High-technology fishing fleets from developed countries, including the European Union, are destroying the fish stocks of the poor states of west Africa, a United Nations report warns.
A study of Mauritania, where EU, Japanese and Chinese boats have been given access to fishing grounds in return for hard cash, has found a dramatic fall in catches as stocks are over-exploited.
Catches of octopus have halved in the past four years and some species, such as sawfish, have completely disappeared, the report says. Local employment has also been hard hit as a result of over-fishing and over-capacity in the foreign fleets. The number of people employed in the traditional octopus fishery in Mauritania has fallen from a peak of nearly 5,000 in 1996 to about 1,800 now.
The over-fishing is due to a failure by some boats to comply with the rules, lack of enforcement and a shortage of fisheries protection vessels alongside other factors, the report says. Current regulations allow European Union shrimp boats to use a smaller mesh size than local boats.
The report follows another recent UN study on the fisheries of neighbouring Senegal, which found that activity by foreign fleets, especially from the EU, had had a "devastating" effect on some important fish stocks. The switching of the local Senegalese fishing effort to export species also had a serious impact on local food supplies, the report found.
"The fish stocks in many developed country waters have been severely depleted as too many, often heavily subsidised, fleets chase too few fish," said Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the UN Environment Programme. "As a result they are looking elsewhere for catches. It is vital that the unsustainable fishing of the past and the present is not exported to the developing world."
UK conservationists say one of the most unacceptable aspects of EU fishing off the coast of Africa is the presence there of the world's biggest fishing boat, the Irish vessel Atlantic Dawn. This £50m supertrawler is nearly 450ft long and can catch and process 7,000 tons of fish in a single voyage, far more than a Mauritanian fishing community might catch in a year.
The vessel, owned by the businessman Kevin Murphy, has attracted much controversy as it was not originally registered as a fishing boat because it was too big for EU rules. It has recently been registered retrospectively as a fishing vessel by the European Commission in Brussels in spite of protests.
"The problem with boats like this is the sheer scale of what they do," said Bernadette Clarke, fisheries officer with the Marine Conservation Society. "In Europe we are meant to be reducing the size of our fishing fleets, and to allow a boat like this to go and fish in Mauritanian waters means we've exported our problems, which is criminal."Reuse content