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The EU ban that spurred a crackdown on illegal fishing

October 19, 2023
topic:Good Governance
tags:#Cameroon, #illegal fishing, #human trafficking, #EU, #fishery
by:Shuimo Trust
In January 2023, the European Union Commission imposed a ban on imports of fishery products caught in Cameroon's waters or by ships registered there, due to the country's non-cooperation in combating illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. Concerns about the ban's potentially devastating long-term effects have spurred widespread action.

It’s a brisk morning in the small coastal community of Tachi in southwestern Cameroon. A woman glides toward the shore in her canoe, navigating the waters littered with plastic debris.

As she anchored her empty canoe, she heaves a sigh of relief after gulping down a local whiskey packaged in a plastic bag. The whiskey, she says, keeps her warm while out in the sea at night. 

"I didn’t catch anything, but thank God 'Chinese trawlers' didn’t destroy my fishing net," Mami Tachi, as she identifies herself, tells FairPlanet. 

Conflict between artisanal fisherfolk like Mami Tachi and industrial fishers has become increasingly common in this part of Cameroon, primarily stemming from their competition for the same fishing grounds.

Cameroon's fishing laws stipulate that industrial fishers should operate from a depth of 5.56 km (roughly 3 nautical miles), while artisanal fisherfolk are confined to fishing within 5.56 km from the shore. However, this regulation is often violated by industrial fishing vessels that encroach on the shoreline, causing damage to the nets and equipment of artisanal fishers like Ma Tachi.

Cameroon’s troubled waters

Steve Trent, the founder and chief executive officer of Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), told FairPlanet that before Cameroon was issued a red card by the EU for its inaction in the fight against IUU fishing, "foreign-owned vessels notorious for IUU fishing across the world’s ocean were added to Cameroon’s registry in recent years."

"The significant number of large foreign trawlers which have begun flying Cameroon’s flag has brought no real benefit to Cameroon," Trent said. "They have little or no Cameroonian ownership, do not land fish at the country’s ports, and do not appear to employ Cameroonian fishers."

According to Morgane Nigon, a project coordinator at the African Marine Mammal Conservation Organisation (AMMCO), some of the industrial fishing vessels operating in Cameroon's waters employ irregular fishing nets that capture small fish - a practice that has a detrimental impact on fish resources.

"Some of the long-distance vessels that fish beyond Cameroon waters are involved in other activities such as human trafficking and drug trafficking, which are not connected to fishing," she told FairPlanet. 

Between 2019 and 2022, the number of vessels flying the Cameroonian flag rose from 14 to 129, while the resources allocated for monitoring these vessels did not witness a significant increase. As a result, these vessels have operated with relative impunity due to the inadequate monitoring system in place.

As if to corroborate Nigon's claim, a 2021 study by Maurice Beseng about IUU fishing in the country notes that fishing vessels operating in Cameroon’s waters are used to smuggle fuel, especially from Nigeria, to Cameroon, as well as wildlife, arms and cash.  

In 2020, for instance, a Cameroon navy patrol vessel intercepted two unregistered canoes carrying 90,000 litres of gasoline and illegal immigrants off the coast of Limbe. In 2018, two vessels were apprehended with five automatic weapons and ammunition, and back in 2016, a canoe was intercepted transporting 41 pieces of ivory.

According to Nigon, these incidents have damaged Cameroon's reputation in the eyes of the international community.

Fishing vessels, the study further reveals, are often involved in the transportation of migrants. In September 2018, for instance, the Cameroon navy apprehended three fishing trawlers carrying 43 undocumented migrants in Cameroonian waters.

Nigon regrets the lack of effective coordination and collaboration between two state institutions responsible for vessel registration and the issuance of fishing licenses: the Ministry of Transport and the Ministry of Livestock, Fisheries and Animal Industries. This lack of cooperation, she observed, has hampered accountability efforts.

In 2019, Cameroon's fisheries sector contributed approximately 3 per cent to its gross domestic product, which amounted to USD 39 billion. This sector also provides employment for over 240,000 artisanal fisherfolk. However, as experts note, IUU fishing appears to pose a continuous threat to the fisheries sector's contribution to Cameroon's economy, impacting the livelihoods of thousands of Cameroonians engaged in the fish value chain.

What the EU ban portends

Before the European Union Commission issued the ban on Cameroon’s fishery products in 2023, it had in 2021 issued a yellow card to the west African nation, alerting it of its laxity in monitoring its fishing fleet and inability to take decisive action against IUU fishing. 

Although the ban on Cameroon's fishery products in the EU market doesn't have immediate effects on Cameroon since it doesn't export fish to the EU, experts argue that the long-term consequences will be felt.

"Under EU food safety rules, products of animal origin can only enter the EU from authorised non-EU countries," said Trent from EJF. "Cameroon is not one of these countries and de facto can’t export to the EU, even before the EU decided to issue a red card concerning IUU fishing."

In 2006, Cameroon was suspended from the list of countries allowed to export fishery products to the EU market. However, Cameroon's fishery products have continued to access the EU market under the label of other countries, such as Nigeria.

Trent believes that if immediate measures are not taken to combat IUU fishing, the long-term consequences could become unbearable.

"The ban jeopardises the country’s efforts to contribute to global trade and ensure food security at national, regional and global levels through several previous initiatives, such as the FISH4ACP project," he said, adding that the ban has resulted in Cameroon being unable to export shrimp to the EU, even if it complies with EU sanitary standards.

Nigon emphasised the need for Cameroon to prioritise the fight against IUU fishing, as the ban, she claimed, not only carries diplomatic implications but also risks tarnishing Cameroon's image. She pointed out that the red card could deter potential investors from Cameroon, and there's a possibility that other countries might follow the EU's example in the long run.

Tackling IUU fishing 

AMMCO, EJF and the government of Cameroon responded to this call to action by the EU by launching a project to combat IUU fishing back in June 2022.

Described as a 'collaborative initiative aimed at bolstering the Cameroonian government's endeavours to enhance fishery management and combat IUU fishing,' the project strives to significantly enhance Cameroon's capabilities in the fight against IUU fishing through the improvement of fisheries governance, legal framework and control systems. It advocates for heightened governance and transparency within the fisheries sector, reinforces Cameroon's monitoring, control and surveillance (MCS) system and aims to cultivate enduring advocacy and action capacity among local stakeholders, civil society organisations and fishing communities to combat IUU fishing effectively.

"Since we launched this project, we have made considerable strides towards the elimination of IUU fishing in Cameroon’s waters," said Nigon, who has worked on a similar project in the Republic of Congo in the past. 

"We have successfully revised Cameroon’s fishing legislation. It is currently at the Prime Minister’s office pending approval," she added.

Cameroon's fishing legislation traces its origins back to 1994. But although there have been additional decrees signed subsequent to the enactment of this legislation, Beseng's 2021 research points out that these decrees, which serve as the primary fishing regulations, do not align consistently with regional and international fisheries management standards.

To ensure transparency, AMMCO and EJF have supported Cameroon’s government through the Ministry of Livestock, Fisheries and Animal Industries (MINEPIA) in posting on their website a list of vessels authorised to fish in Cameroon waters. The list is the first of its kind in the country.

"This list was later published on the FAO Global Record of Fishing Vessels, Refrigerated Transports Vessels and Supply Vessels," said Trent, who is also the founder of WildAid. 

It has been reported that illegal maritime fishing costs Cameroon roughly XAF 20 billion (USD 33 million) annually, and that the government spends at least XAF 102 billion (USD 165 million) a year on fish imports.

Nigon said that AMMCO and EJF have also developed an effective monitoring strategy and are reinforcing Cameroon’s fish monitoring, control and surveillance (MCS) system.

"We have also built the capacity of 16 MINEPIA staff to follow up all the fishing vessels in Cameroon’s fleet," she said. "We are also building the capacity of local community members to do monitoring at their level."

Trend added, "We have been sharing intelligence on suspected illegal fishing activities in Cameroon and abroad to enable action by relevant authorities where appropriate."

Their efforts have reportedly resulted in the freezing of registration of fishing vessels under Cameroon’s flag and the auditing of registration procedures, thereby improving transparency.

In the course of their work, the two NGOs have trained 14 journalists and increased media coverage around IUU fishing-related issues. "This has led to the creation of a network of journalists covering IUU fishing," shared Trent.

Nigon also highlighted that, despite the progress made by AMMCO and EJF in combating IUU fishing in Cameroon, they face a significant challenge due to the lengthy bureaucratic processes of the government agencies they are collaborating with. "The revision process of the new fishing legislation was very long. It took us a year and two months to do this revision," she said.  

Grassroots initiatives are making a difference

In the small island community of Kangue on Cameroon’s southwest coast, local fisherfolk have formed a network to fight the use of what is locally known locally as "gamaline 20". - a toxic chemical used primarily by artisanal fishers while catching fish, mostly in creeks.  

"If we discover that you are using gamaline 20 to catch fish, we will sanction you, and if you persist, we will alert authorities," said Martin Ogunsemore, who has been fishing in the area for over 20 years. 

The network also alerts Cameroon navy officers if industrial fishing vessels cross their fishing boundary. "Sometimes, we chase them away with our canoes, but they mostly come at night when they know our response or that of marine officers will be slow," Ogunsemore said. "Chinese trawlers fish right up to the shore."

Ogunsemore added that their efforts have yielded fruit given that cases of fishers using the toxic chemical to fish have dropped considerably. "No case has been reported of any fishermen using gamaline 20 to fish since the start of 2023 till date," he said.

He, however, regrets that Chinese trawlers continue to fish in the area designated for artisanal fishers, and lamented that the response by Cameroon navy is typically slow. "Sometimes they threaten to shoot us with their guns when we try to chase them away from our fishing boundaries," he said. 

root-cause of IUU fishing must be tackled

To DrJean-Hude Ekindi Moudingo, a conservationist and private consultant based in Buea, southwestern Cameroon, the battle against IUU fishing should primarily focus on combating corruption, which is widespread within the country's fishing industry. 

The conservationist, who has experience managing a project focused on restoring mangroves in small island communities along the southwest coast of Cameroon, believes that addressing corruption, particularly in the issuance of fishing licenses and permits, will naturally lead to the eradication of IUU fishing.

He also faults the government for failing to train and support those in charge of monitoring and regulating fishing activities in Cameroon’s waters. "The personnel in charge of monitoring Cameroon’s fishing fleet is insufficient and ill-equipped," said Dr Moudingo, who has also worked with the World Wildlife Fund. 

He is not, however, blind to the efforts the government and NGOs have been making to eliminate IUU fishing in Cameroon’s waters.

"Everybody has to play their part for this fight to be successful, but the government has a bigger role to play in fighting against corruption," he said, emphasising that local fishing communities must also be involved in this fight. 

To fight corruption, Dr Moudingo argued, Cameroon must improve transparency in the matriculation process and issuing of fishing licenses. "Instead of receiving bribes from fishing vessels with no registration documents as usual," he said, "Cameroon navy officers should rather impound them."

He further urged the government to investigate and penalising navy officials suspected of receiving bribes from fishers, no matter how small the amount. This, he believes, will gradually reduce the corruption that has become so prevalent in the country's fishing sector.

Rising fish prices

Fish prices have been steadily rising since the start of 2023. Claire Mane Fozing, 48, operates a roadside roasted fish stand in the Muea neighborhood of Buea. She is facing challenges in persuading her customers to accept the new price reality.

"Fishes that I used to sell for XAF 1500 each [about USD 3], I now sell them for at least XAF 2000 [USD 4]," said Fozing, pointing at a delicious-looking tilapia she just finished roasting. "It is not only the price of fish that is adding, but also everything I use here."

Cameroon spends about XAF 170 billion [roughly USD 273 million] on fish imports to meet local demand. "Fighting against IUU fishing," Trent concluded, "is not only vital to resolve the issue of the red card, but also to protect coastal livelihoods, human rights and marine ecosystems, all of which are directly affected by destructive and illegal fishing activities."

Image by EJF.

Article written by:
Shuimo Trust
Interviewing YOYO fisherfolk to assess the scope of IUU fishing activities in the maritime part of the Douala Edéa National Park and their impact on locals\' livelihoods.
© Copyright EJF
Interviewing YOYO fisherfolk to assess the scope of IUU fishing activities in the maritime part of the Douala Edéa National Park and their impact on locals' livelihoods.
Every night, Mane Claire serves customers who continue to complain of the increase in fish prices.
© Shuimo Trust copy
Every night, Mane Claire serves customers who continue to complain of the increase in fish prices.
Steve Trent, founder and chief executive officer of Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF).
© Steve Trent
Steve Trent, founder and chief executive officer of Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF).
Morgane Nigon, project coordinator at the African Marine Mammal Conservation Organisation (AMMCO).
© Morgane Nigon
Morgane Nigon, project coordinator at the African Marine Mammal Conservation Organisation (AMMCO).