Helping Africa’s Fishermen Reclaim Their Livelihoods

June 11, 2015

Curt Carnemark for The World Bank

  • Fishing is a vital industry in Africa, contributing both to livelihoods and food security, especially in countries recovering from Ebola outbreaks.
  • Illegal trawling hurts small-scale fishers and their livelihoods but is being curtailed in Liberia and Sierra Leone as part of a new World Bank program.

Fishery resources, particularly in Africa, are in a precarious state. It is estimated that nearly 6 million fishermen and women live in poverty, many in rural Africa (FAO, 2014). Yet the fish trade generates livelihoods for more than 100 million people (FAO, 2014) and represents a critical source of nutrition.

In Liberia and Sierra Leone, for example, progress on fisheries management is more crucial than ever as the two countries work to recover from devastating Ebola outbreaks. (Sierra Leone, while not Ebola free, has significantly reduced the outbreak and threat to communities, with a recovery predicted this summer.) Recent increases in local fish catches have helped these countries meet nutritional needs and achieve food security as agriculture and livestock production continue to decline in the wake of disease.

But this would not have been possible if illegal trawling had not been investigated and discouraged as part of the World Bank’s West Africa Regional Fisheries Program (WARFP).

As part of the program, the governments of Sierra Leone and Liberia created 6-mile conservation zones dedicated to local small-scale fishing communities where trawlers and other large-scale fishing boats are not allowed to fish.

Local small-scale fishers were also trained to take photos of illegal trawlers on their GPS-enabled cameras. This helped the Liberian government, which partnered with the World Bank, U.S. Coast Guard and the Environmental Justice Foundation, to monitor trawlers.

Bérengère Prince, a senior natural resources management specialist with the World Bank, just returned to the U.S. from Liberia. She said the success of curtailing illegal trawlers from Liberia’s waters has been sustained, despite the chaos of recent times. “When you look at the satellite images, it is amazing to see this hole in Liberia’s waters where there are no illegal trawlers,” Prince said.

Since then, Liberian fishers have benefited from better harvests, both in the number and size of fish. In Sierra Leone, public revenues from the fisheries sector increased from $0.9 million in 2008 up to $3.8 million in 2013, a 322% increase over 5 years. 

That's a considerable change from when industrial trawlers plied the waters off the coast of Liberia and Sierra Leone, capsizing boats and destroying nets. 

Thanks to these efforts, and despite the overexploitation of fish worldwide, fish stock continues to improve. Some communities have experienced up to 40% increase in fish catch.  

“Liberia and Sierra Leone used to have a lot of illegal fishing. Today, the illegal trawlers are gone,” said Jingjie Chu, a natural resources economist at the World Bank, and author of a new report entitled “Economic, Environmental, and Social Evaluation of Africa’s Small-Scale Fisheries.” 

The report aims to identify the relationship between the performance of small-scale fisheries in Africa and the governance and management of the fisheries. Chu and her colleagues found that fisheries with tenure systems secured to benefit small-scale fishing communities -- territorial use rights, fishing rights, licensing and other protections -- tend to see more earnings accruing to the harvest and processing owners. This increase in earnings--from better-managed resources--benefits the communities and could contribute to social welfare within the coastal community through the development of a social fund.

Small Scale Fisheries still Vulnerable

Still, many small-scale fisheries in Africa are in peril. They have long been vulnerable and there are limited alternative livelihoods for these men and women. The report explored commonalities and differences between nine small-scale fisheries in Africa in 2013. Most of the fisheries studied have very basic and limited infrastructure. They are in remote locations without reliable transportation. A high percentage of fish landing is routinely lost because of an irregular electricity supply and poor handling. Too often, the success of a fishery has been narrowly defined as ecological sustainability, according to Jingjie Chu, while the social and economic conditions of fishing communities are overlooked.

More efficient handling technology and processing have the potential of bringing new jobs to the sector. For now, a major obstacle for these fisheries is a dearth of basic refrigeration.

“There is a huge amount of waste and spoilage of fish,” Chu said. “We have to help them improve the whole value chain, not just on the harvest side.”

“We want to enlarge the whole pie of fishery sector and also make sure the local communities will benefit from the improved management with better products, more favorable prices and greater income. It doesn’t make sense to see the harvested fish rot and go to waste. We want to help change this.”