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Obasanjo: Africa must hook its illegal fishing problem

By Olusegun Obasanjo
Posted on Thursday, 25 January 2018 09:35

All along the value chains that make up the frantic activity of the global economy, highly organised and well-connected criminals thrive on the failures of our global system to keep up with its own momentum. Riding on the back of the global economy are drug cartels, human traffickers, arms dealers and traders in various other illicit or illicitly acquired goods. Associated with them are those who specialise in document forgery, money laundering, tax evasion and the skirting of environmental regulations. All of this is providing a source of revenue to corrupt officials, and even funds for political insurgencies and terrorist organisations.

Civil society, government institutions and inter­national organisations have mobilised to combat this underworld. But, too often, organised crime presents a better model for coordination and efficiency than the legitimate actors dedicated to combating these sinister forces. These criminals are highly organised, with effective communication channels and operation management systems that extend across international borders and entire continents. Civil society, government institutions and the international community must match the criminals in their capacity for functionality and flexibility across geographical, organisational and cultural divides if the fight against crime is to be won.

These reflections came to me as I followed the discussions around the third International Symposium on Fisheries Crime, which was convened on 25 September in Vienna, Austria. As a Nigerian committed to the prosperity of my country and as a member of the Africa Progress Panel, working closely with its chair, Kofi Annan, I have sought to raise awareness around the devastating impact of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing on Africa’s people and their hard work seeking to secure a prosperous, equitable and sustainable future. Africa is a continent rich in natural resources, and its oceans teem with fish, attracting business interests from around the world in recent years as fish stocks in other waters have dwindled and demand for fish has increased. Too often, these fishery resources fall short of their potential of becoming a force for sustainable economic transformation and wealth for the African people. This has in large part been due to IUU fishing, often carried out by foreign fleets. They engage in practices that include tax evasion, the non-reporting of catches and overfishing that damages the environment and takes livelihoods away from local fishing communities. West Africa alone loses $1.3bn every year because of these activities, money sorely needed to fund its social security initiatives and healthcare and education development projects. But trying to tackle these issues is like pulling at the tail of a dragon.

IUU fishing is deeply intertwined with modern slavery

IUU fishing practices are not standalone pheno­mena – they are caught up in a web of interdependent complexities. First of all, the problem is fundamentally global. This is a message often repeated by the organisations set up to curb these practices. If Africa is to eradicate IUU fishing activities from its shores, a coordinated effort will have to be undertaken in other regions too – for the vessels operating off its coasts are often registered in other waters, the fish exported to markets in the developed world and the money made sent to offshore tax havens. But the reality is also that all of this has to do with more than just IUU fishing.

The lack of regulation and vigilance that has made IUU fishing so rampant has also allowed other criminal activities to thrive. The international drug trade, for example, has found a relatively safe haven in parts of Africa – West Africa most infamously. It is a trade run by wealthy individuals with powerful connections who operate across continents and transport goods by air, land and sea – from landing strips in the Amazon, old nomadic trade routes in the Sahara and even submarines in the Atlantic. These players often depend in large part on the maintenance of low monitoring standards in the fishing industry, under the cover of which they operate and transport their contraband. As the International Labour Organisation has pointed out, IUU fishing is also deeply intertwined with modern slavery practices and human trafficking networks. Migrant workers are forced to work on fishing ships for little to no pay and often face physical and sexual abuse.

I ask with urgency: do people know the story behind the fish on their table? To eat a fish that has been caught by a vessel that fails to record its catch is also often to eat a fish born of forced labour or that has served as a cover for human trafficking and the shipment of narcotics. Online chat on the website

To take down this monster will demand intricate coordination and continuous high-level communication between agents at all levels of analysis –geographically, institutionally and professionally. Actors in civil society, government institutions and international organisations engaged in the fight against IUU fishing practices must speak to the actors engaged in the fight against the narcotics trade, human trafficking and forced labour, to name only a few – and vice versa. And this must all happen simultaneously at national, regional and international levels. And, of course, at the base of this must be an informed and vocal global citizenry, aware of this monster in our midst.

This article first appeared in the December/January 2018 print edition of The Africa Report magazine

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