Africa is home to some of the world’s richest tuna grounds. It is also home to over 25 species of sharks, including the critically endangered smalltooth and largetooth sawfish and the endangered whale shark, zebra shark, and hammerhead shark, as well as the blue whale, the West African manatee, and the Atlantic hump-backed dolphin. More than 50% of the fisheries resources in the stretch of coast ranging from Senegal to Nigeria alone have already been overfished according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Many of the Coastal States in that stretch of coast do not have patrol vessels of their own. Given that in many African countries, fish provide more than 60% of animal protein and in coastal communities almost 100% of these proteins, IUU fishing is a serious threat to the people who depend on the sea for their survival. There are four IUU issues of special concern for Africa: unlicensed foreign industrial vessels; fishing in prohibited areas, particularly close to shore, using illegal nets; and unreported catch and by-catch by legal operators. It is the single greatest threat to cetaceans, with over 300,000 whales and dolphins killed through entanglement annually.
Considering the vastness of the oceans, Sea Shepherd’s strategy to combat IUU fishing is to identify key areas of biodiversity and places where long-term partnerships with governments can aide ecosystem resilience. The waters off West Africa and East Africa have been identified as key areas that warrant protection, especially relating to the conservation of tuna and shark species, as both pelagic species migrate through, and spawn, in those waters. Sea Shepherd believes that by making in-roads with specific countries in the region, the projects will be replicated in neighboring countries, thereby growing Sea Shepherd’s conservation footprint and impact.
The West African Marine (often called the Galapagos of West Africa) spans 3,500km of coast in western Africa and includes 6 countries. It is one of the most diverse, and economically important, fishing zones in the world. Over 1,000 species of fish have been identified in this area, as have several species of cetaceans including dolphins and whales, 5 species of endangered marine turtles, and a colony of 100 monk seals, the largest breeding colony left on Earth. In Gabon’s coastal waters, there’s a humpback whale nursery, the world’s largest leatherback turtle breeding population, over 20 species of sharks, whales and dolphins.
The unique combination of climate and up-wellings supports species and habitats that represent critical resources locally, nationally, regionally, and across the globe. West Africa is one of the poorest regions in the world, with many of the countries lacking adequate resources to combat IUU fishing. The complex system of transnational boundaries in the Gulf of Guinea complicates jurisdiction and enforcement. Confident that they have no reason to fear any checks by fisheries control or prosecution, some IUU vessels fish directly off the coast – in some cases at a distance of just one kilometer from the shore. As a result, in Africa IUU fishing accounts for an estimated 40 percent of fish caught – the highest level worldwide.