The country with mainland Africa’s longest coastline is inviting China to its shores.
Somalia granted fishing licenses to 31 Chinese vessels to exploit tuna and tuna-like species off its coast in a bid to tap the sector for economic growth. The vessels are associated with the China Overseas Fisheries Association, a distant-water trawling group created in 2012 to promote the East Asian giant’s competitive fishing edge abroad.
Starting this month, ships will be allowed to operate for a one-year period in Somali waters, with the agreement stipulating an automatic renewal for an additional year. Foreign fishing vessels will also not be permitted to operate between 24 nautical miles (44 kilometers) to the seaward side of the Somali baseline and the Somali baseline in order to protect small-scale fishing operations. Upon entering or leaving Somalia’s Exclusive Economic Zone, the boats will also have to declare their positions, besides the weight of catch on board by species.
The Horn of Africa nation is especially known for its seasonally high abundance of large pelagic fish and its diverse tuna samples including the yellowfin, longtail, and bigeye tuna. Yet the sector has remained untapped, bedeviled by poor infrastructure, lack of regulation, and a culture that prizes meat from livestock over seafood.
By authorizing foreign permits, Somali authorities hope to make the sector sustainable, generate revenue and also contribute to national and international trade. Somalia has never had a large domestic industrial fishing fleet and has mostly used foreign fleets to undertake fishing for them.
After the current deal was announced, inaccurate news circulated on Twitter that China would rebuild the seaport in Mogadishu through a loan in exchange for “exclusive” fishing rights and partial control of the harbor until the arrears were paid. The deal arose, including among Somali lawmakers, fears that China was entrapping Somalia in debt—accusations rebutted by some Somali officials.
In West Africa, however, Chinese vessels have been accused of depleting stocks, using opaque measures to obtain licenses, and threatening the livelihood of fishermen. Beijing, increasingly aware of these practices, has cracked down by removing subsidies and revoking the licenses of fishing firms conducting illegal activities.
In Somalia, the worry about the new pact is heightened by what this will mean for artisanal fishing communities. One of the key underlying reasons for piracy off the Somali shores was the depletion of seafood resources through illegal fishing by foreign companies. But as armed patrols reduced and ships gradually came back, research has shown that piracy incidents doubled in 2017 compared to 2016. This will likely be one challenge the Chinese vessels might have to deal with, even though the agreement with the Somali government allows them to have armed guards on board.