West African countries and China need to work together to tackle the problem of overfishing in West Africa and push the region toward sustainable fisheries, a report says.

“West African countries and the People’s Republic of China share a deep mutual interest in supporting the development of sustainable fisheries management throughout West Africa to ensure long-term economic, food and environmental security in both regions of the world,” said the report titled “Charting a Blue Future for Cooperation between West Africa and China on Sustainable Fisheries”, published by the Stimson Center think tank in Washington.

Sally Yozell, director of the Environmental Security program at the center, said the report is the fruit of three years’ research, including interviews and conversations with many experts in China and across West Africa.

It focuses on illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing; fisheries management in the Gulf of Guinea region, from Mauritania to the Democratic Republic of Congo; and the role of China in developing a sustainable blue economy in West Africa.

“The ultimate goal is to really develop solutions that will resonate with the government,” Yozell said. “What is groundbreaking is the fact that we came to solutions collectively identified, developed and designed together by these different Chinese and West African participants.”

According to the report and discussion, the Gulf of Guinea is home to the world’s richest fishery, but its fisheries and marine ecosystems are threatened by overfishing; illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing; and pollution.

“If one country is fishing sustainably and one is not, the consequence is that we all lose,” said U. Rashid Sumaila, a professor at the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries at the University of British Columbia in Canada. “That is why collaborative management is important.”

The way to sustain fisheries in West Africa is “for the countries to work together, manage it, do the science together and understand the fishery in a comprehensive way”, he said.

Mustapha Manneh, regional editor of West Africa of the China Dialogue Trust in London, took part in two previous dialogues of experts on the report. His work deals with the rapid and unchecked expansion of fishmeal and fish oil production, a key driver of overfishing, in Gambia and other West African countries.

There are many difficulties, including corruption, a lack of political will and community division, he said, and these have hindered action on the issue.

However, when the government, fisheries, activists and regional and global NGOs gathered for discussions in May there were encouraging signs that changes can happen through more transparency, communication and collaboration, Manneh said.

The report made 15 recommendations under four themes: openness in fisheries governance, coordinated regional action on fisheries management, science and technology transfer, and food security and blue foods.

For example, it suggests a regular communication channel between China’s Agriculture Ministry and West African fisheries authorities to improve information transparency.

Through that channel the Chinese government, West African governments and appropriate authorities could share information on fishing access agreements, fisheries stock assessments and cases of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

Nong Hong, executive director and a senior fellow at the Institute for China-America Studies in Washington, highlighted some of the approaches on marine protected areas and marine spatial planning.

She suggested involving various sectors, government agencies, scientists and the world in decision-making, relying on scientific research and data to make decisions and use resources rationally and sustainably, developing ecosystem-based management, dividing different maritime areas into different zones for different uses, and engaging local communities in discussions.

“My understanding is that traditional maritime cooperation partners with West Africa are the United States, Japan and the European Union. China is catching up.”

She talked of concerns among West African academics about Japan, the EU and other developed economies, because they dominate the high end of the global ocean value chain, whereas every African country occupies the lower end, leading to significant disparity between the two sides in terms of industry focus.

“China is actually standing in the middle in terms of the global value chain and also on the overall scale technology and management. Africa requires the spiritual funds, technology and management experience from China. China also needs to learn from the local community.”