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EU fleet reflagged to Morocco contributes to small pelagic overexploitation

12 January 2014

Last month, most of the public attention was on the approval, amid controversy, of the EU–Morocco FPA protocol by the European Parliament, which allows fishing vessels from 11 EU countries to fish in Moroccan waters in return for an annual EU payment of €30 million.

A Greenpeace report, however, highlighted another aspect of the activities of fleets of Swedish origin in Western Sahara/Morocco. In early 2000, the Swedish pelagic fleet was assessed to have a 50% overcapacity, which adversely affected the sector’s profitability. The industry agreed to the introduction of a system of individual quotas, which became fully ‘transferable’ late in 2009. This individual transferable quota (ITQ) system means that a share of the total pelagic fishing quota was distributed free of charge to each vessel owner, based on the vessel owner’s historical catch data. The individual fishing quotas could then be sold to other operators.

The Swedish pelagic fleet’s fishing quotas soon became concentrated on fewer vessels and operators. The introduction of ITQs resulted in an immediate cancellation of 20 vessels from the Swedish fleet with a sharp drop of capacity, and increased profitability for those who remained. “But the vessels had not been scrapped, so where had they gone?” asked the report. 

Greenpeace traced the journey of the vessels that left the pelagic fleet after the introduction of ITQs in Sweden. Five of these vessels are presently fishing off the coast of Western Sahara. Before individual quotas became officially tradable (2007–2009), three vessels had already been transferred to fish in Western Saharan waters.

Initially, all Swedish fishing operations off Western Sahara took place under charter agreements, which meant that the vessels remained registered in Sweden and operated by Swedish personnel in collaboration with Moroccan companies. This changed when almost the whole refrigerated fleet was bought up by Moroccan companies. But alongside other Scandinavian countries, Sweden continues to be a major exporter of vessels; several were transferred in early 2013 and further sales are planned.

The report highlights: “The FAO warns that catches of most small pelagic stocks should be reduced” and concludes that “this export of overcapacity has had significant negative socio-economic and environmental consequences for the region.” Greenpeace therefore demands that EU member states prevent the transfer of excess fishing capacity to other regions.

Editorial comment

The Greenpeace report highlights that FPAs and future sustainable fisheries partnership agreements (SFPAs) cover only part of the activities of EU-originating fleets. It shows how a policy put in place by a European member state – an ITQ system in this case – can have very direct consequences on African fisheries. It demonstrates that where small pelagic resources are shared by several West African countries – e.g. the activities of pelagic trawlers in Western Saharan waters – access to one country’s waters to catch these resources will have an impact on neighbouring countries’ fisheries. The transfer of these vessels has taken place first through chartering arrangements whereby the vessel retains the European flag. Such a venture would no longer be possible with countries having an FPA, in that the exclusivity clause within FPAs stops EU vessels from fishing outside the FPA under conditions different from those stipulated by the FPA. However, these Swedish vessels have been taken over by local operators and most of the EU legislation doesn’t apply to them anymore, even if benefits accrue to EU citizens. In such cases, it is crucial for ACP countries to develop a framework for sustainable investments in fisheries, to ensure such foreign investments abide by high sustainability and good governance standards, and avoid overexploitation and indiscriminate fishing as exposed in the report. It is also crucial for ACP countries and the EU to promote efforts at an international level to push for the state’s responsibilities of “beneficial ownership” to be recognised.


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