A Fishy Business: African Coastal and Small Land States Cry Foul over Distant Fishing Nations in Europe and Elsewhere Abusing Access to Fishing Rights in Their Territorial Waters

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A PREPARATORY MEETING FOR THE third international conference on Small Islands Developing States (SIDS), which will be held in Samoa next year, was convened in Mahe, Seychelles, in July. In his opening remarks, Seychelles President James Michel made a poignant revelation.

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"When harvesting the oceans for fish or other resources they seem to belong to everyone," President Michel said. "But when it comes to dealing with the sustainability of resources, of marine conservation or pollution or piracy, the oceans seem to belong to no one."

Fishing figures rightly underscore President Michel's viewpoint. According to the UN's Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), Africa's fishery resources generate 3.6 million jobs and some $5bn gross revenue annually. In other words, even without looking at other aspects of the ocean as economic activities, fisheries have far-reaching ramifications. In the national economies of the Western Indian Ocean nations alone, fisheries provide between 5% and 99% of national agricultural exports.

Over 9,700 people are employed in tuna processing firms in Kenya, Maldives, Madagascar, Seychelles and Mauritius alone. According to the Seychelles-based Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC), some 1.34 million tonnes of skipjack, albacore, bigeye, swordfish and yellowfin tuna are caught in the Indian Ocean annually.

The IOTC is an intergovernmental organisation established under the FAO constitution to manage tuna and tuna-like species in the Indian Ocean. Currently the IOTC, which is domiciled in Seychelles, has 31 member countries--all Indian Ocean coastal and island states. Seychelles is also home to one of the largest tuna canning factories in the world, the Indian Ocean Tuna factory in Port Victoria.

According to Oliver Knowles of the environmental advocacy organisation Greenpeace, "The Indian Ocean is a major source of tuna, providing about 24% of the global tuna catch. This translates into around 1.2 million tonnes, though catches have declined a little in recent years and for various reasons, including piracy."

In the last two months, aboard Green-peace's largest expedition and research ship Eperanza (Spanish for "hope"), Greenpeace members have been conducting a campaign in the Indian Ocean targeting illegal fishing practices.

At the core of the campaign is the inequality of fisheries' revenues between the African small island nations on the one hand and the European bloc and other distant nations on the other hand.

Knowles explains that distant nations' fishing fleets use access rights agreements and the free access guaranteed within international waters to fish in territorial waters of developing nations and sell their catch in distant markets.

"Our campaign addresses many of the issues around European and other distant water nations catching fish in the region and exporting them to distant markets," Knowles said. "This major source of inequity is something we hope to address in time. It is certainly true that Indian Ocean coastal states and their people stand to gain much more from their tuna resources through well-managed, sustainable, and equitable fisheries."

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Spain, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Indonesia, and Iran are the top five tuna fishing nations in the Indian Ocean using highly mechanised purse seiners and long liners. However, not all fishing vessels adhere to the rules. A number of them have been involved in illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing practices together with the usage of destructive Fish Aggregating Devices (FADs).

"Most regional fisheries bodies, such as the IOTC are investigating the environmental impact of FADs and other destructive fishing practices," reveals Gail Lugten, the FAO's liaison officer, who is in charge of 50 regional fisheries bodies across the world.

"The last IOTC meeting," Lugten continues, "gave considerable discussion to biodegradable fishing gear that will break down in the ocean environment rather than float in perpetuity and continue to 'ghost-fish' while it floats. …