Monday, January 14, 2008

Teach a man to fish: overfishing off West Africa's coast

Domestic and international overfishing off the West African coast has not only ruined the livelihoods of thousands of African fishers, but also robbed the region of an important source of protein, the New York Times points out.

Debate rages over whom to blame. There are those who claim that as the European Union has moved to regulate fishing off its coasts, international concerns have moved to other, less regulated waters. The EU maintains that Europeans have become scapegoats for poor management by African governments, which have never cracked down on illegal fishing. “They argue that African officials oversell fishing rights, inflate potential catches and allow pirate vessels and local boats free rein in breeding grounds,” writes Sharon LaFraniere.

Overfishing is hardly limited to African waters. Worldwide, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 75 percent of fish stocks are overfished or fished to their maximum. But in a poor region like northwest Africa, the consequences are particularly stark.

Fish are the main source of protein for much of the region, but some species are now so scarce that the poor can no longer afford them, said Pierre Failler, senior research fellow for the British Center for Economics and Management of Aquatic Resources.

The coastal stock of bottom-dwelling fish is just a quarter of what it was 25 years ago, studies show. Already, scientists say, the sea’s ecological balance has shifted as species lower on the food chain replace some above them.

In Mauritania, lobsters vanished years ago. The catch of octopus — now the most valuable species — is four-fifths of what it should be if it were not overexploited. A 2002 report by the European Commission found that the most marketable fish species off the coast of Senegal were close to collapse — essentially sliding toward extinction.

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