The lack of access to Atlantic fishing grounds in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea remains a sore point for European Union tuna vessels, and little progress is expected this year, with instead the threat of EU action towards Ghana looming over the industry..
For the French fleet, the absence of access to these countries’ fishing grounds means perhaps a loss of 15% of their Atlantic Ocean tuna catches, estimated the French frozen tuna producers’ association Orthongel.
The situation could get worse if the EU decides to also blacklist Ghana as it reviews its progress against IUU [illegal, unreported and unregulated] fishing late this year.
According to Undercurrent News sources, private talks were underway for a potential agreement with Sierra Leone. Meanwhile the EU said informal talks had been started with Liberia.
Burnt by the experience in Liberia in late 2012, sources say Spanish and French tuna fleets are keen for new licenses to be negotiated as part of fisheries partnership agreements between the EU and the respective countries, instead of through private agents.
“We need to have agreements that are reasonable and solid,” said one fishing executive.
However, this is not always possible. In the case of Sierra Leone, French and Spanish fleets have started talks for private licenses.
To protect against any misunderstandings, French fleets in 2012 struck an agreement with their government whereby all privately-inked licenses will be sent to the French embassies to officially verify their authenticity, said another source.
In terms of FPAs, some movement is also happening behind the scenes — contacted byUndercurrent, the European fisheries and maritime affairs commission says informal talks are going on with Liberia.
“From the three countries you mentioned, informal talks have started with Liberia,” said a spokesperson for the commission. “Provided that the [European council] authorizes the commission to do so, formal negotiations might start still this year.”
In the case of Guinea, however, access to the country’s zone is out of the question since the country was blacklisted by the EU as part of its crackdown on IUU fishing.
“The decision to place Guinea on the list of non-cooperating countries means that it is legally not possible to negotiate any fisheries agreements,” said the commission.
“Products caught by fishing vessels flying the flag of Guinea cannot be imported into the EU.”
This shows the crackdown has had an unfortunate backfiring effect, said Michel Goujon, director at Orthongel. “We were making good progress with Guinea, but now that they’re blacklisted, that’s all been stopped.”
Liberia, Sierra Leona and Guinea are not particularly large fishing grounds as such, he added, estimating each accounts for perhaps 5% of Atlantic Ocean tuna catches.
Countries as Equatorial Guinea, Ghana and Ivory Coast also account for around 3-6% each, with the bulk of Atlantic tuna catches — around two-thirds — caught in international zones. “But we still need the remaining 35%,” pointed out Goujon.
The key annoyance in lacking access for the fleets is that they cannot follow the tuna, a migratory fish, when and if it happens to swim into those waters.
A much richer fishing ground is Gabon, which accounts for maybe a fifth of French fleets’ Atlantic Ocean tuna catches. When the French fleets lost access to Gabon in 2012, their catches dropped 16% that year due to that.
If Ghana were to be blacklisted, it would be a bombshell for the sector. Although not a rich fishing zone either, it is the flag state of up to 45 vessels, including those belonging to MW Brands, and is a processing hub for the sector.
South Korea is also under the scrutiny of the EU, as it was also identified as a non-cooperating country last November. If blacklisted later this year, this would be another huge blow for the industry.
“The evaluation of Ghana’s progress in implementing measures against IUU fishing is still ongoing,” said the EU spokesperson.