European Fishing Vessels, Western Sahara

70% of Moroccan catch comes from Saharan area. European-Moroccan Fishing Deals Perpetuate Marginalization and Exploitation of Saharan Population.


Western Sahara’s coastal fishing zones have long been considered part of Morocco’s Fisheries Partnership Agreement with the European Union despite the contested nature of Moroccan sovereignty over the territory. Since 1988/89, the European Union (lobbied mostly by Spain, France, and Portugal) has entered into multiple trade agreements with Morocco. Under the current arrangement, Morocco takes in roughly 30 million Euros annually (14 million of which are earmarked for fishery development) with an additional 10 million expected from fees paid by ship owners. While catches made by foreign fleets have decreased in the period following the “Green March” of 1975, fishing efforts have increased, which may potentially indicate overuse of these fishing areas. These fishing deals, which are signed into existence without the consent of the Sahrawi people, are not beneficial to them, continuously displace them from the fishing industry, and harm the fishing waters that lay off their coasts. The Moroccan government is dependent on these agreements for funding; in December of 2016, when the Court of Justice of the European Union decreed that the Western Sahara was not subject to EU-Moroccan trade agreements, the Moroccan King leveraged the migrant crisis against the EU, stating that the termination of such an agreement would detriment Morocco’s economy and cause waves of migration to Europe. At present, the issue stands in limbo and multiple appeals have been filed against the recent ruling of the CJEU.

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Basic Data
NameEuropean Fishing Vessels, Western Sahara
ProvinceLaayoune-Sakia-El Hamra, Western Sahara
SiteLaayoune/Sakia El-Hamra, Western Sahara
Accuracy of LocationHIGH local level
Source of Conflict
Type of Conflict (1st level)Biomass and Land Conflicts (Forests, Agriculture, Fisheries and Livestock Management)
Type of Conflict (2nd level)Aquaculture and fisheries
Specific CommoditiesShrimps
Project Details and Actors
Project Details70% of Moroccan catch comes from Saharan area.

Studies aimed at reconstructing and simulating catch rates seem to indicate that the reported level of caught fish in the Sahara fishing waters are much lower than the true figures.

90.8 million tons of fish caught by EU powers alone from 1950-2008 (simulated amount) 64 million tons is what was reported

According to official data, 64 million tons of fish have been collected by EU ships between 1950-2010. However, researchers at the Sea Around Us Project at the University of British Columbia developed a simulative reconstruction of fishing practices during this time period that seems to indicate a trend of gross underreporting of catches. By this simulation’s most self-proclaimed conservative estimates, the figure lies closer to 90.8 million tons.

Following a 1995 dispute between Morocco and the EU, the two parties agreed to reduce fishing by 40% for sustainability’s sake. However, the following period saw a 5% increase in the total yearly catch made by EU members. This indicates a continued trend of disregarding catch ceilings implemented as part of the terms of the fishing agreements.

At present, the EU does not recognize the sovereignty of the Moroccan state over the Western Sahara, but also doesn’t recognize the latter’s independence outright. This has created a legal grey area regarding the treatment of goods coming from the Western Sahara. International organizations such as the UN have stated that Morocco has no right to engage in treaties concerning the Western Sahara due to the fact that the territory constitutes a non self-governed territory (NSGT) that has begun a process of national liberalization.

More problematically than this questionable claim to sovereignty is the treatise’s potential breaching of the principle of permanent sovereignty over natural resources. This stipulation states that trade agreements relevant to an NSGT must take into account the wishes and interests of its people. In reality, the government has started to express their concerns of over-fishing in the region. Some vessels in the region have seen their catch decrease by up to 75%, and local Sahrawis have indicated that the industry is run almost entirely by Moroccans. This is reflected by the fact the 40% of Morocco’s yearly fish production comes from the area surrounding Laayoune.
Type of PopulationUrban
Potential Affected PopulationRoughly 90,000 Sahrawis living in coastal areas
Start Date26/05/1988
Relevant government actorsEuropean Union

Ministry of Fisheries

Moroccan Ministry of Agriculture, Rural Development and Maritime Fishing

Court of Justice of the European Union
Environmental justice organisations and other supportersEuropean Court of Justice

Western Sahara Resource Watch


Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic

Other Journalists
The Conflict and the Mobilization
Intensity of Conflict (at highest level)LOW (some local organising)
When did the mobilization beginIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups MobilizingIndigenous groups or traditional communities
Local government/political parties
Social movements
Fisher people
Forms of MobilizationLawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Media based activism/alternative media
Boycotts of companies-products
Independent journalist reporting
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Other Environmental impacts
Potential: Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity)
OtherDepletion of Fish Stocks
Socio-economic ImpactsVisible: Loss of livelihood, Other socio-economic impacts
OtherSocio-economic marginalization of Sahrawis, Tacit recognition of Moroccan occupying force in Western Sahara.
Project StatusIn operation
Pathways for conflict outcome / responseInstitutional changes
Court decision (victory for environmental justice)
Court decision (undecided)
Under negotiation
Development of Alternatives1. Delegation of Fishery-agreement authority to Western Sahara representation

2. European acknowledgment of Western Sahara conflict and the implications of off-shore fishing (completed)

3. More scrutinous monitoring policies to eliminate over-fishing potential

4. Re-integration of Sahrawi fisherman into fishing economy

These alternatives have been proposed primarily by Organizations devoted to spreading awareness of the state of affairs in the Western Sahara, such as Western Sahara Resource Watch, as well as other environmentally-minded EJOs.
Do you consider this as a success?Not Sure
Why? Explain briefly.Currently the issue of Western Saharan fisheries seems to be moving in the right direction. The CJEU recently struck down the ability of the EU to apply rules and regulations outlined in EU-Moroccan fishing agreements to the Western Sahara due to the latter’s contested status. However, fishing practices off the coast of the Moroccan mainland will continue to incentivize fishing off the Saharan coast. Additionally, true representation for the Sahrawis in fishery agreements would necessitate a degree of recognition of Saharan autonomy by the Moroccan government, an issue which is currently non-negotiable given the current political climate and the Monarchy’s stance on the Saharan territory. Additionally, several cases have already been filed to reverse the decision of the CJEU.
Sources and Materials

Protocol between the European Union and the Kingdom of Morocco setting out the fishing opportunities and financial contribution provided for in the Fisheries Partnership Agreement between the European Union and the Kingdom of Morocco
[click to view]


“An Overview of Fish Removals from Morocco By Distant-Water Fleets” – Dyhia Belhabib, Sarah Harper, and Dirk Zeller.
[click to view]


“Is the EU taking its Over-Fishing Habits to West African Waters?”
[click to view]

“European Court Dismisses Morocco’s Claim to Western Sahara, Throwing EU Trade Deal into Doubt” – Dominic Dudley
[click to view]

“Morocco’s Fish Fight: High Stakes over Western Sahara” – Aidan Lewis
[click to view]

“Morocco Uses Migrant Crisis as Leverage in EU Free Trade Dispute”
[click to view]

“WSRW: Endangered Biodiversity, Endangered People” – Western Sahara Resource Watch
[click to view]

Other Documents

Laayoune Port
[click to view]

Laayoune Port
[click to view]

Meta Information
ContributorBrennan Ryan, Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Citizenship, [email protected]
Last update06/06/2017