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African Ocean and Coasts – our heritage, our life, our destiny

By Obiageli ‘Oby’ Ezekwesili
Posted on Friday, 24 July 2015 09:28

On the 25th of July we are celebrating the African Day of Seas and Oceans, and launching the 2015-2025 Decade of African Seas and Oceans, with events at the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa and elsewhere across the continent.

Africa will need to stand up as one to counter those who would rather leave the high seas open to the anarchic race to the bottom

I hope that this historic occasion will be a turning point, a key political moment when we not only celebrate Africa’s unique marine heritage but also resolve to take united action to regenerate our ocean for the benefit of all people.

Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) is fishing taking place in and around our waters. This criminal practice, is literally robbing fishing communities across the continent, decimating our struggling fish stocks, and extracting billions from our economies.

West Africa alone is thought to lose $1.3 billion a year, with Senegal alone losing $300 million. Interpol and other agencies also increasingly report close links between IUU fishing and other serious crimes that plague our coastlines, including drug, weapons and human trafficking.

It is within Africa’s grasp to do something about this right now.

There is an international treaty waiting to be implemented that is vital to preventing, deterring and eliminating IUU fishing: the 2009 Fisheries and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) Port State Measures Agreement (PSMA).

Already ratified by the EU and 12 other nations, including several in Africa, it would take just a dozen more African states to join them for this agreement to have the 25 ratifications it needs to enter into force.

Africa could lead the way to allowing the PSMA to do what it is designed for: requiring port states to refuse entry, access and all services to IUU vessels. As has already been demonstrated by decisive, coordinated action by African states to close their ports to certain known vessels, denying port access can effectively put pirate fishers out of business.

Ratifying PSMA is an entirely win-win opportunity for African nations to drive local and global change.

African states could also work within the IMO (International Maritime Organisation) and FAO to call for mandatory IMO numbers for all fishing vessels and tamperproof transponders so that we can further monitor fishing activities.

Fishing subsidies

Subsidies are another arena where Africa can make waves by calling for an end to high seas fishing subsidies as these are particularly unjust to poorer nations.

High seas fishing, often just outside the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of coastal states, is currently carried out by just 10 nations – all of them able to subsidise their fleets to operate far from home. None of these nations are in Africa, but the plentiful seas just beyond our EEZs are popular destinations for foreign high seas vessels.

Fish pay no attention to national boundaries, and the same species are caught on the high seas and in EEZs (this constitutes 42% of the global fishing industry); these subsidised foreign vessels are therefore depriving vulnerable fishing communities of food and livelihoods.

The Global Ocean Commission believes there is an urgent need to eliminate these harmful high seas subsidies that are exacerbating overfishing and deepening poverty and injustice.

Subsidies are also known to allow foreign vessels to fish illegally in African waters. It is vital that this matter be reopened at the WTO meetings in Nairobi later this year, and Africa and other developing nations should take a firm position against this injustice and demand that high seas fishing states take the appropriate action to remedy it.

The requirement to phase out damaging subsidies is included in the Post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals expected to be agreed by all nations at the UN in September, which gives additional impetus to take action.

Plastic bag pollution

The ocean is the end destination of much of the plastic we use, with 8 million tonnes of plastic estimated to enter the ocean every year. This requires a coordinated, global response, but Africa could play its part by considering a Pan-African ban or restriction on plastic bags.

This would not only bring huge benefit to our own immediate environment – where plastic bags litter our highways and add to disease and flood risks by blocking our sewers – but also set an example to the rest of the world.

Africa has an opportunity to lead on ocean issues at the Extraordinary Summit of Heads of State and Government of the AU on Maritime Security and Development, being held in Togo in November.

Strong, concrete commitments to action for the next decade to implement the AIM strategy must be reached. This is particularly vital as negotiations will begin at the UN in 2016 to develop a new treaty for conserving the ocean beyond national jurisdictions, the outcome of which will have major implications for African fisheries and other marine assets in the future.

Africa will need to stand up as one to counter those who would rather leave the high seas open to the anarchic race to the bottom that is currently driving ocean decline and inequity.

Protecting the high seas, where 1% of the fish species are caught, would only affect a small share of the global fishing industry but would lead to massive benefits in EEZs which make up a 57% share of the worlds fisheries.

Events such as the Day and Decade of African Seas and Oceans are only valuable if they serve as gateways to real action and drivers of real change.

When it comes to our much imperiled and long-neglected ocean, we cannot wait until the end of the decade to start making a difference.

The ocean plays a role in every aspect of African life, and its regeneration into a thriving blue economy can enhance every aspect of Africa’s future, if we come together and grasp the opportunities before us today.

Obiageli Ezekwesili is member of the Global Ocean Commission, an independent high-level initiative aiming to restore the high seas, the international parts of the global ocean, to ecological health and sustainable productivity. She is a former Nigerian Education Minister, a former Vice President of the World Bank for Africa, and a co-founder of Transparency International

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