It is no secret that Europe’s seas, once teeming with life, are now unable to provide fish for all its citizens. EU governments and the fishing industry have known for decades that they catch more than their seas can provide, so much so that the European Commission itself has acknowledged that close to 90% of all fish stocks in Europe are being overfished. It is also no secret that, as stocks has declined, fishing fleets have increasingly ventured further away to keep up the seemingly endless supply of fish that we enjoy in Europe. Today, almost half of all fish sold in the EU is caught outside EU waters.
One destination of choice for Europe’s largest fleets is the coast of West Africa. Close to Europe and with a wealth of marine life, this part of the world has always been ideal for fishing. The EU has long entered into partnerships with African states that allow its boats to access lucrative fishing grounds. On the face of it this seems fair; the EU pays money to African countries for their resource. But look closer and you will find a skewed and unjust reality. West Africa’s waters are no longer the plentiful seas they once were. This region too has suffered from decades of overfishing particularly by foreign fleets. The last 20 years or more have seen a surge of industrial – sometimes factory-sized vessels from Russia and Asia, as well as from Europe to West Africa.
At the same time, West Africa’s own coastal communities are increasingly becoming dependent on their seas for their livelihoods, income and quite simply for their nourishment. As an oceans campaigner with Greenpeace working in both Europe and West Africa, I have had the privilege to join our team in Dakar to visit several fishing communities in Senegal, Mauritania and Cape Verde, to see and hear firsthand how overfishing is taking its toll on both our oceans and the people that depend on them.
The stories are the same wherever you go. Local fishermen are witnessing the plunder of their seas by foreign trawlers. The result is that they need to fish farther and farther out to sea, risk their lives in doing so and return with only a fraction of what was once was a normal catch. Foreign trawlers tear up the sea floor, destroy entire habitats and literally suck up all the fish that is of any value.
As the EU undergoes a critical reform of the way they manage their fisheries (EU Common Fisheries Policy), we now have a once-in-a-decade opportunity to help shape that reform for the better. Part of this overhaul needs to be a move away from destructive and excessive fishing both in Europe and elsewhere. We need to source our fish in a way that neither compromises the integrity of our ocean ecosystems nor the livelihoods of local communities.
In early 2011, we invited fishermen from West Africa to nine cities across Europe to tell their stories directly to decision makers, including those at the very top in Brussels. While Senegal ended its formal partnership with the EU in 2006, the country still suffers from historic, as well as current overfishing by foreign industrial fleets. Our team in Dakar continues to work with local fishermen. Last week over 6000 signatures were collected across Senegal’s fishing communities to send a clear message to their government that it needs to look to the future by protecting our oceans and not allowing them to perish at the hands of the big industrial fleets.
Meanwhile, our teams in Europe have revealed just how many millions of Euros have gone into subsidising and literally keeping afloat some of the world’s largest and most sophisticated fishing vessels - the very vessels that form part of the unrelenting fleet that continue to plunder the waters of West Africa. These boats would run at a loss were it not for the generosity of EU taxpayers!
Unfortunately, like almost everywhere in the world, there are now too many boats catching too few fish in West Africa - and the people that suffer the most are those that depend almost exclusively on healthy seas for their survival.
There is however, hope: Europe can turn around its fishing policy to ensure truly sustainable and fair fisheries for all and still make a profit. Scientists predict that there would be 80% more fish in the sea if we managed our fisheries properly.
The EU must lead the world towards a more sustainable future for fish and fishing. This means cutting back the size of their fleet, in line with available fish resources, by removing the most destructive boats from the water first. Decision makers must adhere to science and never fish more than our seas can sustain. The EU should change the way they currently negotiate access to foreign waters. Instead of sending their largest boats to Africa, the EU should support the development of locally caught and processed fish. Finally priority must be given to low impact and sustainable fisheries that provide most benefits to coastal communities both in Europe and Africa.
Visit your national Greenpeace website and find out how you can help our oceans.
Farah Obaidullah is oceans campaigner with Greenpeace International