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Satellites against illegal fishing in Mauritania

09.04.2018 - Article

Mauritania has one of the richest fishing grounds in the world, but this abundance is whetting some overindulgent appetites. KfW has financed a digital surveillance system for the coast guard to help protect Mauritania’s rights within the 200-mile zone.

Each year, Issa Diop catches between 600 and 700 metric tonnes of fish, primarily sardines. The income of the fisherman from the Mauritanian capital city of Nouakchott supports two-dozen family members. Diop has now worked at sea for 50 years. What has changed over time? There are many more fishermen operating, the 63-year-old says, including large trawlers, “and there are not as many fish as before.”

The wooden pirogues of Mauritania are not large enough to compete with international commercial fishing vessels.
The wooden pirogues of Mauritania are not large enough to compete with international commercial fishing vessels.© KfW

Diop owns a pirogue. The Mauritanian fishing fleet has increased to around 7,000 of the traditional boats, which are up to 66 feet (20 metres) long. Most stay inside the 20-mile zone, in which the government now only allows domestic fishers to catch. Like Diop, they mainly fish for sardines here, which are often processed into fishmeal, although coleoids (including squid and octopus) are also caught and can command relatively high prices.

Mauritania grants licences for catching other species of fish, though international fishing vessels also often illicitly ply their trade in its waters. Without fisheries monitoring, a large amount of the money due to the poorest country in West Africa would be lost as a result of illegal fishing.

Nature has left Mauritania with barren lands but particularly fertile waters. A cold ocean current brings up plankton – the fishes’ food. The waters off the coast of the desert country are some of the richest fishing grounds in the world.

Every coastal nation is allowed to exclusively “manage” the 200-mile zone extending from its own coast. Consequently, Mauritania sells fishing licenses for its 200-mile zone to domestic and foreign vessel operators. The Islamic Republic’s fishing grounds are teeming with gilt-head bream, mackerel, tuna, coleoids, hake, sardines and spiny lobster. These attract huge trawlers from China, Russia and the EU.

A commercial ship of that sort hauls off as much in its trawl nets in two days as Issa Diop could catch in a year. And his pirogue is one of the big ones.

The 20-mile zone, in which the government now only allows domestic fishers to catch, mainly contains sardines, which are often processed into fishmeal.
The 20-mile zone, in which the government now only allows domestic fishers to catch, mainly contains sardines, which are often processed into fishmeal.© KfW

In the past year, the EU has concluded a new fishing agreement with Mauritania. It is intended to uphold the principles of sustainability and allows vessels from EU countries to catch up to 281,500 tonnes of fish and shrimp from Mauritanian waters per year. As part of this agreement, Mauritania receives 59.1 million Euro from the EU per year. Altogether, the country has made more than 1 billion Euro with its licence sales over the last 25 years.

However, unless compliance with the agreements is checked, they are not worth much. Mauritania has been committed to fisheries surveillance within its 200-mile zone since 1990 with the aid of KfW. The programme, financed by KfW Development Bank on behalf of the Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), is now running in its fifth phase. Within its scope, the bank will provide a further 18 million Euro until 2021, including for a quay for the coast guard at Nouadhibou, the country’s most important port city.

The coast guard monitors the country’s territorial waters. This involves operating a combination of satellite and radar technology, which was financed by KfW from German government funds. This has included, for example, setting up the seven manned radar stations that are located along the 750-kilometre long coast between Senegal and Western Sahara.

The radar equipment can be used to locate vessels in the 200-mile zone. The coast guards also evaluate detailed satellite data about vessels inside the 200-mile zone at their head office in Nouakchott. Checking this against the fishing licences reveals whether a ship is permitted to make catches within the zone.

Mauritanian coast guard staff monitor fishing boats within the 200-mile zone via satellite and radar.
Mauritanian coast guard staff monitor fishing boats within the 200-mile zone via satellite and radar.© KfW

If the coast guard becomes suspicious, it sends out a patrol. If the suspicion is confirmed upon inspection of the foreign vessel, it is confiscated in accordance with Mauritanian law, explains Ahmed Ould Moulaye, who has responsibility for operations at the coast guard in Nouakchott. His country’s digital surveillance technology is “a role model in the region,” he states. And its effects are visible. The coast guard has only had to seize a single vessel in the last year, according to Moulaye. In previous years, the legal violations were recorded by the hundreds each year.

KfW is no longer solely involved with supporting digital surveillance over Mauritanian waters. “Resource conservation was previously in the foreground. Now we are also promoting the responsible and sustainable use of fish resources,” says Henning Baur, the KfW Development Bank project manager responsible.

The Mauritanian government hopes to earn more from licence sales, but is also stepping up the development of its fishing industry. The sector already secures around 60,000 jobs.

Nearly one in three Mauritanians is poor, but the fishing industry has the potential to feed more local people than before, provided that it is sustainably operated, more fish are processed domestically and Mauritania itself puts larger vessels out to sea.

According to figures from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN, African countries gained 400 million dollars from the sale of fishing licences in 2014; with their own fleets and processing, they would come to generate revenues of 3.3 billion dollars.

© KfW