pursuit of small pelagic fish, a resource in grave peril in West African waters, according to scientists. Among these fish stocks, sardinella holds a special place, cherished for its role as a traditional food source for West African communities. Not only is it affordable and critical to food security in countries like Guinea-Bissau and Mauritania, but it also provides essential animal protein, micronutrients, and fatty acids for millions across the region.

During the investigation, Automatic Identification System (AIS) data analysis exposed Ocean Whale’s predatory fishing practices within the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) of Mauritania, Guinea-Bissau, Angola, and Namibia. These vessels plunder the very heart of West Africa’s maritime resources, disregarding scientific concerns about sustainability.

In October, the Joint Scientific Committee, tasked with overseeing the implementation of the EU-Mauritania fisheries agreement issued a report that amounted to an indictment of EU fishing fleets in the West African region.

The report noted that the EU fleet fishing for small pelagic fish in West Africa, particularly the East European vessels, continue to disregard their obligations to embark scientific observers on board, while they fish unsustainably.

Also, data from the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) spanning several years was analyzed by Gideon Sarpong. The findings revealed a grim picture of sardinella overexploitation in the regions where Ocean Whale Company operates. This alarming trend puts the delicate marine ecosystem on the brink of collapse, jeopardizing both local livelihoods and regional food security.

Fisheries expert Beatrice Gorez, the coordinator for the Coalition for Fair Fisheries Arrangements, a consortium of organizations committed to shedding light on the impacts of EU-African fisheries agreements, raises a pertinent concern in an interview with Gideon Sarpong:

This is really a black spot in the European policy, because at the moment there is very little in terms of legislative tools for the EU to act against these vessels where the beneficial owners are still European but are taking the flag of another country.

She emphasized the need for the EC to take decisive measures against EU-based individuals and companies that own or manage vessels engaged in unsustainable fishing practices in foreign territories.

Gorez’s plea is underscored by the fact that in Mauritania, Guinea-Bissau and other West African states, there is a glaring absence of proper regional management for small pelagic fish, leaving the door open for exploitative practices. In her view, EU vessels, whether EU-flagged or under the Cameroon flag, should be prohibited from accessing these vulnerable waters.

Export of small pelagic fish to Europe

report by IUU Watch reveals a disconcerting paradox in the European Commission’s import policiesDespite a ban on importing fishery products from Cameroon, close to EUR 10 million (USD 10.94 million) worth of these products found their way into various EU countries by September 2023.

As part of Sarpong's investigation, data was drawn from the European Market Observatory for Fisheries and Aquaculture Products (EUMOFA) platform. This data was contested by the EC, which admitted that fishery products from Cameroon entered the union in 2023, though in very small quantities. However, when the investigators requested the data to substantiate their claim, no such data was forthcoming.

Export of fishery products from Cameroon to the EU, Jan-September 2023. Design by Daniel Abugre Anyorigya, used with permission.

The EC claims these imports fell outside the scope of their “catch certification scheme,” similar to “oysters and ornamental fish,” which it argued was “mainly imported by France and Belgium.”

Further analysis of fishery export data from EUMOFA revealed more startling information. Fish worth over EUR 150 million (USD 164.3 million) comprising overfished species like small pelagic had entered the EU from Mauritania and Guinea Bissau as at September 2023.

In response, the EC’s spokesperson invoked Article 17 of the IUU (Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated) Regulation, which empowers EU member states to implement verification procedures when importing fishery products.

The spokesperson argued that “the Commission is supporting the effective implementation of the catch certification scheme by the member states through the development of IT CATCH,” an IT system aiming at digitalising catch certification data and harmonising procedures.

However, an audit of the current EU CATCH controls showed that the measures in place to combat illegal fishing are only partly effective, with the reduced effectiveness attributed to the inconsistent application of inspections and penalties by member States.

Government officials in both Mauritania and Guinea-Bissau did not immediately respond to a message requesting comment.

Path forward

The far-reaching implications of this ecological crisis extend well beyond the ocean’s shores, permeating the lives of local communities. Included in these communities are the individuals who directly depend on the sea for their livelihoods, and their voices speak volumes about the challenges they face.

Abdoulaye Kaba, a 35-year-old resident of Guinea-Bissau, expressed his profound frustration, revealing, “The biggest challenge has been the last decade. We only get a handful of catch after toiling for several hours at sea.”

He emphasized that the once-lucrative profession of artisanal fishing had lost its economic appeal, a stark testament to the magnitude of the crisis.

For local fishmongers, predominantly women, the struggle is no less dire. Juliet Efemena, a fish processor in her 30s, articulated her anguish, saying, “It gets worse and worse every year. All our fish is stolen by the big vessels. We do not know what to do.”

Their poignant words paint a picture of despair as communities grapple with the relentless encroachment of industrial fishing on their traditional way of life.

Guinea Bissau’s plight in the face of this declining fish stock is underscored by its disheartening performance in the 2021 IUU Fishing Index. The country found itself among the 10 worst-performing nations, failing to uphold critical transparency and discrimination clauses within its SFPAs with the European Commission. This does not only reflect systemic deficiencies in the management of its fisheries but also poses a grave threat to the well-being of its citizens.

Beatrice Gorez outlines a potential path forward through the implementation of the ministerial statement by the Organization of African, Caribbean, and Pacific States. This statement calls on countries involved to collect information about beneficial owners of the vessels they flag in the country. By taking this step, nations can foster greater accountability and sustainability in the fishing industry, a move long overdue, she argued.

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