After exhausting commercial seafood stocks off their own shores decades ago, wealthy nations turned their bows toward the pristine populations off the coast of Africa. In the 1990s, the European Union took more than a million pounds of fish out of African waters annually; the former Soviet states took about 2.5 million pounds. The result has been predictable: a steep decline in biomass along the African coast.
Meanwhile, African nations took a sliver of their own fish. According to a 2002 report in Marine Policy, Guinea Bissau earned just 7 percent of the gross returns on fishing off its coast, while the E.U. got the other 93 percent.
The problem is that most African nations still practice small-scale, local fishing, while industrial ships owned by northern hemisphere companies snatch vast quantities of seafood out from under the Africans’ nets. Many of these ships are fueled by $20 billion in government subsidies each year.
Not just fish suffer in this situation. Africans, unable to compete on an industrial scale, lose livelihoods and a vital food source. The BBC recently produced an excellent photo essay about the conflict between local fishermen and foreign ships in Mozambique.
Thanks to a sanctuary just for local fishermen, the Mozambique story ends on a positive note. But there is more to be done. At Doha, the World Trade Organization began discussions to cut subsidies that foster the destruction of sea life in Africa and around the world. This week I have been in Geneva for meetings with Director General Lamy and delegations from more than a dozen nations, to encourage them to support the proposed rules limiting government subsidies for commercial fishing. Nations met Friday to formally discuss the proposed rules. We’ll wait and see if they make the right choices.