Ad Corten, Cheikh-Baye Braham and Ahmed Sidi Sadegh recently published a paper entitled "The development of a fishmeal industry in Mauritania and its impact on the regional stocks of sardinella and other small pelagics in Northwest Africa". Since 2010, the authors report that the number of fishmeal factories in Mauritania increased from 6 to 23, with most of these situated in the Northern port of Nouadhibou. Analysis of the fish being caught to supply these factories provides a new insight into the regional migration of small-pelagic fish, casting some doubt on previous theories that have informed regional management advice. The government of Mauritania encouraged new investments in local fishmeal production in the belief this would target underexploited stocks of coastal species, with no overall impact on the availability of fish for direct human consumption. Yet the authors concern that the factories are now relying on a different species, the round sardinella, which is a staple food in West Africa but is now considered over-exploited by the FAO’s working group monitoring small-pelagic fish stocks in the region. Sustainable management of these fish is therefore crucial for food security in West Africa.
The importance of small-pelagic fish for food security in West Africa
As explained by the authors, there should very little to worry about regarding fish food security in Mauritania. The government recommends each person should be able to consume at least 15kg of fish a year, a reasonable amount to maintain a healthy diet. With a population of just 3 million, the fishing industry needs to land about 45,000 tonnes a year for local consumption. Looking at historical records, the government of Mauritania estimates annual production of small-pelagic species from Mauritanian waters to be about 1 million tonnes per year. Mauritania therefore has an enormous surplus of fish that is not required for local food consumption. Indeed, government policies ensure that part of the catches made by foreign fleets are now landed in the country for direct human consumption. All vessels must now land 2% of their catches in Mauritania, which is then distributed to citizens. This alone equates to about 15,000 tonnes of fish.
The situation in other North Western African countries is not so secure. As was described in a research report published in 2014, authored by Pierre Failer, the contribution of fish to people’s diets throughout this region is irreplaceable, but in decline. Throughout the last decade at least 1.7 million tonnes of small-pelagic fish caught off North West Africa, from Mauritania down to Guinea was landed for direct human consumption throughout Western Africa. The real figure is likely to be higher given that a large quantity of fishing goes unreported in official data. In any case, this trade in small-pelagic fish makes up a sizeable part of all fish consumption among West African countries, estimated to be just over 10kg per person in 2012. Yet there has been a steady decline in catches, while some foreign industrial companies that used to catch fish in countries such as Mauritania and then sold these to African markets, are increasingly exporting to China. Because of these trends, and given estimates of population growth in the region, sustaining an average of 10kg of fish for every person in West Africa is unlikely. Failer predicts that by 2025 there will be a shortfall of at least million tonnes of fish, if the aim is to sustain fish consumption at the 2012 level. In this context, greatly expanding the production of fish from countries such as Mauritania to produce fishmeal requires careful scrutiny. Will it further threaten regional food security?
The growth of fishmeal production in Mauritania
Corten, Braham and Sadegh describe that increasing domestic fish processing capacities has been a policy of the Mauritanian government for some time. It is based on the hope this will create jobs and raise the contribution from fishing to the national economy. For decades the fishing sector has been dominated by foreign industrial fishing vessels who pay licenses fees to operate in the country, but predominately process and tranship small-pelagic fish offshore. The majority of this fish has been sold for direct human consumption mostly in Africa, although some is sold in Eastern Europe and there is now an increasing trade to Asia. In order to improve its fisheries sector, the government has sought to attract investors in the on shore post harvest sector, and it was a goal of this policy to encourage factories that supplied fish for direct human consumption. The government, with assistance from foreign donors, is also investing funds to upgrade landing sites for these factories.
This policy was justified by the belief that large quantities of small-pelagic have been underexploited by foreign industrial fishing boats, particularly the flat sardinella and bonga. Scientific surveys conducted by Norway over the past few decades have suggested the majority of small-pelagic fish in coastal areas off Mauritania were the flat sardinella, but industrial vessels, particularly those from the EU, were mostly targeting the round sardinella for exports. As such, there was a substantial stock of fish that was available that had not been commercially exploited to a great extent. For private investors, fishmeal production would be the ideal way of exploiting this stock for profit, particularly as the demand for fishmeal from small-pelagic species has increased worldwide due to growth in commercial fish farming.
Alongside tax incentives, the main stimulus for the intensification of the fishmeal industry was through new restrictions on where foreign industrial fishing vessels can operate. From 2012 the Mauritanian government extended the coastal zone set aside for artisanal and semi-industrial fishing boats only from 13 nautical miles to 20. Because this pushed the industrial trawlers out of a productive part of the sea, many of the large foreign vessels reduced their operations in the country. The catches of coastal small-pelagic fish by foreign trawlers in Mauritania were massively reduced. A delay in the signing of the EU agreement in 2015 also stopped EU fishing vessels targeting these fish for about a year. Russian and ex-Soviet Union vessels target types of small-pelagics that are found further out to sea, such as horse mackerel. Therefore, these vessels have not been affected by the new restrictions to the same extent.
The closing of a substantial area of the sea for large industrial vessels has therefore created the opportunity for an increase in artisanal fisheries. Because historically Mauritanian small-scale fishers have not specialised in small-pelagic fishing on a significant scale, factory owners turned to Senegalese fishers instead.
In 2005 there were only about 5 Senegalese fishing vessels targeting small-pelagics in Mauritania for local processing. There was a steady rise from 2005 to 2010, by which time there were just over 20. However, from 2010 to 2014, the numbers rose to over 120. By 2013 these vessels supplied over 300,000 tonnes of small-pelagic fish to Mauritanian fishmeal plants, a massive increase from 2009 when the volume was about 50,000. Data on fish production of coastal small-pelagic fish show in the second half of 2012, artisanal fishers overtook industrial fishing in terms of quantities of fish caught. Since then the production of the fish factories relying on coastal artisanal fishers has slightly declined, but recent reports (published after Corten, Braham and Sadegh finalised their research) show that the fishing effort by artisanal boats in the small-scale sector has continued to rise; there were a reported 25,000 separate fishing trips in 2014, which rose to over 30,000 in 2015.
According to Corten, Braham and Sadegh, by early 2015 there were 23 fishmeal factories established in Mauritania. By 2016, the number has grown to 26, and there are another 11 that have been granted authorisation to commence business. Statistics on the export of fish from Mauritania show that by far the largest market for this fishmeal, and fish oil, is Asia.
The stocks of small-pelagic fish
Mauritania has substantial stocks of several types of small-pelagic fish, including sardines, anchovies, horse mackerel and sardinellas. The fishmeal plants in Mauritania depend on catches of 3 species of fish that live in coastal areas. These are round sardinella, flat sardinella and bonga. Before the extension of the coastal zone for artisanal fisheries it was bonga that represented the largest proportion of fish provided for fishmeal production, accounting for about 43% by 2012. It was predicted that with a growth of artisanal fishing, flat sardinella would become the dominate species being supplied to the factories. This is the type of sardinella less caught by the European fleet and regarded as having considerable potential for further production. Yet by 2014 this was not happening. It was round sardinella that started to be the main species for the industry, making up over 60% of the fish supply. This is particularly the case in Nouadhibou, where the amount of round sardinella supplied to factories went from just over 20,000 tonnes in 2012 to well over 100,000 tonnes in 2013. Meanwhile, the proportion of catches made up of bonga and flat sardinella started to decrease.
These changes in the proportion of different species being supplied to fishmeal factories is important. Corten, Braham and Sadegh describe how assumptions about the regional migration of small-pelagic fish may not be true. They suggest both the flat sardinella and the bonga being caught in Northern Mauritania by artisanal boats may come from stationary local stocks that do not migrate between countries. Until now it was assumed that these were migratory species, and therefore formed part of a regionally shared stock. However, it this is not the case, the local stocks in Mauritania will be easily depleted by the intensified artisanal fishery in the coastal zone.
Whether the smaller catches of bonga and flat sardinella is due to the fishers not targeting them or because there are not so many of them in the sea, does not alter a key observation. A justification by the Mauritanian government for an intensification of artisanal fisheries in the coastal zone was that this would increase exploitation of under-exploited fish species that were not being used extensively for direct human consumption. This turned out to be false.
As is now well established, and reasserted by Corten, Braham and Sadegh, the round sardinella stocks are regional. The fishers in Mauritania are catching fish from stocks that are shared by other fishers in other countries. What is unexpected though is that the increase in catches of round sardinella in coastal zones in Mauritania is occurring in the winter months. It was always assumed that the round sardinella migrated between Morocco and Senegal during Mauritania’s winter and that this migration happened quickly and far out to sea. However, now that artisanal vessels have replaced the industrial ones, the scientists have realised that the migration seems to be happening much closer to shore. This was obscured to fisheries scientists when industrial vessels dominated the fishery as only these industrial vessel’s activities were documented, and these vessels were not permitted to operate in the coastal zone.
Round sardinellas represent the most abundant species of small-pelagic fish species in the region, with average yearly catches in North West Africa of just under 600,000 tonnes, with the vast majority of this shared between Mauritania and Senegal. The FAO Working Group on Small Pelagic Fish in Northwest Africa assesses the stock of round sardinellas as being over-exploited, although in Mauritania the government’s fisheries research institute IMROP disagrees and considers the stock only ‘fully exploited’.
Food security implications
The growth of fishmeal factories is therefore leading to the exploitation of locally resident fish stocks that may be smaller than was previously thought, and, unexpectedly for the authorities, an increase in the exploitation of round sardinella that migrates regionally, but via in-shore areas, which are already at least fully exploited, if not over-exploited.
Fisheries scientists recognise that the status of small-pelagic fish off Western Africa are difficult to monitor and predict, and climate change may possibly make matters more complex and unpredictable. Indeed, a recommendation stemming from the Joint Committee of the European and Mauritanian Sustainable Fisheries Partnership Agreement is that licenses issued to fishers for small-pelagic fish need to be based on an assessment of changing environmental conditions. These changes can have a huge impact on the availability of fish.
For the time being, the new artisanal fishery in Mauritania appears to have largely replaced the industrial fishing sector in terms of the overall catches of these three coastal species of small-pelagic fish. This means there has been a shift in the fishing industry of coastal small-pelagic fish in Mauritania away from industrial fishing vessels and towards artisanal fishing methods. This is a positive development that aligns with the need to promote small-scale fishing in Africa and reduce competition with foreign industrial vessels. Unfortunately, the situation is not secure. Recent reports show that vessels permitted to operate in the coastal zone include purse seine vessels from Turkey, who are now directly competing with the artisanal boats. There have been protests by local fishers who believe these Turkish vessels are catching large quantities of other fish, such as courbine and mullets (both important fish for the local fishing sector) and then supplying these to the fishmeal factories.
What is also worrying is the new development in of the fishing industry has caused a substantial change in fish trade. There is now an increase in fish that is caught for processing into fishmeal and a decline in the amount of fish caught in Mauritania that is sold to other African markets for direct human consumption. From a regional food security perspective, this runs counter to what needs to happen.
From the evidence presented by Corten, Braham and Sadegh, it appears likely that the intensification of fishmeal production in Mauritania will first lead to a decline in the two resident fish stocks, which may have happened already, and then a continuing increase in the exploitation of the migratory round sardinella. If this trend continues, the growth in fishmeal production in Mauritania will have a negative impact on the abundance of round sardinella in North West Africa, including in Senegal where catches of round sardinella make a substantial contribution to national and regional food security.
The need for a regional approach to fisheries management
In January 2016 the government of Mauritania set out a new quota system for small-pelagic fisheries, based on a collective quota for the artisanal sector, and individual quotas for both coastal and industrial fishing. There have also been new rules developed for fish processing factories that limit the quantity of round sardinella they can produce for fishmeal to 10,000 tonnes each, with the hope that these factories will produce more frozen fish for direct human consumption as a result. However, there are doubts that the fishmeal factories are complying with the quota system, and they are misreporting the quantities of round sardinella used for their fishmeal production.
The situation demonstrates the high risks associated with the rapid intensification of investments in fishmeal factories. Now established, it may be extremely difficult for the Mauritanian authorities to control the supply of fish that is needed for them to be profitable. Corten, Braham and Sadegh note that in 2014, the factories were only running at 28% of their potential production capacity - suggesting that there is large capacity and demand for substantial increase in production.
The situation also illustrates the lack of a regional approach in the management of small-pelagic fish off Western Africa. We therefore agree wit the recommendations set out in the EU's 2015 study on small-pelagic fisheries and food security in this region. In the context of shared fish stocks which have a regional importance for food security, a stronger regional fisheries management approach, that puts food security and sustainable small-scale fisheries at the top of its agenda, is indispensable.
[The text has been amended on the 6th of March from an earlier version, posted on the 23rd of February. The amendments were due to comments received by Ad Corten, who's input was gratefully received. All other errors in the article are the sole responsibility of the author!]