Past, present and future perspectives


Marine and coastal fishery resources are extremely important in Africa, both to national economies and to the livelihoods of local communities. In the late 1990s, fishing contributed over 5 per cent to GDP in Ghana, Madagascar, Mali, Mauritania, Mozambique, Namibia, Senegal, and Seychelles, and the shrimp fishery on the Sofala Bank in Mozambique contributed 40 per cent of Mozambique's foreign exchange (FAO 1997). From 1973 to 1990, fish supplied an average 20 per cent of the animal-protein intake of the population in sub- Saharan Africa (FAO 1996). Improvements in refrigeration and transport technologies have increased the availability of fish and shellfish to inland population centres and to international markets and this has pushed up prices, especially for species such as lobster and prawns. Population increases, both inland and in coastal centres, have also contributed to increasing demand for fish and seafood. In addition, technological developments in commercial boats and nets and in fishing techniques over the past 30-40 years have increased the potential volume of fish catches and contributed to depletion of fish stocks (Chenje & Johnson 1996). According to the most recent data from the FAO, exploitation of fish stocks increased between 1974 and 1999, by which time at least 70 per cent of fish stocks worldwide were considered fully or overexploited (FAO 2000). Figure 2c.3 shows the fish catch from African waters in the 1972-2002 period.

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Figure 2c.3: Marine fish catch for African coastal countries, 1972-97


Certain methods of harvesting can also be destructive and a cause of depletion of marine and coastal resources. For example, dynamite fishing is still practised in the coastal zone of Eastern Africa where it damages coral reefs and has resulted in declines in the fisheries in these areas. The practice has, however, been eliminated from some protected marine areas, thanks to good conservation and educational measures (WWF 2001a). Bottom trawling is also a destructive method which disturbs benthic (seabed) communities and drags up accumulated material such as sand, rocks, plants and non-target animal species, all of which are regarded as waste and are dumped elsewhere.

Overfishing by foreign fleets is another significant factor in the decline of African fish stocks, particularly along the west African coast. For example, the European Union (EU) pays around US$234 million in subsidies for EU boats to have access to Mauritanian waters (WWF 2001b). African governments originally saw fishing by foreign fleets as an easy means of earning foreign exchange, but overfishing has made it a serious threat which depletes fish stocks and forces local smallscale fishermen to endanger their lives by fishing further and further out to sea, or to fish in protected areas such as marine national parks. The impacts of overharvesting of fishery resources include the suppression of local livelihoods, reduced capacity to meet food requirements and reduced potential for economic returns on exports. Over the past 30 years, availability of fish per capita in Africa as a whole has declined and, in some countries (e.g. Ghana and Liberia), the average diet contained less fish protein in the 1990s than it did during the 1970s (FAO 2000).

An outlook study over the next ten years predicts that local supplies of fish may continue to decline in Africa (FAO 2000). The reasons for this include lack of resources for enforcing controls on fishing in overexploited multi-species fisheries, particularly those exploited by numerous companies from all over the world. In addition, any aquaculture developments are likely to focus on high-value products and, therefore, concentrate mainly on export markets.

Sustainable harvesting of coastal and marine resources

Declining catches, together with a decrease in the mean sizes of fish caught, have led to calls for the protection of line fish stocks in some African countries. Management measures have been introduced including minimum size limits, bag limits, use of appropriate fishing gear, and closed seasons.

International agreements-between African countries and between African and European or other international fisheries-also have an important role to play in attaining sustainable harvesting of coastal and marine resources. For example, the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)- which came into force in 1994-defines world coastal boundaries, development rights, the extent of EEZs, and covers research and policing issues. Thirty-six African countries have signed the Convention, and are thus obliged to protect and preserve the marine environment by cooperating regionally and internationally, and to adopt policies and regulations to deal with land-based sources of marine pollution. Many of the provisions of the Convention are legally binding and an international tribunal has been established to resolve disputes over resources in international waters.

In spite of such agreements, African countries are still experiencing exploitation of their resources by foreign fishing fleets. For example, the large stocks of small pelagic (open sea) species off the north-west and south-west coasts could be harvested at a low cost and could constitute an adequate replacement in local African diets for the exported high-value products. Countries along the Gulf of Guinea should develop joint strategies with countries in north-west and south-west Africa to exploit these stocks as a source of cheap and nutritious fish for local consumers. Existing regional fishery management organizations would provide an institutional mechanism for coordinating national policies in this area.