fish, big & small

Western Sahara: Looking at EU-Morocco fisheries deal on the ground

By Kang-Chun Cheng

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Posted on June 27, 2023 14:41

 © Fishermen sorting their catches at Essaouira port. Once one of Morocco’s major coastal cities, the ports have been quiet lately due to both economic and fisheries declines. (Photo: Kang-Chun Cheng)
Fishermen sorting their catches at Essaouira port. Once one of Morocco’s major coastal cities, the ports have been quiet lately due to both economic and fisheries declines. (Photo: Kang-Chun Cheng)

Despite its famed reputation for desert landscapes, exuding a perpetual air of desolation, Western Sahara is blessed with bountiful natural resources. From harbouring some of the world’s most critical phosphate reserves – essential fertilisers for agricultural production – to coastal sections serving as meccas for surfers, its temperate waters are also flush with fish.

Although considered the last African colony by the United Nations, Western Sahara has been occupied by the Kingdom of Morocco for nearly half a century.

After Spain ceded Western Sahara as a colony in 1975, the former ruler negotiated with Morocco for continued fishing rights and to maintain its fleet of boats – one of the largest in Europe – in Western Saharan waters.

Subsequent annexation of the disputed territory by Morocco in 1976 remains frowned upon by the international community. It led to a 16-year-long guerilla war waged between the Polisario Front, a rebel Sahrawi nationalist liberation movement, which the UN considers the legitimate representative of Western Sahara and the Moroccan Army.

It’s estimated that more than 3,000 indigenous Sahrawi civilians were killed, up to 80,000 displaced, and 1,500 disappeared.

‘Moroccanness’ not recognised

At present, Morocco controls an estimated 80% of Western Sahara. According to Transparency International, a nonprofit focused on exposing global corruption, King Mohammed VI has spent more than $862bn on infrastructure, military, and unemployment benefits for Sahrawis, the indigenous community – many of whom view the kingdom as their oppressor.

Questions regarding Western Sahara’s autonomy have bled onto the sea, calling into question the legitimacy of international fisheries to fish on waters that Morocco claims are their own.

On 6 November 2021, King Mohammed VI delivered a speech affirming Morocco’s ‘commitment to a peaceful solution’ on the 46th anniversary of the Green March, a strategic mass demonstration coordinated by the Moroccan government that forced colonial Spain to hand over Western Sahara.

Yet he was uncompromising on the status of the disputed territory. “The Moroccanness of the Sahara is an immutable and indisputable fact,” the king said. “Morocco is not negotiating over its Sahara.”

On 18 March 2022, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez wrote a letter stating that Morocco’s 2007 Saharan autonomy plan is ‘the most serious, realistic and credible basis’ for the resolution of the conflict, thus revealing support for Morocco.

But neither the rest of the European Union nor the United Nations recognise Morocco’s claim over Western Sahara.

EU ‘official’ take on rule of law

The UN maintains that Sahrawis have a right to self-determination; the EU is torn between its immediate interests in preserving diplomatic relations with Morocco while upholding normative commitments to promoting liberal democracy.

The EU is not only Morocco’s largest trading partner, constituting 56% of goods trade in 2019, amounting to €35.3bn in 2020, but also a critical ally for regional security and migration.

“For that reason alone, European governments don’t want to undermine too much of Morocco’s mandate,” says Erik Hagen, chair of the non-governmental organisation Western Sahara Resource Watch (WSRW).

Yet since 1988, the EU and Morocco have run a series of agreements that allow for international fisheries cooperation.

In September 2021, the legitimacy of the most recent of these legal agreements – the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership Agreement (SFPA), valid for four years starting in 2019 – was invalidated by the EU General Court.

The court ruled that a lack of consent from Western Sahara – the Polisario Front had abstained from the consultation process altogether, contesting Morocco’s authority to negotiate agreements on their waters – means that provisions from the SFPA cannot extend to the occupied territory.

© Bustling Port of Laayoune, where men quickly pack freshly caught fish onto the ice to ship north to Morocco. (Photo: Kang-Chun Cheng)

Officially, EU fishermen are not allowed to operate within Western Saharan waters with Moroccan permits.

Some researchers argue that this ruling, one of six brought before the EU Council thus far by the Polisario Front, demonstrates that the EU remains “a community built on the rule of law.”

From a legal perspective, these rulings are hardening the EU’s budding policy of differentiation between Morocco and the Western Sahara. But the situation on land and sea in Western Sahara remains far murkier.

Ghosts of Essaouira

Much of the fish caught from Western Saharan waters is conflated with national Moroccan data. In 2020, the occupied territory supplied an estimated 73% of Morocco’s annual coastal and artisanal catches.

“Morocco is really poor on regulation and control,” Hagen tells The Africa Report. “That means the statistics are difficult to trust since there are issues with the credibility of data on catches, landing, and export.”

Nearly 600km north of Laayoune lies the charming white city of Essaouira, a port city in the Moroccan region of Marakesh-Safi. It’s built on the site of a 16th-century Portuguese fortress, trafficked by Phoenicians, Carthaginians, and Romans prior.

© The coastline by Essaouria, once home to one of Morocco’s busiest ports. (Photo: Kang-Chun Cheng)

The sultan Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdallah gave the city its name, meaning “well-designed” in Berber, and worked to make this small Atlantic town a royal port and significant commercial centre to the world – in part by promoting free trade policies and lodgings for foreign merchants adjacent to the harbour.

The sultan succeeded, and Essaouira quickly became a major trading post between Europe and Africa. By the mid-19th century, the harbour handled half of Morocco’s foreign trade.

Overfishing has resulted in depleted numbers along the Essaouira coast, leading to drops in trade and palpable unemployment. In 2021, there was a 47% decline in the volume of fishing products discharged in Essaouira Port compared to 2020.

Specifically, the National Fisheries Office in Morocco recorded a 65% decrease in the volume of pelagic fish, or fish species that live in the midst of the water, not close to the shore or at the bottom of the sea.

Last December, Essaouira’s harbour had a ghost-like quality; only two small boats had brought in catches from the morning.

Mohammed, a now-retired fisherman, indicated where he used to dock his boat. “I don’t fish anymore, but the young men aren’t doing so well these days,” he tells The Africa Report.

“There just aren’t any more fish left in the waters. What they do catch, they mostly ship far away, to places like Russia.”

Luring youth to Western Sahara

The biodiversity decline in the region, in tandem with the uptick in fisheries activities in Western Sahara, means that those working in Morocco are doubly feeling the impact.

One Laayoune native, who prefers not to be named for security reasons, says although the EU has long been critical of the use of raw materials belonging to the Sahara – including fishing – Sahrawis might be more divided on whether activities in Western Sahara should be conflated with business with Morocco.

The Moroccan government offers many projects and professional opportunities for young people in the Sahara to work in fishing, he explains.

A 2017 report commissioned by the EU indicated that 59,000 people benefited from improved working conditions and that the disputed Western Sahara region – referred to as ‘Southern Morocco’ in the report and on maps throughout the report – received 66% of the €37m in sectoral support.

People are split between those who ‘just look for benefits’ in the region and people who refrain from politics, the Laayoune resident tells The Africa Report.

He says the inflow of people from Morocco looking to work is fuelled by how Moroccan media depicts the Sahara as a place bursting with natural resources, also including phosphate and oil, yet lacking in manpower. This entices young people from Morocco to move south to take up fishing.

Simo, a young fisher hailing from Agadir in southern Morocco, is one such migrant. I came across him in the Port of Laayoune, where he and the rest of his crew were offloading their catches into waiting trucks, layering ice between the crates of fresh fish.

© Simo, who identifies as a Berber (Amazigh), recently emigrated to Finland, leaving behind a life of fishing. (Photo: Kang-Chun Cheng)

Their fishing vessel, which holds up to 20 fishermen for week-long expeditions on the high seas, was just one of dozens docked in Laayoune Port that day. As someone from the Berber (Amazigh) community, an ethnic group indigenous to the Maghreb, Simo maintains that they have good relations with Sahrawi fishers.

When they’re working together on the high seas, where they come from doesn’t matter, he says.

The crew he worked with fished mainly for big commercially attractive species including tuna, octopus, and sea bream for weeks at a time. By the time they returned to the port, waiting buyers were ready to receive their catches, scuttling the goods across Europe and even to China, as quickly as possible.

“I was studying to be a captain – not just fishing but driving the boat long distances (280 nautical miles) from Laayoune to Dakhla,” he tells The Africa Report.

Simo has worked from Laayoune Port for 16 years, but recently emigrated to Finland to study education and is relieved to not be working what he describes as a ‘shit job’ anymore.

He didn’t see a future working as a fisher in Western Sahara.

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