Africa Matters is a blog that follows the news and offers analysis of African affairs. Our aim is to delve deeper into the issues of African politics and development. We don’t presume to be experts, and we don’t presume to have all the answers—we are just trying to ask the right questions.

Monday, March 5

Free trade fails for fish

Senegal’s Minister of Maritime Economy, Djibo Leïty Ka, returned to Senegal last week after a second round of fishing rights talks with the EU failed. The recent breakdown was due to a controversy over EU deep-sea fishing licenses.

There is immense potential for Senegal and neighboring countries to prosper from exporting fish to Europe, but the Europeans are doing all the fishing themselves.

Since 1990, the EU has negotiated four fishing agreements with Senegal. The most recent agreement expired in 2001 but has been extended twice during negotiations. Now the EU is demanding to increase its catch by 60 percent, from an annual quota of 10,000 to 16,000 tons and to increase the number of vessels allowed in Senegalese waters from 148 to 207. If these demands are met, excessive EU fishing rights along the 2,000 kilometer stretch from Morocco to Guinea-Bissau will undermine African livelihoods and hinder development of African fishing industries.

Fish is Senegal’s main export and is the second largest industry after tourism. The fishing sector employs about 600,000 of the country's 3.5 million economically active people. But this number could be much higher if foreign companies hired more local workers, or if Senegal had a larger share of the fish catch quota.

Because fish is an essential source of protein for many Africans, overfishing is also creating a food security and conservation crisis in Senegal. Seventy percent of fish consumed locally comes from small-scale artisan fishing. Yields of conch, a major food source in Senegal, fell from 20,000 tons in 1989 to 5,000 tons in 1998. Trawling European boats overfish and contribute to depletion of deep-sea species (see graph). Meanwhile, Senegalese fishermen who use traditional methods have to travel as far as Sierra Leone to catch fish.

Fishing permits can bring in large profits for African countries––in 2002 an estimated 15 percent of Mauritania's national budget and 30 percent of Guinea-Bissau's came from selling permits. But these flat fees go directly into the ministries’ coffers, and do not benefit the people working in the industry.

But permits aren’t the only problem. The EU spends about $1 billion annually subsidizing fisheries, about $280 million of which supports fishing outside of EU waters. Without this support, European countries could not afford to send so many vessels to Africa, and Europe would be forced to import fish from developing countries.

Demand for African fish in Europe is high: between 1993 and 1997, Europe bought 540,000 tons of fish annually. Nearly half came from Africa.

Senegalese authorities fear that if they do not grant the EU a fishing license, the EU will deny export market access. In a perversion of free trade, Senegal must sell access to its exportable goods in order to have the right to export them.

The EU should cap or eliminate fishing subsidies. In 2002, the World Trade Organization agreed to place fish subsidies on the agenda for the Doha round of trade talks. These talks could have capped fish subsidies, estimated to be over $14 billion worldwide, thus opening markets for countries like Senegal. But with the Doha talks stalled since July 2006, Senegal’s fishing sector is likely to remain caught in the nets of unfair fishing agreements.

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