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Industrial sea overfishing, Mauritania


Mauritania has long existed as a rentier state supported from the external revenues gained from mining, fishing, petroleum, and international aid (Magrin et al. 2011). As the majority of Mauritania is permanent pasture (38.1%), the country’s majority population of Berber and Arab nomads had in the early colonial times based their economy upon the Saharan salt trade. More recent development has resulted in an expansion of oil, natural gas and mineral (iron ore, gold, copper, gypsum, and phosphate rock) extraction, which provide 13% to 30% of total state revenue (2006-2016), according to the CIA World Factbook (2017). Yet despite the richness, the strongest driver of the economy for purposes of local consumption and exports is fish. Mauritania's coast is a high biological productivity coastal upwelling region. The Mauritanian coast possesses high levels of biodiversity, promoting a burgeoning fishing trade, most of which is required by law to be sold through the state managed Société Mauritanienne de la Commercialisation de Poissons (SMCP). The country’s coasts are among the richest fishing areas in the world, and fishing accounts for 25% of budget revenues and GNP, 50% of foreign currency earnings, with 70% of the 100,000 tons of annual production exported yearly (Magrin et al. 2011).  Fishing, in turn, generates 45,000 jobs accounting for 36% of all employment. However, due to policy failures on the part of the Mauritanian government, overfishing is threatening the Mauritania’s coastal biodiversity and the fishing livelihood of the people who depend upon it.

   Changes to local ecology : In 1976, at the urging of French naturalist Théodore Monod, the president of the young Islamic Republic of Mauritania, Mokhtar Ould Daddah decided to set an important coastal zone aside as the National Park of the Bank of Arguin (PNBA), a sanctuary and breeding ground for fish and birds. European explorers that passed through this biodiversity area in early days considered it to be ‘an insatiable source of fish’ across its 12,000 square kilometers of land and sea. The place attracts 2.5 million wading birds as well as other shore and seabird that winter along the coast. Its importance as a biological zone stems from offshore upwelling, which brings high nutrient loads and attracts numerous micro and macro species to feed and spawn or breed. The Bank of Arguin became a Ramsar site in 1982 due to its biodiversity values and a part of UNESCO’s global heritage in 1989. The reserve serves as breeding grounds for many species of fish, seabirds, and marine mammals that frequent the zone, and houses over 200 different species of birds during the winter in the northern hemisphere. Competition to extract from the Arguin continues to rise, due in part to multiple pressures on surrounding waters, namely overfishing by international trawlers. Local people indigenous to the Bank of Arguin include the Imraguen, a group living primarily in the village of Iwik, who depend on abundant fish for their livelihoods. The Park rules limited their catch (Tuquoi 2008), demanding use of non-motorized wooden boats in fishing the Arguin’s waters (BBC 2001). Yet, despite this law, the artisanal fishing continues to grow in this protected area, with the number of non-motorized boats rising from 500 boats in 1980 to close to 6,000 today. Moreover, the catch follows the trends along the coast of the country and has reached a historic peak of 115,000 tons composed of 200 species in 2010 (IUCN 2014). Shark species, due to their rarity, are the only species that is outlawed to the indigenous fishermen; however, despite this rule the practice of catching and killing them for their fins continues unabated.        Illegal Catch:  Laws aiming to protect the marine ecosystem are concurrently flouted by multiple actors exploiting the zone, mostly for the purpose of export profits. Within the Bank of Arguin, foreign fishing giants, to circumnavigate fishing regulations use smaller (and sometimes local) vessels to penetrate the restricted waters, which thereafter transport their catch to larger ships known as ‘reefers.’ There, the fish is frozen and stored with legally caught fish, sufficiently indemnifying the catch as ‘legal’ for European markets. According to Alfonso Daniels of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), who studies illegal fishing in West Africa, more than 84% of illegal fish have been extracted in this fashion (Daniels 2016). Moreover, the state exporting agency, the SMCP has not seen the profits from these and other fish leaving the region, as shown by a 28.5% drop in receipts from 2012 to 2013 while the same year’s exports increased by 20%. Local fishermen have seen drastic declines in fisheries, pushing them to travel further afield to find their catch (Magrin et al, 2011).

  Other illegal activity stems from trawlers who dishonestly report their catch or what is thrown back into the ocean. As a result of overfishing, local political organizations as well as international organizations like Greenpeace have campaigned against foreign fishing trawlers and the high levels of damage to fisheries. Large commercial trawlers can process and freeze up to 250 tons per day. The Chinese possess more than 400 fishing fleets that are in operation on the western coast of Africa, the majority of which use bottom trawling for their catch or illegal practices. A May 2015 report exposed 74 Chinese distant water fishing vessels that had been fishing without authorization in prohibited waters and falsifying their vessel tonnage (Coulibaly 2015). Also, between 2001 to 2006 and 2011 to 2013, Greenpeace documented 183 illegal, unreported and unregulated cases involving Chinese vessels in the West African region (ibid.). 

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Industrial sea overfishing, Mauritania
State or province:Dakhlet Nouâhibou
Location of conflict:Bank of Arguin National Park
Accuracy of locationMEDIUM (Regional 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 commodities:Shrimps
Live Animals

Project Details and Actors

Project details

Mauritania’s government has taken several steps to bring more sustainability and transparency to its fishing partnerships. One example was the adoption of the Fisheries Transparency Initiative (FiTI), which aims to eliminate the reliance on more secretive fishing contracts that are more likely to contribute to overfishing. In turn, several agreements have been made with the EU require fishing companies to follow EU policies, which potentially could set up a more protective legal framework, while giving European vessels access to the abundant fishing zones on a payment for access basis.

The EU-Mauritanian 2006 agreement was set up a payment for maritime access scheme. For only trawlers with freezing containers on board, the maximum tonnage under the 2006 agreement was set at 440,000 tons per year. In return, 86 million euros per year is poured into a single account in Mauritania’s public treasury, of which 11 million is to be allocated to the development of fishing policies and 1 million should be allocated to the management of the Bank of Arguin. The GOM has full discretion about regarding the use to which the money is put. With demand in the EU for fish rising at a rate of 6% per year since 2009, the agreement has been extended in June 2016 (Lorenz and Koigi 2016). The new EU deal with Mauritania would permit 100 EU fishing vessels (including trawlers) into Mauritania’s waters in return for support to the Mauritanian fishing industry. EU vessels will be allowed to fish for shrimp, demersal fish, tuna and small pelagic fish in Mauritania’s Exclusive Economic Zone to a total of about 280,000 tons per year. For the catch, the EU will pay Mauritania 59.125 million euros per year and 4.125 million euros to support the development of Mauritania’s sector-specific fisheries policy (EU 2016). Vessels fishing off Mauritania’s coast are under EU common fisheries policy, which provides a stronger legal framework for defending the common pool resource.

Alternatively, China’s arrangement with the Mauritanian government has been met with heavy complaints from Mauritanian and international organizations. The Chinese, who signed a contract in 2010 that permitted them unlimited outtake from Mauritania’s waters in return for the construction of a fish processing plant (also which will benefit Chinese companies), are a main actor in illegal and destructive fishing practices across West Africa. To gain legitimacy, the have taken up a local partnership model, hiring local fishing companies in order to justify their invasive methods in Mauritanian waters. Yet, their fishing methods are equivalent to those that depleted their own fishing waters in past years, including the exploitation of the Bank of Arguin’s fragile and important spawning areas (In 2014, the government modified the Fishing Code to permit fishing in artisanal areas to all boats inferior to 15 meters, essentially opening these restricted zones to Chinese fishing boats). Aside from these violations, Chinese vessels pay workers less than the local Mauritanian fleets, providing a double blow to the nation’s ecology and economy. Finally, with the catch that is considered trash for the international market, the Chinese have developed more than 10 highly polluting fish meal factories on mainland Mauritania in the city of Nouadhibou (Baxter and Wenjing 2016).

Despite the greater transparency in the EU fishing agreements, the pay-for-access scheme essentially serves as a neo-colonial claim to Mauritania’s natural heritage. Yet, the more ‘secret’ exploitation agreements forged with the Chinese are showing signs that the current practices could essentially deplete the resource. In the EU’s 25 years of investment in Mauritania’s local fishing sector, very little progress in fishery policy, protection, and sector development has been demonstrated. So, both the EU and the Chinese policies represent processes that are limiting what is one of the country’s most important sources of sustained wealth.

Efforts to usurp this negative pattern of development have been carried out, mostly following processes of democratic practice in this highly autocratic nation (Tesch 2007). In 2005, the fisheries minister chose to ban the return of Irish fishing trawler Atlantic Dawn during the EU fisheries talks with Mauritania. The super trawler (renamed Annelies Ilena) had already been banned from many waters around the globe, due to its size and potential intake. The vessel measures more than 145 meters long with a potential to capture 14,055 tons and the capacity to freeze 7,000 tons of fish. After an outcry from local fishermen over the ship’s potential to destroy their livelihoods, the ship was banned in 2000 and 2006 from Mauritanian waters (Clancy 2015). Secondly, the leaders of the opposition party, le Rassemblement des Forces Démocratiques (RFD) have issued multiple declarations condemning the destructive fishing policies of the Mauritanian government. It is recommended that international NGOs and other continue to study the impacts of the fishing industry on the coastal ecosystems.

Project area:1,200
Type of populationRural
Affected Population:1,260,000 (36% of the population)
Start of the conflict:01/06/2010
Company names or state enterprises:SCAC Network LImited (SCAC) from China
Relevant government actors:Société Mauritanienne de la Commercialisation de Poissons (SMCP)
National Park of the Bank of Arguin (PNBA)
International and Finance InstitutionsEuropean Union (EU)
UNESCO - United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) from France
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Greenpeace
Parc National du Banc d'Arguin - (
Wings Over Wetlands (WOW) -(
Wetlands International (Dakar Office) - (

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityLOW (some local organising)
Reaction stageIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups mobilizing:Indigenous groups or traditional communities
International ejos
Local ejos
Local government/political parties
Imraguen ethnic group
Fisher people
Forms of mobilization:Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Media based activism/alternative media
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns


Environmental ImpactsVisible: Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality
Potential: Food insecurity (crop damage), Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Other Environmental impacts
Other Environmental impactsShark fishing for fins, and many other threats to marine biodiversity because of industrial overfishing
Health ImpactsPotential: Accidents, Malnutrition, Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide, Violence related health impacts (homicides, rape, etc..), Occupational disease and accidents
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors, Loss of livelihood
Potential: Increase in violence and crime, Lack of work security, labour absenteeism, firings, unemployment, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Militarization and increased police presence, Social problems (alcoholism, prostitution, etc..), Violations of human rights, Other socio-economic impacts


Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Strengthening of participation
Proposal and development of alternatives:Developing Eco-tourism: "The WOW project helped build local capacity for ornithological ecotourism within Banc d’Arguin National Park. Capitalising on the emerging opportunities created by the international ecotourism market, the project focused on developing a nature guiding programme for the local Imraguen population. Close to 20 Imraguen from different villages were selected to undergo intensive language training and to participate in a special guiding course which included an ornithological component combined with the geography, history and the ecology of the Parc National du Banc d’Arguin. To maximize the park’s potential, the field team also worked to improve local tourism infrastructure, conducted a market analysis to target tourism potential better and worked closely with international tour operators to raise the profile of Banc d’Arguin National Park as a destination for ornithological tourism." (
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:The demands of international and local activists have not been met, nor has the status quo for the companies over-fishing the area shifted.
These include the following demands:
1. Greenpeace recommends an immediate halt to illegal fishing practices and that companies from China and Europe be held to their own nationally protective fishing policies in order to better maintain the Mauritanian fishery.
2. The Federation of RFD (local political party) demands that the government and the citizens respond unfavorably to the government's special treatment of the Chinese company Poly-Hondone Pelagic Fishery Co., which gives the company unlimited fishing rights to all Mauritanian waters.

Sources & Materials

Juridical relevant texts related to the conflict (laws, legislations, EIAs, etc)

(Minister of Finance 2008) A na l y s e du s e c t eur de s

pê che s e t de l ’ aqua cultur e

dans l e nouv e au cont e x t e

FISHERIES PARTNERSHIP AGREEMENT between the European Community and the Islamic Republic of Mauritania

2006 update to laws relative to Banc d'Arguin

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

(ODI 2016) Western Africa’s missing fish


Banc d'Arguin National Park Website

EU accused of exporting problem of overfishing with Mauritania deal

(IUCN 2014) Mission de suivi réactif Parc national du Banc d’Arguin (Mauritanie)

(EU 2016) New four-year EU-Mauritania fisheries deal

(Baxter and Wenjing 2016) In photos: China’s distant water fishing industry is now the largest in West Africa

(Coulibaly 2015) New evidence shows Chinese, West African governments must rein in rogue fishing fleet

(Ecologist 2003) Atlantic Dawn

(Greenpeace 2013) West African Fishing Communities Say 'No' to Monster-Boats

(Clancy 2015) Skipper of world’s largest trawler convicted of breaking fishing rules

(Bourdon and Essemlali 2014) Accord de pêche Mauritanie – Chine: Le cri d’alarme de la société civile auprès de l’UE et du gouvernement Mauritanien

(Greenpeace 2017) Greenpeace reveal new cases of bad fishing practices in West Africa

Mullet botargo and the women of Imraguen

(Lorenz and Koigi 2016) Mauritania fisheries deal receives mixed response

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

Petition to STOP the China Fishing Deal Disaster in Mauritania

Declaration of the RFD condemning government fishing policies

(Sherpa Press Release 2014) Accord de pêche Mauritanie – Chine: Le cri d’alarme de la société civile auprès de l’UE et du gouvernement Mauritanien

Meta information

Contributor:Julie L. Snorek, EJAtlas, [email protected]
Last update18/08/2019
Conflict ID:2884



(leblogfinance) Map of oil reserves Mauritania

Map of oil reserves in mauritania

Fishing for shark fins

Source: Médiatheque Exposition

Imraguen woman transforming mullet fish

Wings over Wetlands website

Trawler on the coast of Mauritania

Overseas Development Institute

Ecotourism in Banc d'Arguin

Wings over Wetlands website

Overfishing by Chinese bottom trawlers


Manifestation à Nouakchott contre les prix élevés des hydrocarbures en Mauritanie

Protest in Nouakchott against the high prices of hydrocarbons in Mauritania