Illicit Migration to Europe: Consequences of Illegal Fishing and Overfishing in West Africa

Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime | 8.5.2015
Photo credits and research: Kukka Ranta.

The populations of West Africa, home to one of the world’s most resource-rich marine environments, is suffering widespread poverty and a paucity of legitimate livelihoods in part due to high levels of foreign illegal fishing and overfishing.

When local fish stocks collapsed in Senegal in 2005, about 5,000 West Africans fled poverty to the Canary Islands in wooden handmade boats that the fishermen couldn’t afford to use commercially anymore. The following year, that number climbed to more than 31,000 migrants. In 2006, an estimated 6,000 West Africans lost their lives attempting to pursue a better future in Europe.

Most of these migrants were from Senegal and Mauritania, the countries with which the EU has its largest and oldest fisheries agreements.  The roots of the current illicit migration crisis in the Mediterranean is, in many ways, a crisis of Europe’s own making.

West Africa is estimated to have the highest levels of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing on Earth. Foreign vessels are taking advantage of some of the world’s poorest countries, which can’t afford to guard their own territorial waters and where the corruption index is often among the highest in the world.

Since the world’s leading fishing powers have emptied their own waters, the problem of industrial overfishing is being exported to distant seas. The European Union made its first bilateral fishing agreement in Africa with Senegal in 1979, and soon afterwards Chinese trawlers and other Asian vessels entered West African waters, many of them operating illegally.  Many of the vessels involved in illegal activities in West Africa are operating under flags of convenience. According to the Environmental Justice Foundation, a significant number of these vessels are originally owned by European companies.

West African coastal states are losing $1.3 billion annually and 37 % of their annual catch to IUU fishing. Most of the illegally-caught fish is taken to the EU and China, the world’s biggest fish markets, where demand is constantly growing. At the same time, industrial overfishing is destroying the livelihoods and food security of some of the world’s poorest people, forcing them to seek new, and hopefully more secure futures elsewhere.

The photo essay and text is based on original research in West Africa by Kukka Ranta.

Read the Illegal Fishing: the overlooked organized environmental crime report by the Black Fish and the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime.  

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