The best net is the one that catches the most fish, said Kofi Nyamegbe, in a low and steady voice as he stared into the ocean, where lots of fishing boats dotted the horizon.
“We say that all the time but it doesn’t mean anything anymore. There are many boats here, but the nets return empty most of the time,” said Nyamegbe.
Nyamegbe is among some 25,000 people who reside in the fishing village of Moree, on Ghana’s Cape Coast, about 120 kilometres from the capital Accra. He has been fishing for the past eight years, but the nets no longer return enough fish to sustain his family.
Ghana’s coastline is about 500km long, providing employment to at least 10 per cent of the population of about 27 million people.
“That translates into so many boats, all competing for the few fish,” said Farnyi Kweigya, Moree’s chief fisherman.
The exact amount of fish caught in Ghanaian waters is unknown, but the African Union Inter Bureau for Animal Resources (AU-IBAR) says Ghana is among the highest fish consuming countries on the continent, with a per capita consumption of 26 kilogrammes per person per year, against a global average of 10-19 kilogrammes.
The East African region has some of the lowest consumption rates, estimated at just 3 kilogrammes per person, per year.
“In Kenya, we eat 3.5 kilogrammes per person, which is ridiculously low,” said Prof Micheni Ntiba, the Principal Secretary in the State Department of Fisheries in the Ministry of Agriculture.
In the 1998/99 fishing season, Ghana had its highest fish harvest of 200,000 tonnes. Today, the catches barely hit 10 per cent of that figure.
“It means that our fish stocks are collapsing,” said Kofi Agbogah, a fisheries conservationist.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates the global marine fishing industry produces some 67 million tonnes of fish annually worth between $100 billion and $200 billion.
Africa’s coastal waters produce only 4.6 million tonnes of fish annually, valued at $4.9 billion. However, 52 per cent of the fish stock is fully exploited, 8 per cent is depleted, 19 per cent overexploited while 1 per cent is recovering from depletion, data from both the FAO and the AU-IBAR shows.
Key to the near collapse of the continent’s fisheries is the illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing, which costs the continent billions of dollars in lost revenue.
The World Bank’s Africa Programme for Fisheries reports that some 11-26 million tonnes of sea food is caught illegally every year, worth between $10 billion and $23.5 billion.
The West African coast is said to be the most affected by illegal fishing, with 40 per cent of total catches falling in that category.
In East Africa, Kenya’s coast has become quite vulnerable in recent years to illegal fishing, especially with regard to tuna fish. The government reports that the country loses at least $118 million annually due to illegal fishing and fish poaching.
“The worst thing is that we don’t have the capacity to sufficiently patrol our waters and protect our fish,” said Prof Ntiba.
Tuna is one of the most illegally caught fish in the world, estimated at seven million tonnes globally, with a value of $10 billion, data shows.
Kenya’s territorial waters lie within the South West Indian Ocean, the richest tuna belt, with the fishing season running from May to July.
“The demand for tuna is high, mostly in Europe and Asia,” said Prof Ntiba.
Although Africa often cries foul over illegal fishing, a number of conservationists believe that governments are abetting illegal activities, because when an unauthorised vessel is arrested off the African coast, it is quickly freed without any charges, as was the case recently in Nigeria.
Then there is Somalia, which has Africa’s longest coastline, extending some 3,300 kilometres where Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing is exacerbated by the fact that there are no structures.
“It is difficult to say exactly how much fish is lost in Somalia due to the lack of structures to keep track of the numbers,” said Richard Trenchard, the FAO country representative for Somalia.
“The potential of the ocean to the Somali economy is $400 million annually. With a coastline that long, Somalia has a rich marine resource base, but they have serious challenges with overfishing.”
Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing is carried out mostly by Chinese and European Union vessels, according to a report published in May last year by Greenpeace Africa, an organisation that advocates for environmental protection.
Kenya has licensed nearly 40 purse seiners in the past four years to fish in its waters. Of these, 14 are Spanish and 13 are French. In 2014 — the last year complete data is available — 35 foreign purse seiners took annual licences. Twenty five of these were from the European Union.
Kenya requires reporting — specifying the cargo on board, time and entry or exit position — as a condition of a licence for foreign vessels operating in its territorial waters.
The reporting is done at the State Department of Fisheries via the Director of Fisheries whenever entering and leaving Kenya’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) — a sea zone prescribed by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Kenya also requires licensed foreign vessels to submit weekly catch data reports, but there are concerns that the reporting is not done accurately, purposefully concealing any illegal activities in its waters.
“I think where Kenya and a few other African countries go wrong is in reporting; fisheries officers are required to get on board those foreign vessels for a specific period of time to observe what they are doing,” said Edward Kimakwa, the fisheries programmes officer with WWF Kenya.
“Many countries fail to put their officers on board, which means then it becomes hard to verify if what is reported is true.”
Tanzania has licensed between 18 and 38 purse seiners to fish annually in their EEZ in the past six years. Of these 14 are Spanish and 13 French. In 2014, 33 foreign purse seiners took annual licences. Most licences are issued annually.
Payment of these licences is done per tonne of fish caught. In Kenya’s case, payment of royalties is stipulated in the Fisheries Act, but the method is not specified which is seen as loophole through which revenue leaks.
Between 2012 and 2014, though, purse seiners were charged $50,000 for a licence, a fee that has been reduced to $30,000. Kenya says the reduction is intended to make the country competitive in the light of the piracy threats in the Indian Ocean waters.
“This fee is low. But a Fisheries Management Bill before parliament proposes higher fees,” said Prof Ntiba.
So what countries are doing to save their fish stock?
A number of African governments have made strides towards saving their fishing industries. Before 2,000, the Ghanaian fisheries department for example, was only interested in ensuring that the fishermen caught the most fish, hence the phrase “The best net is the one that catches the most fish.” But this brought more problems due to overfishing.
Last year, the Ministry of Food and Agriculture started registering the fishermen. But because most of them are small scale, it is difficult to track them down. Through the village chief fishermen, the government also conducts training on sustainable fishing practices.
There was also a plan to regulate the kind of nets the fishermen use so that the wrong species of fish are not caught, but the plan was shelved, because the fishing gear is linked to tribes and cultural practices, and therefore outlawing one gear would disadvantage an entire community.
In Southern Africa, the government is working with the fishermen because they know who the illegal fishers are.
“They are the eyes and ears in waters and it has worked excellently,” said FAO’s Mr Trenchard.
In Kenya, the government is constructing a monitoring control and surveillance Centre in Mombasa. This centre is expected to be operational by the end of the year. The country is also acquiring an off shore patrol vessel that will enable better tracking of illegal vessels in Kenyan waters.
“Kenya is also training its fisheries officers in offshore monitoring so that when the centre is up and running, the officers know exactly what to do,” said Mr Trenchard.
Last year, the Fisheries Management and Development Bill, which seeks stiff penalties for vessels caught fishing illegally in Kenya’s EEZ was formulated. The Bill is currently before parliament. Also, a Tuna Fisheries Development Management Strategy was launched in 2014, to enable Kenya exploit its stocks.
The only tuna fish processing plant in East and Southern Africa was in Mombasa and it shut down in June last year due to idle capacity.
Tanzania, on the other hand, has amended the Tanzania Deep Sea Fishing Authority Regulations in line with the Maputo Declaration, which not only enables it keep better track of its fish, but also better manage its stocks.
In the case of Somalia, it ratified the 2009 FAO International Port State Measures Agreement in November last year, which compels countries to eliminate, deter and prevent IUU, said Mr Trenchard.
Only 21 countries have ratified the agreement. Most African countries are yet to do so.
For Kenya, if the Fisheries Bill becomes law, it will enable the country to ratify and domesticate the provisions of the agreement.
Fish importing countries such as those in the European Union have laws that blacklist countries that fail to take action on illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing.
The EU is among the world’s biggest importers of fish and also among the biggest owners of distant water fishing vessels, with at least 15,000 registered to fish in such waters. It uses a card system – yellow and green – to decide whether a country should be blacklisted.
Ghana for instance, exports 128 million euros worth of fish to the EU every year, but in November 2013, it was yellow carded for failing to take sufficient action against IUU. Within two years, Ghana strengthened its legal framework and set punitive measures against IUU. In October last year, it received a green card and is back to exporting to the EU.
Prof Ntiba said African governments have the political will to strengthen the fishing industry.
“Look at the East African Community for instance. We have made great strides on the Lake Victoria region by working together. Each country is not only reviewing its fisheries laws but we are developing an EAC strategy that will see us work on fisheries as a block,” he said.
“Even at the AU level, ministers responsible for fisheries have held several meetings and are working on a continental strategy that will ensure that we collaborate in patrolling our waters, such that a vessel that breaks the law in one part of Africa does not run to and hide in another part of the continent,” he added.
According to WWF-Kenya’s Mr Kimakwa African countries need to learn from each other in order to strengthen the industry.
“Take Namibia for example which is using air surveillance systems. It is a small country yet it is winning the war on illegal fishing,” he said.
With fish being a big player in the global economy, the World Trade Organisation issued a ministerial statement on fisheries last year to scrap fishing subsidies, because they contribute to the over-exploitation of fish resources.
The ministerial was signed by 29 countries in the least developed regions of the world.