Poor African countries have been selling their fishing rights to richer countries for years, and now they can neither catch enough fish for their populations nor protect their fisheries from collapsing. In today’s Wall Street Journal (behind a subscriber wall), the grim state of affairs is laid out:

Wealthy countries subsidize their commercial fishermen to the tune of about $30 billion a year. Their goal is to keep their fishermen on the water. China, for example, provides $2 billion a year in fuel subsidies; the European Union and its member nations provide more than $7 billion of subsidies a year. Such policies boost the number of working boats, increase the global catch, and drive down fish prices. That makes it more difficult for fishermen in poor nations like Mauritania, who get no subsidies, to compete.

The end result: African waters are losing fish stock rapidly, with ramifications both to the economies of Africa’s coastal nations and to the world’s ocean ecology. Over the past three decades, the amount of fish in West African waters has declined by up to 50 percent, according to Daniel Pauly, a researcher at the University of British Columbia.

According to the article, the European Union alone has a total of 85,000 fishing boats. Global warming may have made the situation worse — at least in Mauritania, the focus of the article:

A drought in the 1970s and 1980s pushed people to the coast. The number of small fishing vessels grew to 3,600 in 2000, from 500 in 1986, according to the EU.

Now, the octopus population is in steep decline:

Octopus was a particular concern to Mauritania’s fishermen. Each year, it accounts for about half of the country’s $140 million of fish exports. A committee of Mauritanian scientists found that the octopus stock had declined by 31% from historical averages. The country’s fisheries ministry recommended opposing any deal that permitted EU nations to fish for octopus, arguing that the species needed to recover.

EU negotiators offered to cut the number of boats fishing the species to 43 from 53, but not to limit the total octopus catch.

The best spawning grounds are near the coast, which makes it easier for small fishing boats from all countries to contribute to the collapse of these critical waters. Europe seems to have particular responsibility for overfishing. Clearly, eliminating subsidies for fishing fleets should be a top priority of the world community.