afrol News, 16 March - Over-fishing by foreign fleets has led to a sharp decline of fish catches in the rich Mauritanian waters. Some species, such as sawfish, have completely dissapeared, according to to an expert study by the UN environmental agency UNEP. Fisheries are Mauritania's main export earner.
Fishing is of vital importance for the Mauritanian economy. It accounted for more than 54% of foreign-exchange inflows and more than 27% of the State budget in 1998. The sector’s share of GNP is considerable. The number of jobs created by the various branches in the fisheries sector was probably about 27,000 in 2000, UNEP assesses; 21,000 of them in non-industrial fishing and about 6,000 in industrial fishing.
- However, the supply of fish to the local market is inadequate because almost the entire catch is exported, UNEP says. Further, only 199 of the more than 450 vessels operating industrially in Mauritanian waters in 1999 were from the country. The rest were factory-style trawlers from the EU, China and Japan. Fisheries agreements between Mauritania and other states, providing for these trawlers' operations, constituted 27% of the State Budget in the period 1996-2001.
Further, a national fleet of about 2,500 boats with a workforce of 18,000 engaged in non-industrial fishing, mostly close to the coast. Most of these catches are however marketed and exported.
The UNEP report shows that Mauritania probably is overstreching its fishery recourses to earn foreign currency and to feed its coastal population. Fish catches are however declining and are expected to decline even more.
Shrimps and octopus catches, which have accounted for over half of total exports of Mauritanian fish, have been reduced most. Octupus catches in 2001 fell half the total of catches four years ago. Also the reserves of serranids have fallen to less than half in 15 years, UNEP observed. Sawfish had disappeared totally from Mauritanian waters.
The economic concequences of declinig fish stocks are already felt in Mauritania, especially on the labour sector. Local people employed in the traditional octopus fishery were reduced from 5,000 in 1996 to 1,800 in 2002. This, however, also had to do with the unregulated trade liberalisation experienced in Mauritania over the last years, an important focus in the UNEP study.
Mauritania, UNEP says, however had become aware of the need for conservation of the environment and biodiversity at a "very early" stage - from 1987 - and incorporated them into its fishery policies. Environmental conservation has been a continuing concern in all development strategies in the fisheries sector.
The UNEP study, though not concluding firmly on "what went wrong", indicates that international trade liberalisation has had a very strong impact on fishing in Mauritania, resulting in "the strong and regular increase in the fishing effort." This increased fishing efforts had led to more exports and less sales on the domestic market and further to the declining fish stocks.
The entry in 1995 of European boats for cephalopod fishing, which had formerly been permitted only to national boats, was "a clear illustration of the government’s policy of trial and error in the development of demersal fisheries," UNEP concludes.
Professionals - both Mauritanian and foreign - had also been blinded by the immediate profits and had "taken to anarchic operations." This included "fishing in prohibited zones, non-compliance with primary control measures such as mesh size and size and weight of first capture, catching juveniles, acts of piracy, destruction of spawning grounds through coastal fishing using demersal trawls."
UNEP agrees with environmentalist's warnings of the increased quotas agreed upon in the new Mauritanian fisheries agreement with the EU. The present provisions of the agreement "increase fishing over-capacity, especially in relation to the already over-fished octopus stock," UNEP concludes, reaffirming environmental groups' protests as the 5-year treaty was signed last year.