The ongoing disputes in the South China Sea are usually portrayed as being centered on China’s brazen attempts to claim artificial islands and the waters surrounding them as extensions of its sovereign territory; rights to the 11 billion estimated barrels of oil beneath the sea; or access to the 5.3 trillion dollar trade that passes through it. Fishing rights, when mentioned, usually come further down the list of possible casus belli among the nine countries contesting the waters of the South China Sea. However, recent attention to the scourge of Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) fishing has highlighted the importance of sustainable fish stocks to friendly international relations in the South China Sea and beyond.
With roughly 50 percent of its fish stocks fully exploited, 25 percent over-exploited and the other 25 percent completely collapsed, it’s not hard to see why relations among ASEAN nations are so fraught when it comes to maritime policy. This is not made easy by the growing appetite for seafood among Chinese consumers, whose consumption has grown at a rate of 6 percent per annum between 1990 and 2010, to account for 34 percent of all fish consumed every year. What’s more, by 2030 Chinese consumption is expected to grow by another 30 percent.
With dwindling reserves in the South China Sea resulting in more frequent and more violent clashes between Chinese fishermen and those of other littoral states, the trawlers are simply moving farther out to sea – all the way as far as the eastern, southern and west African coasts where they encounter much less competition and coastguard protection. What competition they do face is likely to be from anywhere other than the country whose waters they are fishing in.
For example, only 1 of the 130 vessels licensed to fish for tuna in Mozambican waters was of Mozambican origin. The effect on the indigenous African fishing industry is devastating, with more than half the fish stocks along the coast from Nigeria to Senegal categorized as overfished and reports of local fishing nets being cut by foreign trawlers who then unload their enormous catch directly onto container ships where they are transported back to Europe or Asia, bypassing any proper inspections. Africa’s economic underdevelopment leaves it sorely exposed to exploitation by bigger players. Sierra Leone, for example, had just two coastguard boats to monitor its entire coastline in 2013, while Senegal lost about $300 million dollars to IUU fishing in 2012. The UK’s Overseas Development Institute estimates that reversing the economic losses to Africa through IUU fishing would result in the creation of 300,000 jobs generating $3.3 billion dollars, which is eight times more than African countries currently earn by selling their fishing rights.
In recent years, despite their limited resources, some African countries have been trying to clamp down on IUU fishing. In 2013, prompted by the uncontrollable scale of IUU fishing in its waters, Mozambique went out of its way and bought several patrol vessels through the government backed EMATUM agency. Although lauded at the time, the move almost bankrupted the country after investors withdrew support earlier this year, in spite of the government’s explanations.
Other African countries are also asserting themselves more in cases where they find illegal fishing to be taking place. The boarding of a Chinese vessel in Cameroonian waters followed by the arrest of its crew for illegal fishing, and the impounding of ships and fining of their owners for the same reason in South Africa, are examples of the tougher stance being taken by African governments. But with Greenpeace documenting up to 16 cases of illegal fishing of the coast of west Africa in one month, it is evident this catch-as-catch-can approach is not an effective deterrent to illegal fishers. What is needed is international cooperation on a scale similar to that committed to fighting climate change.
There have been some promising steps in this direction of late. The South African and Norwegian governments are collaborating to establish an academy to train fisheries control officers, police officers, and prosecutors to work throughout the southern African region. If the R50 million initiative is successful it could then be extended to include all the countries of the Indian Ocean Rim. On an even bigger scale is the Port State Measures Agreement (PSMA) designed to give greater powers of inspection and oversight to maritime authorities over foreign fishing ships working in their waters. Unfortunately, China hasn’t signed up to the PSMA, but even if it had, the leverage that it would give African governments over the Chinese trawlers is debatable.
The African continent as a whole is so dependent on China to buy its exports that they would be at a distinct disadvantage should they have a falling out with China over the activities of its fishing fleet. Since 2008 China has surpassed the U.S. and Europe to become Africa’s biggest trading partner, sucking up Angolan oil, Zambian copper, Guinean bauxite, and much more besides. In return, China has been engaged in a continent-wide infrastructure building spree, including the construction of a $7 billion ‘mini city’ in South Africa and a coastal railway in Nigeria. At the Chinese-African summit in Johannesburg last year, Chinese Premier Xi pledged a further $60 billion in development investment over three years. Earlier this year China shocked the world by announcing the opening of its first overseas naval base in Djibouti. Either way, it means that China now has a physical foothold in Africa from which to service its rapidly growing navy.
But if China wants to be recognized as a responsible global player, then it needs to start reigning in its over-marauding fishing fleets and start treating its African partners on equal terms. Signing up to the Port State Measures Agreement would be a good start.
Anthony Kleven is an economic risk consultant based in Singapore. The views expressed here are his own.