Having some of the richest fishing grounds in the world is a blessing and a curse for Mauritania, reports Shirley Kumar.
Fishing has become a vital sector, leaving the West African country dependent on foreign currency to build its economy.
For some 45 years, foreign vessels from the southern European states, China, former Soviet Union and Japan have exploited the 754-kilometre-long coast. Mauritania only turned its attention to exploring the economic benefits of the sea when the market for copper and iron collapsed and severe drought shattered agriculture.
From the early 1980s Mauritania attempted to control the foreign vessels fishing in their waters through the use of licensing and the constant adaptation of their fishing policies. These measures, however, proved largely unsuccessful due to the lack of adequate policing of its waters and the poor infrastructure of its ports and processing facilities.
It was the introduction of a five-year fishing protocol with the European Union in August 2001 and joint ventures that finally secured Mauritania's share of the fishing industry and heralded what appeared to be a change in fortune for the country.
m the protocol. A relatively poor country with almost 50 per cent of its population below the poverty line, the agreement has led to greater financial gain, providing more employment and avenues to build a stable fishing industry.
The protocol itself was the product of intense negotiations between the EU and Mauritania. Built on the back drop of the introduction of exclusive economic zones (EEZ), the coastal country became a master of its 200-nautical miles of ocean resources. It was no longer necessary for it to negotiate with the surplus stocks it had not managed to exploit itself.
In comparison with the previous agreement, which ran from 1996-2001 the financial share provided by the EU has increased substantially from â‚¬226.8 to â‚¬430 million over a five year period, which will be re-negotiated in August 2006.
Of immediate benefit, the protocol forced vessels to employ more Mauritanian fishermen. It also ensured zones in which EU vessels operated were pushed further from the Mauritanian coast to afford greater protection for its locally owned some 3,500 small scale vessels. This led to greater financial gain for Mauritania with a substantial increase in the financial contribution paid by owners of vessels covered by it.
In addition, the agreement required that boats fishing for demersal fish (primary flat fish, sole, plaice, hake and cod) were required to up their share of unloading that takes place at the ports of Noukchott in Mauritania's capital in the south and the country's second capital, Nouadhibou in the extreme north west. This acted as a means of increasing activity and promoting control over catches made in Mauritanian waters.
The deal also provides for improved monitoring of resources, vessel controls, the option of reviewing the authorised catch sizes and of imposing biological limitations in the light of scientific studies.
As a result, the fishing sector generated 45 per cent of Mauritania's foreign currency earnings, 25 per cent of the government budget and 12 per cent of the Gross National Product and created 36 per cent of the jobs in the modern sector. Total fishery output potential was estimated at 635,000 tonne in 2002.
European countries facing a severe decline in their own fishing stocks due to over-fishing and the destruction of breeding grounds also benefited from the protocol because with it they won the right to fish along the entire coast of Mauritania - except for waters along the rich fishing area of Banc d'Arguin National Park. The 2001 agreement also saw opportunities for fishing certain species, such as octopus and squid expanded whereas tighter restrictions were imposed in the case of others.
The EU also won concessions from Mauritania to absorb 70 EU fishing boats that were blocked from Moroccan waters.
As a result, the admissible number of boats fishing for migratory species including cuttlefish, squid and octopus, which was limited to an average of 42 by the 1996-2001 protocol, rose to 55. Likewise, the number of tuna vessels accepted has climbed from 57 to 67.
To date, more than 600 deep-sea industrial vessels roam the rich offshore waters surrounding Mauritania -- complete with greater relationships formed with Senegal fish-workers including 270 six-month licenses given last year.
Joint ventures have also proved beneficial to Mauritania with ventures ensuring the construction of an infrastructure to produce and maintain a competitive fishing industry.
Japan, the country to most benefit from joint ventures (accounting for US $71,604 in 2002), has part funded a â‚¬11.5 million project to construct a new fishing harbour, including a fishing market close to the quay, in Nouadhibou.
The harbour, which includes necessary equipment such as isothermal packing boxes and ice production facilities, provides the basic income for most of the city's families.
In addition, Spain has also constructed a fishing coastal town in front of the Tingent village and helped provide funds for the harbour.
The government has also encouraged fish processing to increase employment and generate value.
There are currently around 15 medium-sized processors located again in Nouadhibou.
According to a Canadian Trade and Investment report published in March 2004, the creation of infrastructure creates opportunities for the U.S & Canadian exporters of fishing, processing and packaging.
Mauritania could become a good source for American fish importers -- particularly of shrimp and lobsters -- thanks to its investment code designed to facilitate foreign investment.
uest for foreign currency and the need to feed the coastal population has led to Mauritania over-stretching its fishery resources, leading to a sharp decline in fish with some species of sawfish virtually wiped out.
The European Union and also Japan, have been repeatedly criticised for over fishing in West African waters.
This has led to depleted stocks, which the United Nations Environment Programme first warned of in 2002. Experts said reserves of serranids had fallen to less than half since the government first took an interest in fishing in the 1980s. Octopus catches fell by 50 per cent in just four years and shrimp catches have also suffered.
The Mauritanian Fishing Federation (MFF) and Societe Mauritanian de Comercialisation de Poissons (SMCP), a quasi-public company that buys all of the fish from Mauritanian fishermen, was appalled by the EU protocol agreement saying it imposed no controls on the nets or the methods used by the EU boats. Nor did it attempt to control the size or the age of the fish that are harvested.
The critics also believe the government's decision to increase the harvesting of fish stock such as octopus and squid as part of the EU protocol was ludicrous due to the depletion of stock.
They also warned that the livelihoods of small scale Mauritania's fishermen were being gradually eliminated because EU vessels were fishing in the same fishing zone as the Mauritanian cephalopod vessels - from outside of nine miles from the base line of Cape Timiris, to outside six miles in the south - largely where octopus prevail.
Despite this, in 2004 Mauritania took to selling octopus to Japan, which absorbs around 70 per cent of the market, at extremely high prices. Sources said the Japanese importers had no choice but to purchase these products to ensure stock-levels due to a ban on this species in Morocco. Octopus fishing in Morocco resumed in December last year.
The World Conservation Union, IUCN, shares these concerns. It also said reports of marine life regularly becoming entangled in fishing nets were rife and the problem was having disastrous effects.
It took action, along with 10 Ministers of Environment and Fisheries, including Mauritania and Senegal, to launch a â‚¬30 million Regional Strategy for Marine Protected Areas in West Africa in 2003.
Approximately 60 per cent of the 22 million people in the six countries of West Africa live on the coast and depend mostly on fisheries. "As well as threatening biodiversity, over fishing threatens local livelihoods," said the IUCN.
The true impact of Mauritanian's dependence on foreign exports emerged in November 2004 when the National Association of Cephalopod Freezer Vessel Owners (ANACEF) of Spain used its powers by threatening to withdraw its 43 vessels from fishing in Mauritanian waters from this year if the minimum size for octopus was set from its current 500 grammes to the previous 300 grammes.
ANACEF manager Jose R Fontan said in a statement to Faro de Vigo that the situation of the Mauritanian fishing ground is currently causing concern as "Mauritanian canoes fish in the breeding grounds and kill fertilized octopus females."
The decision to withdraw would mean the Mauritanian government will stop receiving its quarterly royalties that these vessels must pay in order to operate during the first quarter of this year. The debate continues.
Further threats to Mauritania are proposals by the EU to cut subsidies for joint venture agreements as part of its new Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) currently in the pipeline for 2006. Minister of Fisheries for Mauritania, Ahmedour Ouold Ahmedou, confirmed the relationship was of great benefit to the development of Mauritania's fishing industry.
Fishing in Mauritania still depends and will do so for many years on the state of the conditions in international seafood markets and Mauritania's ability to meet the demands of importing countries. Without foreign investment the Mauritanian economy could be in great danger.
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