Corruption in Africa’s Marine Fisheries

Date: 2008

Dr. Andre Standing

Africa’s oceans are facing a profound crisis. In many, if not most African countries commercial fishing is causing a dramatic decline in marine bio-diversity. It is no longer sensationalist to claim that in the space of a single generation, large areas of the oceans that once contained spectacular wildlife and ecosystems will be virtually empty. The impact of over-fishing on food security and human development will be profound and coastal communities will be the hardest hit.

In examining the root causes of this depressing state of affairs, not enough attention is being paid to the role of corruption in fisheries. This is strange since in other natural resource sectors on the continent such as mining, oil and logging, corruption has for several years now been identified as one of the most essential policy challenges. High profile anti-corruption campaigns such the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative and the Publish What You Pay Coalition have been launched.

The link between corruption and the marine crisis is multidimensional. On one level, increasing competition for fish resources, exacerbated by overcapacity in the industrial fishing fleet, has inevitably caused high levels of illegal fishing. Capacity to police industrial fishing boats is typically low in African countries and there is widespread suspicion that the paying of bribes undermines the situation even further. On-board observers, for instance, are poorly paid and may easily ‘look the other way’ in exchange for gifts. In Kenya, an entire on-board observer program in the prawn fishing industry was scrapped due to allegations that observers received boxes of prawns from boat owners. Bribe payments in certain ports may also explain why some African ports are considered ‘ports of convenience’, where illegally caught fish is easily landed and trans-shipped.

A further form of corruption relates to the embezzlement of license fees. The issuing of fishing licenses typically lacks transparency and is the sole responsibility of one government department. As a result there is a risk that officials embezzle funds and under-report how many licenses have been issued. In one East African country official reports suggest some 80 licenses per year are given for tuna fishing. However other sources close to the government have claimed the actual amount is nearer to 140. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature argue that if the number of licenses are kept secret in order to facilitate fraud, government funding is reduced, and the monitoring of fishing intensity for conservation purposes becomes impossible.

The situation is made more complex due to conflicts of interest: government officials and politicians are often involved in companies in the fishing sector. This may take the form of co-ownership, shareholding or assuming positions on the board of directors. The close relationship between public office and the fishing industry is often only revealed when an official leaves his post to take up employment in the private sector, a phenomena referred to as the ‘revolving door syndrome’.

Many problems arise from this conflict of interests. Fishing boats that are partly owned by politicians may be protected from inspections and monitoring, while the same companies may find it very easy to gain preferential access to licenses. Furthermore, while we may think conflicts of interests are particularly problematic in Africa, we should also be aware of the close relationships between the fishing industry and governments in Europe and Asia. A confidential report on illegal trade in Patagonian Toothfish, suggested that the close relationships between some of the large Spanish fishing companies, Spanish politicians and financial institutions may be one reason why so few Spanish boat owners are prosecuted for illegal fishing.

Closely related to this is the potential for corruption relating to bi-lateral trade agreements. With dwindling fish stocks worldwide, securing industrial fishing opportunities in Southern countries has become vital for the world’s major fishing nations. For a long time it has been European boats that have dominated industrial fishing in Africa, partly achieved through EU bi-lateral access agreements, which provide fishing opportunities for hundreds of European boats, mostly originating from Spain. However, there has also been a growth in demand for fishing rights in Africa by Asian fishermen, resulting in several African countries signing access agreements with Asian fishing organisations. This competition will intensify. For example, China’s enlarging and heavily subsidized fishing fleet will need new fishing grounds, as its own fish stocks have collapsed, while its population is growing in both size and affluence.

Heightened international competition raises the specter of foreign interests using illicit methods to gain an upper hand. This undue influence or “state capture” as it is termed by the World Bank, may be achieved through crass forms of bribe payments and gift giving such as lavish trips abroad and offering outrageously high per diems for attending meetings. More insidious and extremely difficult to substantiate, are allegations that the lure of donor funds (or their removal), has provided political leverage during negotiations. Where foreign interests gain such power in a country, their potential influence on policy-making is increased, which may result in favorable conditions for their fishing boats and a reluctance by local officials to enforce laws and penalties.

So, with fish becoming less abundant and more valuable, coupled with heightened international competition, as well as strong incentives for illegal activities, it is reasonable to assume that various forms of corruption may have become more problematic and vital to contain. It is not only bribe payments between inspectors and boat owners that we should be worried about, but more important is the influence on policy-making and management by vested interests. Unfortunately there is very little pressure for transparency and accountability in the commercial fisheries sector. Yet without democratic and accountable governance, African marine resources may continue to be plundered rather than used for the long-term benefit of African citizens.

(Dr Andre Standing, ISS [Corruption & Governance Programme] senior researcher specializing in the governance of Africa’s natural resources)



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