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The New European Union and Mauritania Fisheries Agreement: Between Sustainability and Vested Interests

[European Union officials meet with their Mauritanian counterparts to discuss the renewal of a fishing pact. Image by Bakari Gueye/Magharebia.] [European Union officials meet with their Mauritanian counterparts to discuss the renewal of a fishing pact. Image by Bakari Gueye/Magharebia.]

On 29 May, the Fisheries Committee of the European Parliament voted to reject a new European Union-Mauritania fishing agreement, negotiated in July 2012. The grounds for rejection were that the new clauses regarding licensing for European fleets to fish in Mauritanian waters would be neither profitable nor to the benefit of either party. 

The waters off the coast of Mauritania are some of the richest and most biologically diverse in the world. As a result, they are of great importance to European fishing fleets, which have increasingly been forced to fish beyond their own shores due to a catastrophic depletion of fish in Europe. 

Historically, the European Union (EU) had secured access to Mauritanian waters through a series of cumulative bilateral Fishing Partnership Agreements, the first of which dates back to 1987. The terms of these agreements reference the high stakes for both sides in this relationship. For the EU, fishing agreements with Mauritania have been more fruitful in terms of catch than those signed with any other third country, and thus represent a bigger financial contribution than any of the EU’s other bilateral fisheries agreements. The latest agreement will cost 110 million euros per annum, seventy million of which will be paid directly by the EU, and the rest by ship owners through licensing fees. 

On the Mauritanian side, fisheries account for fifty percent of export revenue and twenty-nine percent of GDP, with thirty-six percent of the workforce employed in the sector. The latest protocol––which the European Parliament will vote on in early October, after the recent postponement of a July date––will last two years if it is ratified. An analytical evaluation of the new protocol, however, reveals that the benefits certain European interests have reaped from bilateral fishing cooperation have come at a heavy price for a large section of the local Mauritanian population and for the environment. 

Gabriel Mato, the Spanish president of the Parliament’s fisheries committee, which voted to reject the agreement, has been the most strident voice of opposition.  His chief concern is the impact of the agreement on the European fishing industry, which has been lobbying to have the protocol rejected. Measures banning any further exploitation of octopus in Mauritanian waters by European freezer trawlers––a large number of which are Spanish––have caused controversy. Opponents have levied accusations that the protocol discriminates against European fleets, as other foreign vessels have allegedly retained access to octopus by fishing under a Mauritanian flag. Additionally, because the agreement differs from previous ones in demanding higher contribution from ship owners and revoking access to certain fish categories, opponents have declared it economically unviable.

However, supporters have hailed the terms of the agreement as being more progressive and sustainable than previous agreements have been. For the first time in the history of EU-Mauritania fishing cooperation, there has been direct input by local and regional fishing groups. These groups have long argued that European and Asian exploitation of fishing resources off the coast of West Africa has been detrimental to the local sector, to the livelihoods of traditional artisan fishermen, and is environmentally unsustainable in the long-run. According to the president of one Mauritanian artisan fishing group, Harouna Ismael Lebaye, while it once took twelve hours to bring in a profitable catch of fish, it now takes fifteen days to bring back an equivalent amount because of the competition from industrial trawlers in their own territorial waters.

One particularly striking example of the havoc that European vessels have wreaked upon the local fishing sector can be seen in the case of what was the largest freezer trawler in the world. The Atlantic Dawn was owned by the late Irish businessman, Kevin McHugh. After launching the trawler in 2000, McHugh was initially refused an EU license, but managed to secure one under quite dubious circumstances. McHugh was able to circumvent EU restrictions by agreeing to spend only spend three months of the year fishing in European waters. He then secured a license with the Mauritanian government to gain access to its Exclusive Economic Zone, where local fishermen labeled the Atlantic Dawn the “the Ship from Hell” because of the impact its fishing capabilities had on their everyday lives. At 14,500 tons, it was capable of collecting in one day what seven thousand artisan fishermen catch in a year. In 2005, a coup d’état brought to power a military council that was less favorable to European fishing interests than the ousted Maaouya Ould Sid’ Ahmed Taya had been. The Atlantic Dawn was ejected from Mauritanian waters for alleged repeated infringements beyond the limits of its designated fishing zone. The anecdote serves as a pertinent example of the excesses that West African fishing groups have sought to curtail while lobbying for the ratification of a new protocol.  

On both legislative and normative levels, the agreement conforms more strictly to EU fisheries policy than have previous agreements. Its negotiation took place within the context of the reform of the European Common Fisheries Policy, and the changes that this reform requires have been integrated into the agreement. This accounts for the rise in the contribution ship owners are required to pay to fish in Mauritania. Furthermore, one clause provides for the financial separation of “sectoral” support on the one hand, and fees charged for access to Mauritania’s Exclusive Economic Zone on the other. This is a distinction that, according to the EU Commission website, should represent a fundamental aspect of all EU fisheries agreements with third countries. 

The fact that this division of financial support had been previously absent indicates that the money necessary to develop Mauritania’s industrial fisheries sector had not been invested as it should have been, leaving the industry significantly disadvantaged. This same low level of development is often cited as a practical justification for landing and processing fish in Europe rather than in Mauritania where they are caught. This in turn impacts potential revenue from EU – Mauritania fishing cooperation, leaving Mauritania less money to invest in long-term development of fishing infrastructure.  The protocol also tackles this issue through a clause stipulating that all catches of pelagic fish be landed in Mauritania, and that two percent be given out free on the local market - another key measure, given the vital role that the pelagic category plays in ensuring food security for local fishing communities in Mauritania. 

There are numerous speculative reasons why Mauritanian authorities have had greater apparent influence in recent negotiations with the EU. Axes of economic cooperation are shifting from Europe to China. Regional fishing cooperation is increasing between Mauritania and Senegal. The discovery of oil in Mauritania has resulted in an ensuing diversification of exports. Additionally, it is possible that Mauritanian action against AlQaeda militants within its borders has had a role to play. The input of local fishing organizations also undoubtedly influenced negotiations, and may have added to the growing sense of the importance of sustainable thinking and policy implementation at the EU level. 

Ultimately, the compromises required of the European fleets are minor relative to those that have been imposed on the artisan fishing population over the years. This population has endured the decay of traditional fishing lifestyles, has encountered food crisis and has witnessed the depletion of once abundant natural resources. While the Fisheries Committee rejected the 2012 version of the protocol, the Parliament vote in October may yet yield a success for the Mauritanians whose livelihoods depend on future fair and sustainable fishing agreements.

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