In the past year, the eyes of billions of people have turned toward Africa. Governments, celebrities and millions of people around the world have called for fair trade, dropping debt, and encouraging development across the continent. But, cast your eyes from the land to the sea and many of the problems those demands have highlighted are equally relevant.
Pirate fishing: it ain't pretty.
Sierra Leone, Guinea and Guinea Bissau are poor nations, even by African standards. The majority of Sierra Leonians live on less than US$2 a day. Life expectancy is 41 years and half the population is undernourished. Ironic then that all three nations can lay claim to some of the richest fishing grounds in the world.
If the fishing is so good, why is West Africa so deprived of food and money? Why is it the only region on Earth where fish consumption is actually falling?
Pirates are robbing the world's richest waters of fish and the world's poorest people of food and income, stealing their fish and exploiting their inability to police them. In ports far from Africa they land their catch and make millions.
All too often the very countries that have talked of fair trade with Africa are the ones cashing in on the stolen stocks, trading away the health of the oceans and the wealth of the nations.
Guinea: losing $100million a year
Illegal, unlicensed fishing boats ignore or break the rules and often fly flags of convenience to hide their true origins. They are so confident that they will not get arrested, some don't even fly any flag at all. They are frequently documented fishing well inside Guinea's exclusive economic zone. In just one day in 2001, a Greenpeace survey ship estimated 34 percent of the vessels observed fishing off Guinea were there illegally. The UK Department for International Development estimates this cash and food starved nation is losing US$100 million each year in stolen fish. The catch is often illegally transferred to factory ships, known as reefers, and then sold in markets as far a field as Europe, Japan, Korea and China.
Local fishermen simply cannot compete with these pirate ships. They have been forced, often in unstable canoes, to fish further and further from shore. Collisions are not uncommon. Legitimate local fishermen have died while the pirates continue to steam further inshore.
Exploiting the marine environment
It is not only the fish stocks that suffer from this illegal and unregulated trade. The whole marine environment is at risk from the way the fishing pirates operate. Nets scour the bottom of the ocean, laying waste to everything in their path, wiping out feeding and breeding grounds. Unwanted catch, snared in the same nets, is thrown overboard dead or dying as by-catch, despite still being suitable food for coastal communities.
Making piracy history
Fishing is a vital source of income and food for 6-9 million people in Africa. Globally more than a billion people, many living in poverty, depend on fish as their main and sometimes only source of protein. Yet people in developed countries eat three times more fish than those in developing nations, and a significant percentage of developed nation supplies come from the pirate fleets that plague the West African coastline. It is a trade that is neither free nor fair. Making piracy history will be the first step to ensuring a real future for coastal fishing communities in Africa.