Morocco - fish make land!

Some of hundreds of Morocco's deep-sea fleet in Agadir port for closed season. © TW : EEC Photos
Gutting and sizing sardines for canning in one of Agadir's many plants. © TW : EEC Photos

World leader in sardine exports and beneficiary of some of the world’s richest territorial ocean stocks, Morocco could now offer major returns for technically savvy investors as it turns inland to harness the potential of its lakes and reservoirs.

But as Peter O’Neill reports from the Bin el Ouidane hydro hub, there are more than dam fish ladders to climb to overcome daunting, socio-political and economic barriers.

World Fishing (WF) regularly reported in depth on the long battle between Morocco and the then EU Fisheries and Agriculture Commissioner, Dr Franz Fischler, to renew a deal on EU access to Moroccan waters. It was not just a cash issue. Morocco wanted more recognition as one of the EU’s longest trade partners. WF suggested that small Morocco was a model for developing countries with spare fish which the EU desperately needed after its own stocks went down. Morocco had leverage against the Goliath. Dr Fischler at the time told WF that the reason for the blockage to a deal was down to ‘vested interests’ in Morocco. WF did not believe him then. But WF believes him now after a two-week visit around the country. Pinning down who is behind which smokescreen of vested interests is a big part of the problem of doing business with Morocco.

As we went to press, the European Parliament Fisheries Committee was examining persistent challenges by some MEPs about the legality of Western Sahara elements in the EU Morocco deal signed in September 2005. It had taken six years to get there, after Morocco refused to renew the earlier deal ending in 1999, causing severe catch problems particularly for Spanish and Portuguese companies which had invested heavily in fishing effort in Moroccan waters.

Morocco’s aim in 2005, and even more so today, has been to increase its share of the value-added of its raw material. Under the 2006-2010 deal, it cut EU vessels allowed in to 110 – from 629. An almost open-ended catch was cut to 60,000 tonnes per annum. But the EU only paid €144 million in cash (it was €500 million in 1995) which was tied to support for the large, small-vessel coastal fleet. Morocco won more local landings by foreign vessels (up 50 per cent) more Moroccan crewing, more processing and research investment and most important of all, ‘face’. Fishing associations complained that of the 119 vessels 100 are Spanish and taking declining white fish.

Fish is one of the five pillars of this export-oriented economy, standing with remittances from migrant Moroccans (some three million in Europe alone), inbound foreign tourism (add three million overseas Moroccans visiting relatives each year), phosphates and agricultural exports.

There are three new masterplans to buttress those pillars: for water, Plan Bleu (blue, for Morocco and the Mediterranean) for fisheries, Plan Halieutis (fish) and agriculture, Plan Vert (green). Inland aquaculture fits well with multi-billion dollar plans to build new flood infrastructure reservoirs and upgrade older ones. Morocco successfully taps loans and grants from sources such as the European Investment Bank (EIB), the Middle East, France and Norway. Japan’s generous, low-profile aid and help to coastal fishing villages and research funding has brought trouble-free renewal of its tuna licences. Russia has paid for fishing deals too. Caveat the global credit crunch, remittance income from abroad was US$6.7 billion annually at end 2008, plus a third more outside banking channels. The giant phosphate producer l’ Office Chérifien des Phosphates (OCP) sits on 75 per cent of the world’s phosphates and in the past was regarded as the kingdom’s treasure house. It is trying to upgrade its operations which have caused pollution problems inland and on the coast, and has had strikes and problems with its pension fund, as well as a rollercoaster ride on global fertiliser markets.

Monster tourism projects, such as the €410m “Lac City de Ouarzazate”, with eight hotels, casino, golf course, fish stocking etc., at the El Mansour dam seem to be on hold.

Powerplay

The government takes it lead from 46-year-old king Mohammed VI of the powerful 17th century Alaoui dynasty which permeates all politics and business here. The priorities he has laid down are major infrastructure investment in fisheries, agribusiness, water supply and flood control, new reservoirs and hydroelectric schemes and expanding the limited rail and motorway networks.

The fishing fleet has tens of thousands of one-man, small and medium (including traditional, large wooden new builds) coastal vessels and some 500 deepsea. Funding has to be found to upgrade hygiene for processing and storage on all larger vessels. Port sources at Agadir in the south, the country’s main fish landing and processing port, said the large-vessel fleet now faced major upgrades and replacements, many being secondhand from China’s scrappage and now in poor condition.

The processing facilities which WF inspected during a morning in Agadir (tinned sardines) are up to standard, even though some of the cooking machinery is decades old. It was a good example of some 400 companies in the agri-fish canning business. But tomato and brine dominate, unlike European brand ranges with different spices, wine, fruit and vegetable sauces. WF was told that too many in the sardine canning industry were loath to innovate and held back those who would challenge European competition with new ideas. The company had registered a new canned fish product with an aphrodisiac slant and then discovered other companies trying to persuade local officials to let them use the registered product without permission. The canning industry is a big employer of local labour, usually women.

Jobs and expansion

Most European fishing ministers would die for the fishing jobs here. Agriculture and Fisheries minister Aziz Akhannouch told the World Seafood Congress in Agadir that the aim of the new Plan Halieutis was to expand current production from about 1.035 million tonnes per annum to 1.66 by 2020, with income moving from US$1.2bn to $3.1bn. Marine aquaculture (a few thousand tonnes, mainly oyster and clam, plus breeding stations for sea bass and bream for sale mainly to Europe) would target a production of 200,000t per annum by 2020.

The jewel of job creation would see direct and indirect jobs for catch, processing and aquaculture move from some 400,000 today to some 600,000, out of a national population of around 30+ million. Fish account for 50 per cent of agrifood exports. WF wanted to dig into these figures with the minister but on two occasions when interviews were due, in Morocco and later in London, he managed to wriggle off the hook and disappear for ‘other appointments’. Moroccan press and industry players, face this all the time from most politicians and bureaucrats, they told WF. A Moroccan academic was just one of a number of Moroccans who deplored this and said that data was seen as a power lever, not to be released except when an advantage could be won or traded. This lack of openness, reflected in the press and at several conferences with demands for more transparency and “bonne gouvernance” (good government), means consultation is weak. The coastal fleet’s owners and its hundreds of ‘mini-associations’ which operate 2,500 or so ‘larger’ vessels are a very unhappy group over this. Yet they are said to bring in some 90 per cent of the total country landings. They said they were not consulted on the EU agreement. And senior fishing industry figures told WF most fishermen walked out of the of the minister’s Plan Halieutis presentation. The same happened at the presentation of the agribusiness Plan Vert.

The power of the fish logistics industry is also said to be behind resistance to the development of the first rail line to link Agadir to Casablanca (12 hours by road). The national rail network reach is limited anyway. The line would threaten vested interests in the trucking industry. Better and faster services (new trains on order from France have begun arriving) could help link all the major tourist centres and mean easier, daily fresh fish deliveries would boost coastal catch revenues.

The big picture for regional fish consumption is Morocco’s advantage with its Atlantic catch, not just the unsure potential of its Mediterranean waters. Putting aside the political issues over the Western Sahara waters catch (and that includes foreign vessels operating there with little surveillance) Morocco can be an ever-growing supplier to all countries around the Med.

Aquaculture potential

Long-term, the development of major, de-luxe, tourism complexes on the coast (such as that already at Agadir) is unstoppable. They are being supplied by daily catch from coastals. The potential to sell farmed fish to such inland tourist complexes (some can handle thousands of foreign conference participants a day) is significant.

At Bin el Ouidane dam, one of Africa’s biggest, the reservoir has some small stocking by a foreigner. An official from the local town hall at Ouaouizahrt, said she welcomed and encouraged such moves. WF shared a ‘grand taxi’ with her and her mother returning from the dentist in the plains. Few scheduled buses and expensive grand taxis meant costly journeys down to the major towns on the plains of the “Phosphate Plateau” such as Khouribga and Béni Millal. The 30 or 40kg of lake fish on sale at the market each week was a good option for locals. It also attracts foreign sport fishing (30kg carp record) and has a range of fish from pike to perch.

Due to the foresight and autocratic power of the late King Hassan II, Morocco moved fast in the 50s to develop hydropower and water storage. Precipitation and Atlas mountains snowmelt give it more water than its neighbours combined and it has 12bn m3 of storage and more coming. Some dams are having hydroelectric generation added, a factor to be remembered for fish farming infrastructure investment.

Nationally, pollution is an important part of due diligence for site selection, coastal or inland. Moroccan fishery scientists and the industry are worried about waste from OCP’s coastal phosphoric acid plants, and phosphate mining waste causing inland river pollution. It can threaten exports under foreign food quality and safety requirements.

Moroccan scientist M. M. Alami told the June 2008 regional water conference in Amman of falling annual volumes of inland water and “alarming pollution of water resources” including “3.3 million tonnes equivalent per inhabitant, dumped untreated by [mining] industries”, plus pollution of groundwater by pesticides and nitrates, he said. Vast amounts of phosphogypsum spoil, from processing fertiliser, contain heavy metals, uranium and radium which with aerial mining dust in aquifers, reservoirs and rivers reaches the sea. New polluter-pays clauses in law are coming into play and agribusiness, fisheries and NGOs seem to be gearing up to make compensation claims. That said, the water supply system, for food processing and continuity of electricity are very good and indeed impressive.

Difficult business

World Bank blacklists, hidden corruption and lack of transparency can threaten foreign companies’ other international operations. This has to be watched when partnering with Moroccan operations in terms of any IUU fishing activity. There are investigations into senior civil servants for collusion over contracts, which all countries have of course. Laundered black money (including from overseas remittances invested in local projects) is a risk area.

Foreign businessmen told WF about difficulty getting bills paid and of the expected bribe. Despite unreturned calls, emails and letters, abandoned appointments, lack of public info, WF also found young civil servants and combative lawyers ready to fight against “favours for services”. Transparency International (TI) ranked Morocco for corruption in 2009 at no. 89 out of 180 countries and held a Moroccan National Integrity meeting in November 2009. Last autumn, many newspaper and magazine editors warned that vested interests were trumping up charges against publications which were probing too many dark areas. But the welcome and fish in the souk cafés was great, and young and old, men and women, dress stylishly and enjoy their traditional café parties, dancing and revels!

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