Sierra Leone and Ghana are among 12 Commonwealth countries to have been assisted by the Commonwealth Secretariat in London to lodge submissions to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf to extend access to additional areas of seabed, potentially by an extra 150 nautical miles.
By extending the area of their continental shelf from 200nm to a possible 350nm under the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, these countries would gain exclusive sovereign rights to explore and exploit a wealth of natural resources. According to Article 76 of the Law of the Sea Convention, the continental shelf of a coastal state comprises the seabed and subsoil of the submarine areas that extend beyond its territorial sea throughout the natural prolongation of its land territory to the outer edge of the continental margin, or to a distance of 200 nautical miles from the baselines from which the breadth of the territorial sea is measured where the outer edge of the continental margin does not extend up to that distance.
This is indeed a good move by these coastal countries. But the important question that must be asked is this: are these countries fully equipped to protect their maritime resources? I’m afraid not. Maritime security is a major headache for African countries. And as such, Africa’s unprotected coast has become free for all to exploit at great loss to the continent.
This brings me to the issue of the activities of the pirates off the coast of Somalia. The Western media are full of reports about the apparent dastardly acts of the pirates but in their reportage they have failed to deal with the underlying cause of the piracy.
Mohamed Abshir, a Somali journalist, who wrote about this issue earlier this year, presented the other side of the story: that of the pirates. Arguing that because Somalia has not had a stable government since 1991, its territorial waters have been free-for-all ever since.
For instance, Waldo said that illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing fleets from Europe, Arab countries and the Far East had been depleting Somalia’s fish stocks depriving Somali fishermen of their living. “With its usual double standards when such matters concern Africa, the ‘international community’ comes out in force to condemn and declare war against the Somali fishermen pirates while discreetly protecting the numerous [poachers],” he noted.
Waldo wrote: “According to the High Seas Task Force (HSTF), there were over 800 IUU fishing vessels in Somali waters at one time in 2005 taking advantage of Somalia’s inability to police and control its own waters and fishing grounds. The IUU’s, which are estimated to take out more than $450 million in fish value out of Somalia annually, neither compensate the local fishermen, pay tax, royalties nor do they respect any conservation and environmental regulations norms associated with regulated fishing. It is believed that IUUs from the EU alone take out of the country more than five times the value of its aid to Somalia every year.”
Waldo has a valid point. Many coastal African countries, including Sierra Leone, are hard-pressed when it comes to safeguarding their territorial waters from European notably Spanish fishing pirates.
Illegal fishing is killing the economies of coastal African countries. A recent estimate by the British government showed that IUU fishing costs these countries $1 billion a year in lost revenues. In West Africa, the coastal waters are being pillaged by Spanish fishing fleets.
When you talk to the people at Greenpeace, the environmental watchdog, and the Environmental Justice Foundation they tell you about how Spanish fishing pirate ships are plundering West African coastal waters. These watchdogs say that the Spanish harbour of Las Palmas in the Canary Islands is a major Port of Convenience, providing services to pirate fishing fleets operating off the coast of West Africa, and hosting a number of companies that operate IUU vessels. Las Palmas therefore serves as the soft entry point to the enormous European seafood market, and also as the major transport hub for illegal fish heading for other large seafood markets, such as those in East Asia, Greenpeace and the EFJ point out.
All this is being fuelled by European Union fisheries subsidies, almost half of which have gone to Spain, according to new research by the Pew Environment Group. This fisheries funding has led to over-fishing in Europe’s waters, forcing the European (mainly Spanish) fishing fleets to raid West Africa’s waters destroying the livelihoods of local fishermen.
Given this situation, is it any wonder that Senegalese fishermen have decided to use their boats to transport illegal immigrants to Spain? If they can’t fish and make a living because Spanish trawlers are taking all the catch away, why not put their vessels to another use? Now you see that the EU itself has a lot to answer for when it comes to illegal immigration to Europe.
When the far right European political parties spew out their diatribe about illegal immigration they should take a closer look at the impact EU fishing subsidies and pirate Spanish fishing fleet are having on the economies of West African coastal countries. Sure, the people who brave the dangerous seas to get to Europe in rickety boats are economic migrants. But without the illegal activities of Spanish fishing fleets these young men would not have any reason to become economic migrants.
In all this, the economic cost to Africa is phenomenal. It is high time, therefore, that African countries and the EU reach agreement that would halt the activities of Spanish poachers in West Africa’s coastal waters. The EU should take responsibility for the disruption of the West African fishing industry.
More importantly, African countries should beef up their maritime security and be prepared to open fire on pirate fishing fleets from Europe just as naval ships from the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation are shooting at the pirates off the coast of Somalia.
Indeed, the UN-sanctioned Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia should have its limit extended to the whole of Africa to deal with European fishing pirates. Or else it would begin to look again like it is only Africans who are the pirates just as it is looking like it is only Africans who commit war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide and as such are the only ones who are being taken to the International Criminal Court. Desmond Davies is former Editor of West Africa magazine in London.