One of the greatest barriers to sustainable fisheries? The role of fishing agents in Africa

Agents play a critical role in facilitating the operations of industrial fishing in Africa.  All vessels use at least one, if not more, agents. And in most countries, the use of a nationally based agent by a foreign flagged fishing vessel is obliged in law. In the EU fisheries agreements with African countries, the use of a local agent for vessel owners is also mandatory; included as a clause in most agreements protocols. But there is a longstanding view among fisheries experts and the fishing industry, that the role of many fishing agents is highly problematic - a source of corruption and unethical business practices.

If corruption involving agents and authorities was isolated to a few cases, it may not seem something to worry about too much. But it is alleged that in several places, this corruption has become normal; it defines how fisheries works. We hope that decision making in fisheries is based on considerations for sustainability and economic development, including policies that promote small-scale fisheries. But what is being described is that for decades in some countries decision making has been driven by the personal interests of certain officials and agents, and it is cash paid by foreign industrial vessels to agents, including through various inflated or bogus services, that is their primary source of income. Because of this, there are senior fisheries experts who believe that agents are one of the greatest barriers to responsible fisheries management in many African countries.

Who and what is a ‘fishing agent’

The history of fishing agents in West Africa can be traced to the early 1980s. With the extension of territorial waters and the intensification of industrial fishing, this was an era of considerable growth in the number of vessels operating in African waters. Prior to this, industrial fisheries in African coastal waters was dominated by state owned companies from the former Soviet Union, and European vessels operating under both bi-lateral agreements and private agreements. These access agreements tended to be negotiated between governments, and in the case of the Soviet Union, involved the establishment of large joint venture initiatives, often rumoured to be based on wider military agreements. 

The changes occurring in the 1980s was joined by disastrous outcomes of structural adjustment, as well as civil conflict in several coastal countries. Hundreds of vessels, including an increasing number from Asia, were therefore operating in countries with barely functioning administrations; a lack of legislation, resources and lines of communication. Many of the staff of fishing authorities, who had previously relied on funds from bi-lateral agreements, such as those with the Soviet Union, experienced long periods of no pay.  It is alleged that a woman from Ghana was the first person to spot the business opportunity. She was previously employed in Sierra Leone as the Permanent Secretary for the Ministry of Agriculture. Having established personal contacts with Asian fishing companies, she offered her services to help these companies meet the right people in other West African states, and became the facilitator for setting up fishing licenses. She went on to establish a fishing agency working across the region, with offices in several countries, including Liberia and Guinea. Today she is considered an extremely successful business woman, and may have been responsible for the rise of many more agents emulating her success.  

Today fishing agents provide several services, from organising a license, arranging vessel inspections, recruiting crews, providing food and water supplies to vessels in port, arranging refueling, receiving and passing on information from the vessel to the authorities, even the removal of rubbish from the vessel when visiting port. Some fishing agents companies provide all these services, and some are shipping agents providing these services to a range of vessels including fishing vessels. But it seems more common in Africa for fishing vessel operators to use different agents for different services, and there are dedicated agents that specialise in the procurement of fishing licenses and fisheries related services. Agents that operate as the first port of call for new fishing licenses may then sub-contract other services to other agents. Even under bi-lateral access agreements,  such as with the EU, individual operators will pay for a local agent to be an official contact person for their license, which may include holding a copy of their licence on their behalf. The EU operators report paying about 1500 Euros each a year to agents for this service (above and beyond the fees for the actual license), although the fees can be considerably more - apparently there are cases of individual vessels owners being asked to pay over 10,000 Euros a year for this.  There is no doubt that agent fees are a substantial cost for the industry, and that being a successful agent is a lucrative business. 

Fishing agents are usually local citizens, although there are examples of foreigners working as agents as well. A few years ago, the Spanish consul in Guinea-Bissau was known to be the business contact for Spanish fishing vessels there, facilitating the purchase licenses and offering diplomatic services . In some countries, such as the Seychelles, agents are certified and receive official authority to work. But there are several countries where the legal status of agents is difficult to identify. Indeed, in many countries the sector seems to exist in a relatively informal way. It is reported that Dutch fishing vessels working in Mauritania, for example, have been using the same local agent for years, although there is no formal contract between them. Other industry representatives confirm that working with agents without contracts has been quite common, which makes their responsibilities somewhat vague. 

Institutionalised corruption? 

On the surface it would seem that agents provide a useful service to both the fishing industry and local authorities. The agent smoothes the way for fishing vessels working in otherwise difficult countries, and they can also provide much needed services in port. As one industry representative from Europe explained: “to work without an agent in countries like Angola or Guinea would be impossible”.  And for local authorities there is a familiar person who operates as the contact for foreign companies that may rarely come to port, and who may not be easy to contact or talk with. Indeed, for large numbers of foreign fishing vessels, all of their dealings with fishing authorities is handled by their agent - not only paying for licenses, but also transmitting their catch and fishing activity data. 

But there are serious concerns about this arrangement. One aspect relates to widespread conflicts of interests. Many successful fishing agents are known to be either former employees of the fisheries department, or senior political or military people. It is also not unheard of for fishing agents to be acting members of the fishing authority or government. Indeed, a former director of the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission was forced to resign when it was found he had established a fishing agent company offering services to tuna fishing vessels out of the Seychelles. He had transferred ownership of the company to his wife in a bid to disguise his role as both regulator and agent, but only when news of an investigation by Interpol into an incident of piracy involving vessels on his book became public. 

What is more, in many countries it is described that there is a longstanding arrangement whereby fees paid to fishing agents by vessel owners are shared with members of the fishing authorities. This is not done legally or transparently, rather it represents institutionalised kickbacks. Indeed, cash given to senior fishing authorities by agents allegedly presents a steady additional income for them. An expert familiar with West African fisheries, and who has been concerned with the work of fishing agents for decades, thinks it is understandable given the very low levels of wages paid to senior fishing authorities; the director of fisheries in one West African country is supposedly on a monthly salary of 500 USD, others might be on even less.  

There have been persistent problems of embezzlement of fishing license fees in some African countries. It has been reported in countries such as Sao Tome and Principe, Guinea-Bissau, Tanzania and Mozambique, that in the past - and possibly still today - some vessel operators pay license fees and money for fines directly to the personal accounts of senior officials. Yet, it has been described to CFFA that more often agents play the role of the ‘middle-person’ in this embezzlement of state funds, and get their cut as well. 

The industry’s perspective

It is possible that fishing vessel owners are totally unaware that often money paid to agents is making its way to the private bank accounts of government officials. But it is not very likely. Indeed, a source with close contacts to the European tuna fishing fleets said that the fishing industry had been warned before about the legal implications of allowing this situation to happen - in some countries vessel operators have been paying millions of Euros to agents who they knew were giving kickbacks to government officials for license payments. This made them complicit in bribery, which would put them in breach of their home country’s laws on payments of bribes in a foreign country. 

Because of these types of problems, for the past few years vessel owners, at least from the EU, have been insisting that they should make payments to the central bank.  It may have cut off a lucrative source of cash for corrupt officials. Yet some industry representatives believe this has led to more innovative ways of earning cash illicitly from the sector. Indeed, some speculate that the sums being earned by agents for other services has increased with the advent of license fee payments being made directly to the central bank, which is now stipulated in countries such as Mauritania.

One example comes from Liberia, where national legislation now requires vessels to have annual inspections to gain authority to fish, as is the case in some other countries following advice to combat IUU fishing. It is the obligation of the vessel operators to pay the costs of the inspectors. The average inspection should take about half a day. But the vessel operators have to organise the inspections through their local agent, who seem to be ‘innovative' in increasing the costs. According to one source, agents invoiced for the fees of government inspectors for four days for each inspection, and described that vessel owners have to pay a per diem rate for each inspector of 300 Euros, in addition to paying for their flights, hotel accommodation and food. Allegedly, vessel operators are paying agents up to 5000 Euros per inspection. 

Recently Spanish and French vessel operators realised they were paying the same agent and the same inspectors for the same days, so the agent was at least doubling their income. There is uncertainty that agents are passing on the full amount to the inspectors, or if the inflated fees are being demanded by fishing authorities. The key issues is that there is no way for operators to check -  there are no fee structures for inspections made public by the authorities. 

Agents and Illicit services to the sector

There are also other lucrative sources of money for agents and government officials, beyond licensing and inspections. One source comes from out of court settlements for fisheries offences. In other words, vessel owners accused of crimes may find themselves paying money to their agents to get out of trouble. It is a situation highly vulnerable to extortion against vessel owners, who may find paying an exorbitant fee is preferable to a long court case, potential IUU listing by international organisations, and even facing the confiscation of their vessel. But the option to pay the agent to sort out a problem also represents an easy way to avoid sanctions, and therefore may be welcomed by some fishing operators. 

In 2009, for example, the authorities of Guinea-Bissau arrested three vessels; one oil tanker, and two Spanish owned fishing vessels, for refueling without authorisation. The case involving the oil tanker, Virginia G, was drawn out for several years, and the crew were held captive for 14 months.  The owners of the tanker refuted that the refueling was done in the territorial waters of Guinea-Bissau. The case eventually went to the International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea. Supporting documents for the case submitted by the owners of the Virginia G described that the captain of the oil tanker spoke to the owner of the fishing vessels on the day following the arrest. The two fishing vessels left port that day after being arrested alongside the oil tanker, and the tanker’s captain wanted to know why. The reason was that they had paid their local agent, the Spanish consul, 100,000 Euros, which was then allegedly transferred to the private account of a senior security official.

Of course, such cases are extremely difficult to prove, but speaking to the sector it is not difficult to find other alleged cases.  It is a situation that persists partly because out of court settlements are rarely included in financial statements of fishing authorities - very few in fact publish such information. 

A successful agent is therefore often someone who works closely with government authorities, and foreign vessel owners are often recommended by the authorities to use certain agents.  However, relationships between agents and fishing authorities are not always amicable. In one West African country, a case was described involving the agent of a European fishing fleet. A senior fisheries official, in charge of inspections and penalties, had been widely known to be pocketing significant sums of money from penalties. In fact, the scale of this theft of funds (one source thought it was about 10 million Euros a year) meant he become one the wealthiest businessmen in the country, a close ally to the President and owner of an extensive businesses empire, including in the fishing industry. The agent working with the European fleet wrote a newspaper article revealing the scale of this corruption. In retaliation, two vessels that used the agent were arrested on a bogus charge, and the fishing fleet was ‘recommended’ to change their agent to someone closer to political power. A lawyer contacted representative of the fishing industry to offer a name of an alternative agent, who would also ensure that their trawlers could circumvent national laws on fishing restrictions close to shore - an illegal privilege that other vessels of non-European origin apparently enjoy. The offer was refused, and the vessel owners continue with their old agent. 

An expanding sphere of influence?

There are other roles of fishing agents where potential abuse of power could be found. One area of concern relates to the role of fishing agents in recruiting national citizens for crews on board foreign vessels. All vessels that need to pick up local crew will tend to use an agent for this, although it might not be the same one used for gaining licenses. But there are also concerns that this is a role that provides opportunities for kickbacks, giving jobs as favours to people who are not well trained, as well as abuses in labour contracts. The role of these agents in labour disputes is something worth more research, as they may well be important players in the exploitation of crews.  It is an area where the tuna industry has made improvements, and they now vet all contracts provided by agents for local crews.  But the same is apparently not the case for demersal trawlers in many countries. 

Agents are also used in some countries to collect and distribute by-catch, where this is obligated to be landed by fishing vessels. But the fees paid for this, and how agents decide who gets what and for how much, is very hard to find any information on. But it is a powerful position and one that requires adequate accountability and transparency, which doesn't seem to be the case. 

The wider impact? 

The stories heard about the role of agents in Africa’s fisheries suggest a lot to be worried about.  In effect, a large number of foreign fishing vessels - perhaps the majority in several countries - are gaining fishing authorisations by agents involved in systemic corruption. The fishing industry are obviously concerned about being extorted, and there are no doubt many who are worried about the risks to their reputation, not least potential legal ramifications back home if evidence of their involvement in the paying of bribes comes to surface. But more important are the implications for responsible and sustainable fisheries. 

An EU industry representative described that it is not unusual to be contacted by agents offering attractive licenses. As noted above, this may allow vessels to be allowed to avoid fishing regulations otherwise contained in national legislation, such as fishing in restricted zones where only artisanal and semi-industrial fishing is allowed. In Gabon, for example, an agent claimed to offer licenses that allowed industrial vessel to use at sea supply vessels, although this was prohibited under the EU protocol agreement with the country. Other vessels  - fishing through private agreements in Gabon - apparently have such licenses supplied by the agent. Sometimes these offers by agents may be bogus scams - such as the one recently offering French tuna companies licenses for purse seine vessels in the Maldives (Maldives has banned all purse seine vessels, making this obviously a fake proposition). But it is clear that there are incentives for agents to supply the industrial sector with permissions to undertake unsustainable and damaging fishing, as well as selling far more licenses than would be sustainable. 

In Liberia, this year, the decision by the President to change legislation that prohibited industrial vessels from fishing in the 6 nautical mile zone from the coast, was apparently driven by the agent of the Asian fishing vessels; the agent was also a close relative to a senior official. A change in the law would make selling licenses to these fishing vessels that much easier, and in fact a promise to see the law changed was given already by the agent to the clients, which explains why Asian companies had made promises to invest in on-shore facilities to process fish.  Thankfully it seems the wishes of the agent and the clients have been resisted due to widespread outrage at the proposed amendment of the fisheries regulations, both within Liberia and among other fishing nations.  

Where vessel inspections become a means of earning lucrative money for agents and their patrons in authority, it is hard to see inspectors doing an honest job. And where senior officials, or elites, are the agents for vessels, then we can expect these vessels to be afforded some leniency when it comes to breaking the rules. We should not imagine that all agents in Africa’s fisheries are as crooked as others, nor that these problems are unique to Africa, but it would seem that fishing agents in many jurisdictions operate in a murky and poorly regulated environment. While some vessel operators will complain about being ripped off, there will be others that benefit. 

The alleged corruption between agents and senior officials is therefore a primary reason why governments resist fisheries reforms, including transparency. At least, this is the view from an experienced fisheries expert working on some of the largest donor projects on fisheries in West Africa. According to this person, ‘if you want to understand why the fishing industry is so poorly regulated, and what drives seemingly bad decisions, including selling too many licenses, then you have to understand the role of fishing agents and the flow of money’.

Indeed, public knowledge of how much African states earn from foreign fishing is usually flawed. So is the argument that foreign fishing companies get away with paying very low license fees. What is being obscured is the actual amount paid by vessels to their agents, and then the amount going to government officials, as opposed to the central treasury. With this knowledge, the value of foreign fishing is quite different from what is usually thought. And of course, there is a great resistance to do anything about it. As this source put it, ‘we have tried to organise meetings directly with the fishing industry about this, but the Minister refuses to allow us to meet the industry without the agents being invited’. 

What can be done?

Unfortunately very little is being done to shed some light on these fishing agent’s activities and the related corruption. Overwhelmingly international attention on industrial fishing in Africa is paid to illegal fishing vessels, as these are seen as ‘plundering the oceans’, while African states are too often depicted as under resourced and having no chance against powerful foreign companies. It has led to a big push to improve fisheries law enforcement in African states. 

Given what is alleged about the role of agents in the sector, we can see why emphasis on law enforcement to combat IUU fishing may be unsuccessful. A recent study by University of British Colombia, which came up with a very high figure for the value of IUU fishing in West Africa, (two and half billion dollars!) urged African states to do more to catch the illegal fishing vessels so that they could earn more in penalties. In reality, it doesn't seem such good advice. Given what is alleged about the role of agents and the systemic corruption in many countries, illegal fishing may not be the biggest threat to sustainable fisheries. Without political reforms, law enforcement in isolation may be continually undermined by vested interests, and the role of law enforcement may simply serve as a means for continued illicit flows of cash to agents and public authorities.  

Faced with this reality, some stakeholders emphasise transparency and the development of ethical guidelines or standards for agents. A lot of the corruption implicating agents could be much less easy if information on licensed vessels, the terms of their licenses, and the details of payments were made public and accessible. Where agents are handling fees for public services, the cost of these fees should be published by national authorities - making it that much more difficult for part of these fees to be stolen by agents and officials. A clear example is the fee for handling licenses. Another is the fee structure for vessel inspections, including per diem rates for inspectors. 

Another idea is that there should also be a public registry of agents. The fact that in some countries, vessel operators are forced to turn to local fishing authorities to recommend agents, may facilitate some of the corrupt relations between these authorities and agents. 

Ethical standards for agents remains worthy of more discussion as well. A simple starting point would be to devise rules regarding conflicts of interests and ‘revolving doors’, meaning government officials and their families are banned from taking positions as agents. This would not stop other people serving as agents who are willing to provide kickbacks to officials, so it might not be entirely effective. But it is also indefensible to allow the wife or brother of the fisheries minister to be acting as the private agent for foreign fishing vessels, let alone the director of the fisheries department doing this himself.  

Other ideas for reforming this situation lies with changes to national fishing authorities. Those that see the root cause of the problem being the extremely low wages paid to fisheries officials, as well as cumbersome bureaucracies, want to see fisheries authorities privatised, or made into parastatal organisations (such is the case in the Seychelles), so more competitive salaries, as well as easier hiring and firing of staff, can be achieved. 

Yet a more fundamental issue is whether some of the services provided by agents are in fact needed?  The role of agents has become so valuable partly because the deficiencies of national fishing authorities. But this state of affairs appears to be maintained deliberately to allow for abuse of powers. 

It is not clear why vessel operators have to pay an agent to process and collect a fishing license. Surely, the national licensing authority should be able to provide an on-line, transparent service that would do away with the need for this altogether. For example, in the case of EU fishing agreements, rather than mandate vessel owners to use a local agent for services including licensing, the EU could insist that the competent authorities provide this service as part of the agreement. 

The same could be said about other functions of agents - is it necessary for agents to make the arrangements for government inspectors? Should the national authorities be able to organise and communicate with vessel owners themselves? Why is it that agents are used to collect data from fishing vessels? If the argument for the use of agents is based on the view that working with opaque and bureaucratic governments is too complicated and time-consuming for the industry, the answer lies in improving government services, not in establishing a lucrative business sector for well-connected, but ultimately unaccountable intermediaries that seems prone to bribery, embezzlement and conflicts of interest. 

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