News / Africa

    Guinea-Bissau Wants More Money for Fish Agreements

    Fishermen prepare their nets at a fishing port of Guinea-Bissau, March 10, 2009 (file photo).
    Fishermen prepare their nets at a fishing port of Guinea-Bissau, March 10, 2009 (file photo).
    Drew Hinshaw

    Officials in Guinea-Bissau say the European Union is paying too little for the right to fish in their seas, and must pay more if they want to continue doing so.

    This wetland country off Africa's Atlantic coast is no rich nation.  In fact, the United Nations ranks it the world's sixth poorest.

    Yet just off shore, under the waves that batter its 80 islands and ebb into its river deltas, Guinea-Bissau has an absolute treasure trove - an abundance of fish.

    Next month, when government leaders fly to Brussels to renegotiate their fishing agreement with the European Union, they plan to ask for an increase in the $10 million annual fee Europe pays for rights to float 37 fishing ships in Guinea-Bissau waters.

    Guinea-Bissau signed the fishing agreement in 2007 when it owed more than $1 billion in debt, an impossible sum for the country's cashew-based economy to repay.  European debtors forgave much of that debt in December of last year.  

    Now that the country finds itself on a stronger financial footing, watchdog groups like the International Union for the Conservation of Nature are telling Guinea-Bissau to be a little less desperate during negotiations.  The group's program chief, Nelson Gomes Dias, says the country should ask for something it has never truly received: a fair deal.

    The former minister says he is flabbergasted the European Union is paying just $7 million euros (about $10 million) to trawl Guinea-Bissau's 54,000 square kilometers of waterways.

    "Seven million [euros] is peanuts.  It is peanuts," noted Dias.  "When they see the boats that come here to fish, seven million is peanuts. The potential is $250 million each year [for] the sector.  But we get only seven million. Can you imagine?"

    Jorge Gomes, a technical advisor in Guinea-Bissau's Artisanal Fisheries Ministry, says other international fishermen work the country's waters, but the European Union is among the few actually paying to fish there.

    Gomes noted that dozens of vessels, large and small, simply cruise unseen into Bissau's waters from as near as Senegal and as far away as China.

    Fishing Ministry Director-General Virginia Pires Correia says that collectively, foreign fishermen are allowed to reel in as much as half the fish thought to be swimming the country's seas.  That is a lot, she concedes, but the ministry is in no position to turn new vessels down.

    She says because Guinea-Bissau is a developing country, it needs the support of international partners.  The European Union is a partner of importance for Guinea-Bissau, and the fishing sector is a sector of importance for the country's economic development, Correia says.  She says Guinea-Bissau really needs this money, this direct revenue for the public treasury, to cover the general internal budget needs.

    When the EU fishing contract expires in June, Correia says the ministry will ask Europe for about $15 million a year to renew the agreement.  But conservation group official Dias says it should be several times that amount.

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