Read: « What will be left for West African fishermen when the Chinese finish exhausting the seabed with their industrial fleet? »


An interview with Frédéric LeManach , conducted by Atlantico_en

« In West Africa, overfishing is depleting the seabed. The Chinese industrialists installed in this region are the main culprits of this environmental disaster.

Atlantico: Chinese industrialists have had a stranglehold on the African fishing basin for several years. Overfishing in this area is particularly important. Is the African basin under threat?
Frédéric Le Manach: China began to become a major fishing nation outside its waters in the 1990s, following the depletion of its local resources. The government then favoured exporting its artisanal and semi-industrial fishing fleets to the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic ocean basins. It is only since the early 2000s that these « distant water » Chinese fleets have really modernised.[1]

Chinese boats target a huge number of species that live close to (or on) the ocean floor, the so-called « demersal » and « benthic » fish. They also heavily target small fish that live in the water column (e.g. sardinella) in order to reduce them to meal and oil for feeding to farmed fish, pigs and chickens.[2]

As with other major distant water fishing nations – Japan, Russia, Spain, France etc. – China has found the waters off the coast of West Africa to be very rich in fish… and very poorly policed. This has led to a proliferation of foreign fishing vessels in the region,[3] sometimes operating legally through fishing agreements, sometimes completely illegally. Overfishing thus quickly became a reality.

Of course, foreign fishermen – Chinese and others – are not the only ones responsible for this overfishing: for example, in Senegal, local mismanagement of artisanal fishing (especially for export) has led to an uncontrolled increase in the number of pirogues with devastating effects on the environment. [4] Today, Senegalese fishermen can no longer find « thiof » (brown grouper) because it is much rarer and is exported to Europe and other rich regions, whereas until a few years ago it was the main ingredient of the national dish. In Namibia, overfishing has led to the proliferation of jellyfish[5].

This overfishing and the associated habitat degradation[6] has disastrous social and economic consequences, as fishing is often a recourse for already starving populations. Seeing large industrial vessels plundering resources can therefore potentially create tensions between different groups (cf. piracy off the coast of Somalia or in the Gulf of Guinea); coastal populations dependent on fishing can also choose to migrate to neighbouring countries or Europe, with all the violence and misunderstandings that this can engender. In this way, the relative stability of West Africa is threatened.

[1] Pauly et al (2014) China’s distant-water fisheries in the 21st century. Fish and Fisheries 15: 474-488.

[2] Both of these comments on target species were also true for European vessels, but these tend to specialise increasingly in fishing for large predators living further offshore, such as tuna, swordfish and sharks.

[3] Alder and Sumaila (2004) Western Africa: the fish basket of Europe past and present. The Journal of Environment and Development 13: 156-178.

[4] Thiao et al (2012) Economic dimension of the collapse of the ‘false cod’ Epinephelus aeneus in a context of ineffective management of the small-scale fisheries in Senegal. African Journal of Marine Science 34(3): 305-3011.

[5] Roux et al (2013) Jellyfication of Marine Ecosystems as a Likely Consequence of Overfishing Small Pelagic Fishes: Lessons from the Benguela. Bulletin of Marine Science 89(1): 249-284.

[6] Of course, it is not only fishing that is responsible for this degradation: sand or gravel mining, terrigenous effluents or oil/gas exploration/exploitation also play an important role.

What are the international standards for fisheries? Do Chinese industrialists in Africa respect these standards? If so, what is the reason for the current situation? If not, how can overfishing in Africa be regulated?
The problem with ‘international standards’ is that they are very rarely binding. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Programme may have produced a code of conduct for responsible fishing,[7] but if coastal countries do not have the means to monitor and control their waters, the code is futile.

The recent entry into force of the first binding agreement, the Agreement on Port State Measures to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing, is welcome news and should quickly bear fruit.

Other tools such as satellite surveillance[8] and the use of algorithms to detect illegal activities[9],[10] are now very effective and can enable coastal countries with limited technical and human resources to effectively assert sovereignty over their waters.

However, these new treaties and technological means are only effective against illegal fishing. However, most African countries have signed fisheries agreements with industrial fishing nations[11] and ensuring that these agreements are respected can only be done through good local governance, which is still far from being the case.

[7] FAO (1995) Code of conduct for responsible fisheries. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Rome (Italy). 41 p.



[10] McCauley et al (2016) Ending hide and seek at sea. Science 351(6278): 1148-1150.

[11] Le Manach et al. (2013) European Union’s public fishing access agreements in developing countries. PLOS ONE 8(11): e79899.


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