Fishing for alternatives – research horizons

Food Security07 Oct 2009Alhaji Jallow

Illegal fishing is threatening the livelihoods of many West African fishing communities. Alhaji Jallow of the FAO Regional Office for Africa believes that the scope of research needs to be broadened to include not just marine resources, but also the people who exploit them.

When the FAO Regional Office for Africa was set up in Ghana 50 years ago, protecting fisheries was one of its priorities. Is that work still as important today?

Across Africa, around 3 million fishers and fish farmers depend directly on fisheries and aquaculture for their livelihoods. A further 7 million men and women depend on the sector through their work as fish handlers, processors and traders. Artisanal fisheries have long been a very important economic sector in West Africa. In some coastal communities up to 60% of their animal protein intake comes from fish. And where distribution systems are efficient, inland communities can also obtain smoke-dried fish that can be stored for up to three months. Since most of these rural communities do not have facilities for chilling or freezing food, this makes fish much more important than beef.

Exports of fish and fish products, mostly from artisanal fisheries, are increasing, generating in excess of US$2.7 billion (about €2 billion) each year. Note that this does not include most of the regional trade within Africa and the catches of foreign fleets that operate in African waters under different agreements. The African industrial fishing sector has always been weak, and this is reflected in the limited contribution of the sector to GDP in most countries. In Namibia and Mauritania, however, fisheries contribute more than 6% of GDP, in Sierra Leone 11% and in Ghana 4.5%.

Well managed fisheries could make greater contributions to the region’s economies. Investments in vessels and fishing gear continue to be a challenge because of escalating global prices. Banks are reluctant to provide credit for investment in the sector, which they consider more risky than agriculture. Unlike farming, where you can see the crops, the potential of the seas and rivers is not obvious to the untrained eye.

What changes have you witnessed over the past years?

Perhaps the most disconcerting developments have been the increasing number of bilateral fishing agreements and the incidence of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. This is a problem that threatens to deplete fish stocks worldwide. The level of illegal fishing in Africa, particularly in West African waters, is amazing. It has been estimated that IUU fishing costs sub-Saharan Africa at least US$1 billion (€0.7 billion) each year. The major problem is that governments cannot afford to police their waters to prevent illegal vessels operating within their exclusive economic zones (EEZs).

A recent survey by Greenpeace, for example, revealed that out of 92 trawlers observed off the coast of Guinea, 10% had no name or flag, 33% had no licence and 50% were fishing illegally. Of these violators, 66% were Chinese. Based on another aerial survey of vessels in West African waters in 2001, the Environmental Justice Foundation reported that 60% of 2313 vessels off the coast of Guinea, 29% of 947 vessels off Sierra Leone and 23% of 926 vessels off Guinea Bissau were committing offences. These illegal operators take advantage of the fact that African countries are unable to patrol their fishing grounds. They do not pay for licences, observers or other national surveillance systems, so their operating costs are minimal. There are European vessels fishing in West African coastal waters, but vessels from China and Korea are the major violators of fishing zone and gear restrictions.

All of this is having a heavy toll on traditional fishing communities. In 2008 Ghanaian fishermen mounted widespread protests against Chinese pair trawlers, which drag large nets over the seabed, destroying the habitats of turtles, shrimps and juvenile fish. There are also frequent conflicts between industrial trawlers and local artisanal canoes, which sometimes result in fatal collisions and irreparable damage to the locals’ fishing gear.

The over-exploitation of West African coastal waters means that the local fishermen are compelled to go out for longer periods and to more distant grounds, which increases their operating costs. Their catches are also often smaller, reducing their profitability, and forcing many fishermen into debt and increasing their vulnerability.

How could research help this situation?

Effective management and allocation of fisheries resources requires knowledge of the potential of marine resources. Such information would facilitate monitoring, which at present is hampered by a serious lack of data on fish stocks. Few African countries have specialized research institutes that can conduct the necessary surveys, so that governments have to rely on ad hoc stock assessments. Some are still using resources data from the 1970s.

Without reliable data that can show the deteriorating state of the EEZs, it is almost impossible to convince our politicians that they need to be more cautious about issuing licences to foreign fishing vessels. But governments are desperate to earn foreign currency, which the licences bring in, and so dismiss the cautionary warnings of the regional fisheries bodies that do provide resources management advice. If these bodies could provide advice based on objective and reliable data, it would be much harder for decision makers to ignore them.

Africa needs specialized research on fish stocks, especially those that are shared, and on the options for sustainable management. But this would require expensive vessels and research equipment. Foreign donors are contributing to the generation of fisheries information in the region, but it is high time that West African governments and national institutions invested more in fisheries research.

And what about the fishing communities?

Socio-economic research that assesses the impact of IUU fishing on the livelihoods of the fishing communities is urgently needed. I must add that it is not only the illegal fishing that threatens the livelihoods of fisherfolk. The rising costs of equipment are equally prohibitive. As artisanal fishers are forced to travel to more distant fishing grounds, many are motorizing their canoes at a time of rising fuel prices. The increasing price of electricity also has an impact on the price of ice that some operators use to store their catch while at sea.

On land, deforestation means that the wood that has long been used to build traditional canoes is becoming scarce and more expensive. Some fishermen have resorted to imported fibreglass canoes, which last longer, but the initial investment and maintenance costs are higher. All of these factors are affecting the profitability of many family businesses. At a time of rising global food prices, they also threaten the food security of entire communities.

The potential impacts of these developments are frightening. As fisherfolk lose their means of earning a livelihood, this could create serious socio-economic problems, particularly in West Africa. Countries will lose their main source of export earnings, and of protein. Worse still, there are very few alternatives for the fishermen and their families. They do not have the training to become farmers, and if they do, few have the patience to wait for months for a harvest and income. They are used to receiving payment, however small, every day. The daily income affects the expenditure patterns in fishing communities, and most fishermen typically do not save. They walk away from the beach and spend their money, expecting to earn it again the next day.

Such patterns are not well documented, and there is an urgent need for research that provides a better picture of the livelihoods and their profitability. With adequate information, we can propose sustainable alternatives for utilizing and diversifying their sources of income.

Traditionally, fisheries research in the region has focused on the biology of fish. The scope of such research needs to be broadened to include the socio-economic studies that can provide information for managing the people who exploit these resources. This has become just as important as managing the fish and fisheries resources of Africa.


Kraan, M. (2009) Creating Space for Fishermen’s Livelihoods: Anlo-Ewe beach seine fishermen’s negotiations for livelihood space within multiple governance structures in Ghana, African Studies Collection 19. Leiden: Brill/Africa Studies Centre.


  1. MRAG (2005) Review of Impacts of Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing on Developing Countries, Final Report. Marine Resources Assessment Group Ltd, for DFID/NORAD. View PDF
    MRAG policy brief 8: View PDF
  2. An exclusive economic zone (EEZ) is a zone extending 200 nautical miles from the coast within which a state has special rights over the exploration and use of marine resources.
  3. Greenpeace (2006) Pirate Fishing: Stolen Fish, Stolen Futures.
  4. Environmental Justice Foundation (2005) Party to the Plunder: Illegal Fishing in Guinea and its Links to the EUView PDF