Despite its overwhelming poverty, Africa possesses more resources than most people imagine. One of those resources is fish. Tens of ships sail from Europe to the African continent to extract tons of fresh fish every day.
Most European nations including France and Spain join China and Japan in their search for fresh fish near African coastlines where they capture all kinds of sea life, including Bigeye Tuna, a species that since 2015 is at risk of overfishing.
The frenzied fishing activity in the area causes that from 1990 to 2007 the reserves of this type of tuna in the Atlantic decreased by 40%, according to the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
This directly affects the local markets of African countries, since local industry has no capacity to compete with industrial vessels.
To avoid this situation, 5 years ago, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna imposed annual quotas on countries that had a developed fishing industry.
Among the countries depleting Bigeye Tuna fish is Spanish, whose fleet has the capacity allowed for the capture of this subspecies of tuna.
The ten ships that make up the current Spanish tuna fleet in the Gulf of Guinea have caught a total of 73,000 tonnes in the last ten years, according to ICCAT data.
The number does not reflect the capture carried out by 15 boats that do not sail with the Spanish flag but that are operated by Spanish tuna companies.
To avoid the limits imposed by the ICCAT, the Spanish tuna fish industry took advantage of privileges offered to developing countries such as Curaçao, El Salvador, Guatemala, Panama and Belize to expand their fleet.
After three months of research on who are the real beneficiaries of registered ships in these countries, the Center for Investigative Journalism from West Africa discovered that at least 15 of the 16 ships registered in these countries belong to Spanish companies.
According to the data collected and analyzed, the Spanish companies are the real owners of 5 ships with the flag of Curaçao, 5 with that of El Salvador, 2 with that of Guatemala, 2 with that of Panama and 1 with that of Belize.
The companies involved in this practice include: Albacora, Calvo, Nicra-7, Pevasa and Jealsa Rianxeira, 5 tuna companies that are already sailing in the Atlantic in search of Bigeye with Spanish-flagged vessels.
This strategy of changing flags is perfectly legal but on a practical level allows some companies of the Spanish tuna fleet to de facto increase their quota limits of a subspecies of tuna that is already in danger.
Although not as well-known as Bluefin tuna, Bigeye is a highly profitable species in sales that moves thousands of dollars a year, especially because they are coveted by Asian markets.
According to ICCAT, the stock is half of what would be necessary to maintain a sustainable yield of the species.
In order to regulate the fishing industry and, especially to ensure the survival of this species at risk, the ICCAT established in 2011 an annual maximum fishing quota of Bigeye tuna for each country.
For example, the European Union as a whole can only fish an annual total of 16,989 tonnes in the Atlantic.
A hard limit to meet for one of the largest fleets in the world such as Spain, whose tuna companies informed ICCAT of having captured 11,544 tonnes of bigeye – 67% of the total EU catch in the Atlantic.
According to ICCAT, a month and a half after the end of the year, the Spanish tuna fleet in that ocean has already reached its maximum quota established for the year 2018. That quota only takes into account the ships that sail with the Spanish flag.
The quota, however, only applies to those countries that already have a competent fishing industry in the international market.
This is why in 2014 developing countries that did not yet have a fishing fleet signed an agreement with several countries in West Africa, which allowed them to fish without a predetermined annual quota.
Under these international standards, some developing countries had the opportunity to sail with their vessels in the Gulf of Guinea to have their market share, a scenario that would have been valid if it were not because part of those ships belonged to the same companies of the Spanish fleet.
In this sense, OPAGAC, one of the main organizations of frozen tuna producers in Spain, admits that “the companies integrated in OPAGAC operate vessels with Spanish flag and with flag of other countries”.
In fact, OPAGAC recognizes that its fleet is composed of 5 important tuna companies such as Albacora, Calvo or Nicra-7, which includes 33 vessels registered in third countries such as Guatemala, El Salvador and Ecuador, among others.
In return, the organization claims, these companies made investments in those countries and stresses that this practice “directly contributes to the development of those nations.”
Although there is no obligation to create jobs in these countries, OPAGAC claims that approximately 400 Africans work thanks to the Spanish fleet – in ships with Spanish flag or through flags of third countries – and that they have created more than 2,500 jobs in 9 African and Latin American countries.
For his part, industry representatives say that a company that operates with two boats in Curaçao, use quotas that are alternative due to the fact that the EU quota is already covered by active vessels.
“Since tuna fishing rights are limited to agreements already acquired with ICCAT, the countries that have recognized tuna fishing rights reflect a valid alternative for the exploitation of the resource,” they say.
According to the data released by ICCAT, Spain has apparently reduced its fleet in distant waters over time. What is indicated is that this is done in exchange for registering ships in third countries.
Since 2015, when the agreement with the developing countries was signed, Curaçao has registered five ships and El Salvador four more.
In fact, although the Spanish industry is the most important within the EU, the recent annual report of the regulatory commission states that Spain has 10 authorized vessels in the ICCAT Convention, but does not mention any of the owners Spanish large-scale beneficiaries related to the vessels of Curaçao, Panama, Belize and El Salvador.
Although there is not a legal requirement to do so in ICCAT, there is insufficient representation of the scale of Spanish-owned fleets in West Africa relocating to South American countries.
According to ICCAT rules, Curaçao, Guatemala, Belize and El Salvador do not fish under EU fishing quotas in the Atlantic and, therefore, their vessels do not contribute to exceeding the EU quota.
They also claim that the EU is actively participating in the Atlantic to guarantee sustainable fishing, regardless of the final owners of third-country vessels.
All the companies and organizations linked to the tuna sector attributed this situation to the illegal fishing of the Asian fleets.
The only practices that do encourage overfishing are those practiced by illegal fishing, mainly from Asian countries that exercise their activity completely outside of any type of control and skipping all kinds of rules, they say.
However, the current fishing rhythm – whether legal or illegal – is 60% higher than a regeneration of the number of fish could allow, according to the latest ICCAT report.
In 2017, the European fishing fleets exceeded the total allowed quota of 16,989 tonnes by 1,398 tonnes. To this figure must be added the 7,618 tonnes of the fleet operated by Spanish companies with flags of Curaçao, Belize, El Salvador and Guatemala.
The key to the survival of Bigeye tuna is now in the hands of ICCAT, which can decide whether or not it is necessary to limit the catches of Bigeye. For their part, Spanish tuna producers fear that this measure could represent losses of up to 80 million euros and regret that the focus is not on preventing illegal fishing.