Case study: Senegalese protests at ‘illegal’ fishing licenses given to Russian trawlers

On the 30th of March this year thousands of Senegalese fishers went on strike, protesting at the Ministry of Maritime Affairs’ decision to give ‘illegal’ licenses to 22 foreign industrial trawlers to fish pelagic stocks. The trawlers are made up of 9 boats registered in Russia, 4 from Lithuania, 3 from Saint Vincent and Grenadines, 2 from Belize, 2 from the Comoros Island, 1 from Germany and 1 from Georgia. A press release issued by the organisers of the protest read: “These juggernauts of 100 m long will target coastal pelagic stocks (sardinella, horse mackerel, mackerel), which constitute the staple food of the Senegalese population and play a central role in the food chain and the marine eco-system…these vessels are equipped with gears that can suck up all the animals and plants. With such a destructive fishing system, all the resources will be caught, to become either processed or frozen products, fishmeal or fish oil ‘.

A Senegalese member of the International Collective for Small-Scale Fishers (ICSF) first became aware of some of the trawlers when conducting research into fishing joint ventures in Senegal; since Senegal rejected European and Chinese bi-lateral access agreements in the late 1990s, foreign companies have to register in Senegal and fly the Senegalese flag, as stipulated by the country’s Fishing Code. He was undertaking a study to find out who these companies are and who are the local partners; information that he ultimately failed to get. Whilst in the North of Senegal conducting his research he was alerted to the presence of six foreign trawlers that were not joint venture boats. He asked the local fishing authorities for a list of fishing licenses allocated by the government to identify these boats, but only received an outdated and partial list from 2007. Back in Dakar, the officials at the central office of the Ministry for Maritime Affairs claimed to know nothing about the six boats, and told him they were probably illegally fishing in Senegalese waters. Senegal, like the vast majority of African countries, has little capacity to patrol its waters and hundreds of boats of European and Asian origin are thought to operate illegally; a study in 2005 claimed the value of fish looted in this way was roughly USD1 billion, representing nearly a quarter of Africa’s official export earnings from marine fish, USD4.5 billion.

The idea that these six boats formed part of the illegal fishing fleet in West Africa was later found out to be untrue. In mid 2010 more Russian industrial trawlers were docked in the Dakar port. Fisheries observers based at the port started asking questions due to the concern that these boats may be fishing illegally in Senegalese water. This in turn alerted members of the Senegalese Association of Fishing Companies and Ship Owners (GAIPES) who requested clarification from the Ministry. It was subsequently revealed that these boats were part of a foreign fleet that had been operating in Senegal since the beginning of 2010. Although originally unlicensed, they were provided authorisation to fish sometime in early 2011. The story then broke in the Senegalese national press, leading to further revelations that these licenses were issued irregularly—all fishing licenses are supposed to be presented to an industry Advisory Board, a committee that is designed to bring more accountability to the Senegalese licensing process, but these 22 trawlers were granted licenses by the Minister acting in isolation. They also contravene the country’s Fishing Code.

Members of GAIPES and the National Council for Local Fishing in Senegal, CONIPAS, contacted the Russian Embassy in Dakar to request more information. The Russian Ambassador placated the group, saying that all was above board and the Russian boats were authorized to fish through a special protocol signed between Russia and Senegal, which he duly showed them. None of the Senegalese fishers were aware of this protocol and nothing on it had been published in the local newspapers. According to a source involved in this meeting, the peculiar aspect of the existing Russian protocol is that it doesn’t mention anything about granting access to fish for Russian boats, it is a government-to-government agreement for development assistance, including scientific research and financial and technical support for combating illegal fishing. At the time of writing, there was no public information on how much this protocol is worth.

The interest in Russia’s protocol with Senegal has sparked interest in other countries. It is now known that in early 2011 Russia also signed a similar protocol with Senegal’s neighbour, Guinea-Bissau, although this has yet to be authorized by the Guinea-Bissau government. According to sources close to the government, the agreement is worth €15 million, and again it is outwardly directed towards capacity building and combating illegal fishing, but it may allow access to Guinea’s waters for Russian trawlers. Despite being aimed at tackling illegal fishing, this protocol is also in direct contradiction with national fishing laws; Guinea-Bissau law restricts the size of trawlers to 2000 Gross tonnage (GRT), but most of the Russian fleet operating in West Africa is made up of boats between 4000 and 6000 GRT. This is not the first fishing agreement that Russia has negotiated with Guinea-Bissau. It was in the 1980s when Russia first paid the government for fishing access, widely rumored to be a swap deal involving the supply of Russian military equipment. Somewhat ironically, foreign fishing in Guinea-Bissau decreased dramatically with the onset of civil war, picking up substantially over the past few years. Guinea-Bissau also currently has a 4-year access agreement with the European Union, worth €7 million per year, of which just under €3 million is allocated to developing the fisheries sector. Roughly 70 EU boats take up licenses under this agreement. Guinea-Bissau also has a fisheries agreement with China, allowing 20 Chinese boats to fish shrimp and octopus, a bi-lateral access agreement with Senegal, allowing for fishing by semi-industrial boats. An Italian based company, who despite the European Union’s ruling that European fishing boats should not buy licenses outside the EU’s access agreements, has also gained an agreement for 4 industrial fishing boats to operate in Guinea-Bissau by registering its vessels in Senegal, thereby circumventing EU laws.

Angered by the Russian protocol in Senegal, several fishing organisations issued a joint press release on the 17th of March 2011. The press release noted the Senegalese National Institute for Fisheries Research had previously recommended a reduction of at least 50% of the fishing effort on pelagic stocks. As the press release read: ‘Unfortunately, instead of this, there is the introduction of 22 ships representing in total nearly 200,000 GRT, which is 15 times the capacity of the whole Senegalese industrial fleet…these boats could fish around 300,000 tonnes of small pelagics.’ In a subsequent newspaper article, a Senegalese sociologist explained that if the government maintains the licenses then the fisheries could vanish, meaning an estimated 600,000 people will lose their jobs. Overfishing has already impacted negatively on food supply and the cost of fish has escalated for local consumers. One of the demonstrators at the protest on the 30th March put it plainly: ‘We are against these fishing authorisations as the targeted stocks are the staple food of our populations. Nowadays, sardinelle has become very expensive. The 45kg box has gone from 3,000 CFA (4,6 euros) last year to a price between 12,500 and 15,000 CFA (19 to 23 euros) currently”. Because of overfishing in Senegalese waters, Senegal has negotiated a fisheries agreement of their own, not only with Guinea-Bissau, but also with Mauritania, allowing for the oversized semi-industrial Senegalese fishing fleet to expand, making the decision to grant foreign trawlers access to Senegal’s coastal waters all the more unjustified.

With greater public awareness of the licenses, more information has surfaced about their costs. Allegedly the 22 trawlers have been given very favourable license fees. Normally access fees in Africa are based on roughly 30% of the value of the estimated catch, with the international market value of pelagic fish being about 400 CFA per kilo. Yet in this case the 22 trawlers will apparently pay only 17 CFA per kilo, about 4.25% of the market value. This means instead of contributing somewhere in the region of 36 billion CFA, the fleet will most likely pay about 5 billion CFA. It is not yet clear why the Russian trawlers were given such a preferential deal.

The Minster of Maritime Affairs has responded to the protests by refuting claims that these 22 boats represent a threat to the livelihoods of the Senegalese fishers: “If this stock isn’t fished, it dies and that will be an enormous loss to the country”. He claimed he would open a dialogue with the Senegalese fishing sector, but refused to have local fishing associations dictate policy to the government: “The State has its responsibilities. I do not tell them what they need to do, so I don’t want them (the fishing sector) to tell me what I have to do”. The secretary-general of the National Collective of Small-scale Fishers (CNPS) responded. “If the government doesn’t suspend these licenses, we will go and find the trawlers and fight it out with them. We are going to chase them out of our waters at whatever price.”

The protest on the 30th March revealed divisions among fishing associations in Senegal. Members of the Senegalese seafarers and observers trade unions feel that the industrial fleet fishing under the Senegalese flag, represented by GAIPES, is at the origin of the majority of fishing infractions at sea. A former fisheries inspector argued that ‘these boat owners, not paying any taxes, do not bring anything to Senegal public treasury, and violate the state legislation…they refuse to embark observers and with their fishing techniques, they plunder the Senegalese waters, high-grading their catches, keeping the noble species for export and throwing the rest at sea’. The observers trade union also claims that since the suspension of the licenses allocated through previous bi-lateral access agreements with the EU and China, foreign crews are now used on the GAIPES vessels, meaning 150 Senegalese crew members have been dismissed unfairly. A trail on the matter has been languishing in the Senegalese courts for years. Thus, the seafarers trade union have refused to ‘join arms’ with GAIPES over the protests at the licensing of the 22 foreign trawlers. They argue that a more comprehensive review of the Senegalese fishing sector is urgently needed to ensure the rights of their members.

Sources: Information used for this case study has been provided by several anonymous sources in Senegal and Guinea-Bissau, as well as press releases in Senegal provided to the author by the Coalition for Fair Fisheries Arrangements.

This entry was posted in Africa, Corruption, Illegal fishing. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Case study: Senegalese protests at ‘illegal’ fishing licenses given to Russian trawlers

  1. Pingback: Going forward with the request for access to documents on EU fisheries agreements | TransparentSea

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