In West Africa, Momentum for Collective Action to Protect Oceanic Ecosystems

Countries in West Africa have long strived to resolve the many issues that affect the fisheries sector, including over-exploitation
Nearly 60% of legal catches are made by foreign vessels, with little added value to the local economy
A regional program aiming to maximize the impact of the blue economy is showing signs of success

Fish vendor in Ghana: the fisheries sector generates little added value for West African countries.

DAKAR, March 7, 2012—A little over a year ago, on February 22, 2011, representatives of donor agencies met at the local office of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) in Dakar, Senegal to discuss progress on common efforts to curb illegal fishing along the West African coast and maximize revenues for the national treasuries of the affected countries.

The gathering was one of many meetings by what has been dubbed the “Thematic Group on Fisheries.” Radonirina Ioniarilala, a fisheries expert from the World Bank, shared with the group one highly anticipated statistic: as of end January, 16,136 traditional fishing boats have been identified around the country. Of these, he explained, 13,398 have been registered by competent authorities, a critical first step toward effectively regulating of a key sector of the economy. The number was far higher than recent estimates, and confirmed that unless access to the fisheries is regulated, more and more boats will keep entering the oceans, until both fish and profits dwindle.

Since the early 2000s, governments from the wider sub-region have sought to tackle the many issues plaguing the fisheries sector: overharvesting, reckless plunder by large foreign ships, indiscriminate trawling without regard to protected species, low productivity and meager revenues for artisanal fishermen. All of these issues can ultimately be traced back to the core problem: an inability of countries to govern the use of their fish resources in ways that encourage people to take a long term stake in their health and productivity.

The stakes are big: more than 1.6 million tons of fish are legally captured in West African waters each year, with an estimated wholesale value of US$2.5 billion. Almost 60 percent of that bounty is captured by foreign ships, and in contrast only some US$500 million is generated in value added to the local economy. In some countries, like Guinea Bissau and Sierra Leone, the illegal catch is believed to be equivalent of 35-40 percent of the legal catch.

Regulating the “Commons”

Many governments simply lack the basic tools needed to regulate oceanic resources. “Basically, what you have here is the classical illustration of the tragedy of the commons,” says John Virdin, Senior Natural Resource Management Specialist at the World Bank. “All the actors involved have a stake in making sure that resources are managed in a sustainable manner, and yet nobody feels particularly obligated to act accordingly for fear that they will be at a disadvantage. In this environment, if I’m a fisher and leave a fish in the water, the next boat may come by and take it.”

Since 2010 Virdin has been leading the West Africa Regional Fisheries Program (WARFP), an initiative that aims to revitalize the fisheries sector across the entire sub-region. Now in its second year of implementation, the program aims to increase the economic benefit of the “blue” economy for nine coastal countries over the course of 10 years. So far Cape Verde, Ghana, Guinea Bissau, Liberia, Senegal and Sierra Leone are taking part in the project.

WARFP is funded with an envelope of roughly US$125 million in these first six countries over five years. This includes US$103 million in grants and interest-free credits from the International Development Association, the branch of the World Bank Group that gives assistance to low income countries; US$15 million in grants from the Global Environment Facility; and US$10 million in grants from the Africa Catalytic Growth Fund.

“There are some really encouraging lessons and experiences from these countries, particularly Liberia and Sierra Leone,” Virdin says.

Maximizing the Blue Economy

To date advances have been noted toward reducing illegal fishing, boosting governance of the fisheries sector and increasing the overall contribution of the oceans to local economies.

In Senegal, for example, the government has piloted an approach of giving community fishing groups the right to manage areas of the fisheries. A freezing ban on registration of new vessels will soon be introduced. This is a critical step toward curbing overexploitation of fish and other resources.

Likewise in Liberia, progress has been noted since the project started. Starting from a low point where the fisheries sector practically did not exist, in December 2010 the government adopted the country’s first comprehensive fisheries regulation since the 1970s. Soon after, in February 2011, the country’s first fisheries monitoring center was inaugurated. It features radio and satellite communication links to the fishing fleet. Aerial patrols have also started, and last summer authorities made their first arrests of illegal fishing vessels, including an at-sea arrest by the Liberian Coast Guard.

The first full registration of the country’s small-scale fishing fleet―comprised of some 3,000 boats―has been completed. The Liberian Government has also launched a pilot in Robertsport to support coastal fishing rights for local communities. As a result of these changes, public revenues from the fisheries in Liberia tripled from 2010 to 2011.

Fostering Partnerships and Collaboration

At the regional level, countries have agreed to launch an information sharing platform with key data on fisheries, including registration and licensing, as well as revenues collected. Drawing on the expertise of the Sub-Regional Fisheries Commission, an entity that has been in existence since the 1980s, this initiative will increase transparency and help boost momentum for collective action, which is important when dealing with the complexities of global public goods such as oceans.

Once institutional reforms are introduced to create clear and transparent rights to the fisheries, investments in infrastructure will also be needed.

Port infrastructure in Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia cannot handle a high number of industrial fishing boats. Almost all countries in the sub-region do not have adequate facilities to process landed fish for local consumption, let alone for exports toward markets with sanitary inspection requirements such as the European Union. So generating value-added to the local economy will likely continue to pose a challenge over the medium term.

But there is progress there, too. To date, each of the four initial countries has identified sites that will serve as pilots for fish landing and processing. The countries are now preparing these infrastructure investments for partnerships with the private sector.

“Coastal West Africa has enormous potential to draw from the oceans, and our work, along with other partners, is to ensure that these countries can reap the maximum benefits of their marine treasures,” Virdin says.

In addition to the World Bank, the other partners that are providing assistance to countries in the sub-region include France, Germany, Japan, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States.


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