In Cameroon there is growing awareness that there’s a direct relationship between illegal and unregulated activity in the fisheries sector, and maritime security in the waters off the country’s coast.
Like most countries along Africa’s Atlantic coast, addressing illegal fishing and fisheries crimes is challenging for Cameroon. Earlier this year the European Commission called out the country for failing to control vessels engaged in illegal fishing under the country’s flag. It also pointed to weak governance, including poor knowledge of the scale of illegal fishing.
In a recent research paper I looked at how Cameroon’s fisheries sector allows for unscrupulous actors to use fishing activities and fishing assets to engage in criminal activities.
I also sought to assess the implications for Cameroon’s maritime security. I analysed existing research and media reports, talked to military officers and other state agents, representatives of fishing community organisations and civil society actors.
My study shows both artisanal and industrial fishing vessels being intercepted and used for smuggling fuel, arms, other contraband and illegal migrants.
This affects national security greatly. The Cameroon navy is increasingly wary that fishing vessels are being used to smuggle weapons into Cameroon from neighbouring countries, particularly Nigeria. In addition, confrontations between Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea’s Navy officers over fishing rights in the Campo border settlement – and continuous tension between Cameroon and Nigerian authorities over illicit fishing activities in Bakassi peninsula – are important national security concerns.
Efforts to combat fishing and fisheries crime must recognise the relationship between the sector and maritime security. And there must be efforts to ensure cooperation with locals as well as non-state actors. These include fisheries-based community groups and civil society organisations.
Cameroon’s dependency on fishing
Millions of Cameroonians depend on fisheries for their livelihoods.
In a report, the Ministry of Finance says that the fisheries sector contributed 3% of Cameroon’s US$39 billion gross domestic product (GDP) in 2019. It is projected to stay the same in coming years. Marine capture fishing operations account for 83% of fish production in the country. Nearly 80% is from marine small-scale fisheries. This supports the livelihoods of millions of Cameroonians especially women who mostly depend on fish trade for their livelihood.
Fishing equally constitutes an important part of the socio-cultural system in coastal communities building social cohesion.
But the fishery sector faces numerous challenges. One is illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and fisheries crimes.
In my paper I map the extent of illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing and fisheries crimes off the country’s coast. I noted that these activities are a threat to Cameroon’s blue economy development, marine safety, ocean health and human resilience, and by extension national security.
I found that in both industrial and artisanal sectors, illegal and unregulated fishing issues include:
violation of fishing zones,
use of prohibited chemicals,
fishing in breeding grounds,
non-declaration of catch data,
landing of catch in foreign ports and poor regulations and ineffective enforcement of existing laws.
Alongside these are criminal practices that are directly related to fishing such as corruption and document fraud. Some actors use the fisheries sector and its assets for crime. This includes drug and arms trafficking, illegal immigration and human rights abuses.
I also found that both industrial and artisanal fishing is dominated by foreign vessels and crew. An estimated 70 industrial fishing vessels that operate in Cameroonian maritime area come from mainly China and Nigeria. Some operate in partnership with Cameroonian entrepreneurs though details of such alliances are murky.
Meanwhile over 80% of artisanal fishers come from Nigeria, Ghana, Benin and Togo. Fisheries officers are concerned that this foreign dominance exacerbates illegal fishing and fisheries crime practices. This is because they explore their transnational social and economic networks to enhance illicit activities. For instance, small-scale fishing entrepreneurs bring in workers from their countries of origin, sometimes illegally. They are sometimes subjected to poor working and living conditions and have no labour protection.
Illegal fishing and fisheries crime leads to depleting fish stocks. Illegal catches by foreign industrial vessels alone rose from 2,300 tons in the 1980s to 95,000 tons in the 2000s. These estimates mask the true scale of the problem especially as the number of industrial vessels fishing illegally has increased in recent years.
The same is true for the economic cost of illegal fishing and fisheries crime. A recent study estimated that illegal fishing leads to a tax revenue loss of between US$9000 to US$14000 per year. According to a government estimate, the overall cost of illegal fishing alone is about US$33 million a year.
Depleting fisheries means small scale fishers struggle to access enough fish. The lack of fish and dwindling fishing activities means small-scale fisherfolks have to seek alternative livelihoods. A lack of opportunities in fishing communities also breeds discontent.
The way forward
To address illegal and unregulated fishing, endemic governance challenges, that have plagued the sector for decades, must be resolved. There must also be recognition of the link between illegal fishing and fisheries crime.
I identify a number of steps that need to be taken.
There needs to be effective regulation of who fishes, where and when in Cameroon’s maritime area.
Regulation of how fish is processed either for local consumption or export is equally important.
Ensuring transparency along the Cameroon fisheries value chain – from vessel registration to market – is also essential. To achieve this the Ministry of Fisheries and Animal Industries must ensure transparency in matriculating licensing fishing vessels and in monitoring control and surveillance of fishing operations.
All industrial fishing partnership agreements must be transparent. To this end a national open registry system must be set up. And the government must do more to involve Cameroonians in the sector. It took a step in the right direction by promoting and facilitating the greater involvement of local people in fishing activities.
The transnational nature of fisheries crime practices requires inter-agency cooperation both within Cameroon and other countries. Understanding the social networks and economic partnerships of the various agencies will help focus resources to tackle actors and their illegal proceeds.