West Africa is one of the world’s most productive fishing regions. But overfishing is threatening the livelihoods and food security of the region’s residents, and is confounding efforts by scientists to track the ecological health of the ocean.
The number one culprit in underreporting fishing practices is China, according to a study published in Fish and Fisheries this March. China may be pulling up to 12 times its reported catch from the waters off Africa’s west coast. In the last decade, China reported an average yearly overseas catch of 386,000 tons.
But according to the study, which was conducted by fisheries scientists from several countries and funded by the European Union, China’s actual yearly catches were probably closer to 4.6 million tons. Of that, nearly 3 million tons of seafood came from the West African Coast – an amount worth over 7 billion USD.
Without consistently accurate numbers on which to base marine organism population statistics and other measures of ocean health, it is nearly impossible for marine and environmental scientists to assess aquatic ecosystem health, or to demonstrate the negative effects of overfishing in particular regions. In the West African country of Mauritania, populations of bottom dwelling species such as octopus and grouper have remained mysteriously low for years. In light of the study, it is clear that reduced populations are the result of overfishing by bottom-scraping trawlers.
The global consequences of overfishing cannot be overlooked. The most obvious effect is the depletion of fish populations, which disrupts the balance of ocean food chains and ecosystems. For example, overfishing a large, predatory fish species such as shark will result in an increase in the number of species that the sharks prey on, such as rays. The increase in the number of rays then results in a decreased amount of their food sources, and so on. The depletion of carnivorous species at the top of the food chain, like sharks, creates a ripple effect that extends throughout the ocean ecosystem.
In addition to negative environmental consequences, overfishing has serious social and economic consequences. In areas where overfishing has occurred, many who have relied on fishing as a way of life have been forced to move or to seek other trades. In African and Asian coastal nations where fish is a major source of dietary protein, overfishing can cause malnutrition and food insecurity, thereby perpetuating poverty.
While scientific publications serve educational and political purposes in the fight to protect the oceans from overfishing, they do not protect the people whose livelihoods depend on those fish. West Africans are experiencing first-hand the depletion of their fisheries. Nearly eight million people live in the West African Marine Eco-Region (WAMER), and at least 600,000 of those depend on fishing and related industries for their livelihoods. When unsustainable pressures are placed on declining fish populations, conflicts arise between local and international fishing interests.
Overfishing creates serious, complex problems for coastal residents and ecosystems. Ending the vicious cycle of overfishing can be accomplished through complementary, comprehensive reform programs like the West African Marine Eco-Region Program, aimed at increasing biodiversity and supporting sustainable fishing practices.
Seafood consumers also have the power to end, or greatly reduce, unsustainable fishing practices by purchasing only fish that have been harvested in an ocean-friendly manner. The Monterey Bay Aquarium provides a handy pocket guide for finding sustainable seafood in your part of the country.
– Kat Henrichs