From Mauritania to Senegal to Guinea and around the Cape of Good Hope to Madagascar, vessels measuring more than 120 metres in length sweep the seas in a business many are coming to regard as the legalised plunder of Africa's marine resources.

Having fished their own waters to depletion, European fishermen, and more recently the Japanese, have taken to leasing rights from African governments to allow them to work along the continent's coastline.

Using sophisticated technology and backed by generous subsidies from their Governments - estimated at an annual US$ 3.2 billion in Japan and $1.5 billion in the EU - the trawlers are literally hoovering up the sea bed.

The impact is being felt by African countries. Senegal's fish production declined by 17% between 1997 and 1999 - the most recent year for which the Food and Agriculture organization has statistics. In Mauritania the decline in production  began earlier in the decade, and by 1999 production was about 36% lower than in 1992.

Years of intense fishing by foreign vessels have taken a heavy toll on Africa's fisheries, exhausting inshore waters and making life increasingly difficult for traditional fishermen who use small and simple non-motorised boats. Local fishermen on the Western African coast are now forced to venture into the deep and stay out at sea for days at a time.

Although the licensing agreements specify limits on catches, in reality African governments lack the resources to enforce the quotas, a fact routinely exploited by vessels from Spain, Portugal, and as far afield as Japan and China.

African fisherman are rarely
employed by foreign boats 

The benefits of licensing agreements to African countries are minimal. Not only do licence fees usually amount to a fraction of the value of the fish landed, but European and Japanese vessels employ very few local fishermen.

In Madagascar the catch of foreign vessels is at least double that of local fishermen, yet foreign vessels employ less than 10% of the workforce in the island's fisheries sector.  Most of the catch is shipped to domestic markets, depriving local industry of the opportunity to benefits that come from processing.

For cash-strapped African countries there seem to be few ways around the problem of managing their stocks. Both the EU and Japan have regulations in place that make it very hard for fish from African countries to get into their markets if it was not caught by African vessels. The EU offers duty-free access to fish exports from the continent only if the fish was landed by African boats with the further condition that at least 70% of the crew hails from the same country as the vessel.

The requirement is one that the poorer African countries find difficult to meet. The only fully African-owned ships are small and unsophisticated,unable to export or meet costly food safety regulations imposed in Europe and Japan.

Then there are the pirates to worry about. Unlicensed Chinese and Korean trawlers have established a presence along the western African coast landing unknown amounts of fish. And despite the illegality of their practices, their presence has become accepted. So accepted in fact that in recent years, Chinese and Korean restaurants and shops have proliferated in Mauritania to cater for their crews.

African governments must share much of the blame for the ecological and economic damage being wreaked. In theory, licensing fees should be used to purchase patrol boats to check the poachers and to strengthen local harvesting industries, but they are rarely used for such purposes.

With no records, monitoring
or statistics, fishing above quota
is hardly difficult round Africa

Rather, the revenue is used to hand out political favours, usually without any assessment of fish stocks. Speaking on condition of anonymity, one former Mauritanian official says that it is almost impossible in his country to know how many fishing licences are circulating at a given time.

The current situation facing African fisheries is alarming not only because it could lead to an  environmental crisis, but also because of the severe consequences it  could have on hundreds of thousands of Africans who rely on fish as a major  source of income or nutrition.

However, there are signs that some countries are waking up to the dangers.The last couple of years have witnessed several attempts by western African governments to stem the heamorrhage. Senegal succeeded in extracting higher fees for its licensing agreements with the EU  in 2002 after barring EU fishing in its waters for about six months.

The EU agreed to pay 16 million dollars, up from 12 million dollars under the old agreement, and reduce quotas on some types of fish. But the agreement, although securing better terms for Senegal, was neither based on an assessment of the fish stocks in home waters nor on a full economic assessment of the value of the fish catch relative to the licence fees.

Other Western African countries have been less successful in negotiating good deals. The last agreement between Guinea-Bissau and the EU, concluded in 2001, retained the high quotas on fish catch. Earlier this year Mauritania signed a deal that increases foreign quotas despite warnings by the United Nations Environment Programme of steep declines in stocks.

Stopping the drain of its wealth will require some serious commitment  by governments in developed countries and by African governments to proper resource management. The depletion of stocks in developed countries provides a living example of how  short-sighted policies can end up harming the environment and the very same people they are intended to help.

In North America, subsidies that financed over-fishing for decades eventually led to grounds off the coasts of Newfoundland and New England being closed in 1992, leading to the loss of tens of thousands of jobs.

One way to  manage fish resources is to implement fishing quotas that reflect the status of the fish stock and determine licensing fees based on the value of the fish. In order to make such quotas meaningful, African governments must develop their capacity to enforce the quotas. Equally important is phasing out subsidies in developed countries, which have encouraged overfishing for years.