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When Chinese Trawlers plunder West African waters

When Chinese Trawlers plunder West African waters
  • PublishedJuly 7, 2023

Chinese trawlers are omnipresents off the West African coast. Numerous fishing vessels have been spotted plundering West African waters. Having exhausted the resources of its oceans, the Chinese fleet is now in the Atlantic Ocean. According to one study, in 60 years, more than 50% of the fishery resources in West African waters have been emptied by the Chinese fleet.

West African waters under Chinese pressure

West Africa is one of the world’s largest producers of fishmeal. A lot of these factories are located in Gambia. It includes Golden Lead, JXYG and Nessim, owned by Chinese companies.

Take the “Golden Lead” factory, for example. This factory, part of the “Belt and Road” initiative, was installed in September 2016. Golden Lead was the first plant of this kind in Gambia. Chinese authorities promise that this factory will bring jobs. Thus, in exchange of their installation, they committed to help developing market and build new asphalt road. But the reality is slightly different.

The factory used valuable fish, such as the bonga, to make fishmeal. Around a quarter of the world’s fish catch is processed into fishmeal. Then, to produce one kilo of fishmeal, over 5 kg of small pelagic fish are needed. One factory in Gambia consumes 7,500 tonnes of fish a year. It represents 40% of Gambia’s entire fish catch for a given year.

Moreover, this fishmeal is used to feed farmed fish. These fishes are then sold to people in Asia and Africa, with a higher price than the initial cost of the bonga.

Deterioration of life in coastal communities

In addition to other issues, fishmeal manufacturing process causes chemical pollution. Arsenic has been found in Gambian waters, leading to environmental destruction.

On May 22, 2017, the Bolong Fenyo lagoon was filled with dead fish and had taken on a dark red hue. The pollution incident in this wildlife reserve occurred almost a year after the opening of the Golden Lead.

The following month, the National Environment Agency filed a complaint against Golden Lead in a court of first instance, alleging that the factory’s wastewater was the cause of the damage. But the firm paid an out-of-court settlement of 25 000$. This put the brakes on any attempt to legislate or supervise production.

The plant installation did not live up to expectations. The site has not brought as many jobs to local communities as promised.

Golden Lead works with Senegalese fishermen and their motorboats. Local Gambian fishermen can’t compete. The factory buys in bulk, paying $5 a basket. That’s three times less than what it’s worth on local markets.

Contrary to what was promised, the installation of the factory has not improved the living conditions of local communities. Instead, the local people have had to adapt, and have lost out on quality of life.

The Chinese fleet, a false solution

Following their decreased of life quality, fishing communities are forced to take drastic measures to survive. Some choose to emigrate across the Mediterranean. Others fishermen enlist aboard Chinese fleet vessels.

Desperate, they are a trained workforce ready to work for low wages in harsh conditions. According to Greenpeace, each fisherman receives 173 dollars at the end of each month. As one survey reports, the boats are overcrowded. Accordingly, crew members sleep in small rooms, surrounded by filth.

The majority of industrial trawlers operating in Gambia’s waters are Chinese-owned. They are operating under a “flag of convenience”. Although the vessels do not belong to the Chinese fleet, the revenues generated will be for China.

These vessels have fishing licenses. Some are probably obtained scrupulously, playing on relationships with the authorities. But there is another side to the phenomenon. West Africa is a victim of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing by 12 000 vessels of the Chinese fleet.

Vessels must receive a subsidy from the authorities to buy fuel and fishing licenses. According to estimates, fuel for the fleet will cost a total of 280 million dollars a year. A trifle for the Chinese government, an astronomical sum for an ordinary fisherman.

A vicious circle for the local communities on West African waters

To conclude, whatever solution is chosen, it will lead to a vicious circle.

Local fishermen who can no longer make a living from artisanal fishing will embark on Chinese vessels. These Chinese vessels will pay them low wages and over-fish in their waters.

At last, all this to supply fishmeal factories with astronomical quantities of fish they consume. The disappearance of small-scale fishing in favor of industrial fishing will lead to the depletion of resources at an accelerated rate. In the past, bonga was abundant and sold at low prices. Today, the over-consumption of this species by fishmeal factories led to a rare and expensive resource. Consequently, many people can no longer afford this vital source of protein. Thus, society will be impoverished, and famine and deprivation will set in.

This will lead to the disappearance of the last artisanal fishermen and the collapse of the local economy based on small-scale fishing.

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