Q: How significant have Russian fisheries been in Africa from a historical perspective?
There was a sizeable Soviet fleet working in African waters during the 1960s, from 1961 or 1962. The USSR was the largest fleet by volume of catch, fishing for small pelagics. At that time we operated through joint ventures run in conjunction with a number of African states, particularly those on the western and southern coasts of the continent. In the late 1980s, the fleet experienced a major crisis following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Today, the Russian fleet active in African waters consists of around 15 vessels fishing for small pelagics off the Atlantic coast.
Q: What are your current operational arrangements?
We have bilateral agreements in place with virtually every country on Africas Atlantic coast: Morocco, Mauritania, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Angola, Namibia and South Africa. We are currently renegotiating our fishing agreements protocols with Sierra Leone, Gambia and South Africa.
These agreements are primarily cooperation agreements, covering development work in areas such as research, fisheries surveillance and training. For example, our fisheries research vessel, the Atlantniro, collaborates with researchers from countries with which we have an agreement to evaluate small pelagic fish stocks.
Q: But arent these also access agreements for your fleet?
Yes, they also provide the legal framework governing access by the Russian fleet to the EEZs [exclusive economic zones] of African nations. Our protocols are reviewed annually by a joint committee which examines their technical clauses as well as the level of licence fee payable by trawler owners. The terms of access for our fleets comply with the legislation in force in the third country and therefore vary from place to place. In Morocco, for example, we have to comply with a quota system and a limit on the number of vessels. In Namibia, we work within the Individual Transferable Quota system.
Q: Lets turn now to the agreement with Senegal, where Russia has been accused of using licences illegally allocated.
As I have already emphasised, we comply with the legislation in force in the third country, in this case Senegal. We also help to bolster monitoring activity by providing data from our global surveillance system. And, of course, we comply with the stipulation that Russian vessels fish only those stocks defined as surplus by the third country.
Further to the situation in Senegal, a meeting of the Interdepartmental Fisheries Committee took place on 18 June, when it was decided to examine the impact of the foreign small pelagic fleet on the following areas: fish stocks, budget, administration and the social climate within the fisheries sector.
We are waiting for the results of this exercise to inform us if there are any surplus small pelagic stocks potentially available to us.
Q: Small pelagic fish stocks in the region vary by species, with sardinella seemingly overfished, and mackerel and jack mackerel more abundant. Theres some talk in Mauritania of splitting licences to allow access to these different stocks in order to manage them individually. What do you think of this idea?
This is an option which is certainly worth considering, especially as sardinella are so important to local food security. The way Russian trawlers operate also contributes to food security in the region, since we sell all our catch on African markets: in Nigeria, Ghana and the Congo. By financing the construction of canning factories for small pelagics, Russia also provides policy support to countries wishing to develop their processing capacity.
Q: Do you also support fish meal production?
No. We are against the processing of whole fish into meal as we consider it a waste of protein, and a waste of money. Five tonnes of small pelagics are required to produce just one tonne of fish meal. Its much more profitable to operate like our vessels, freezing the fish on board and selling it on African markets. Our vessels only manufacture fish meal on board to use up waste.
However, global demand for fish meal is certainly growing, and some countries that produce a lot of fish and fish-related products are investing heavily in West Africa, even if the majority of meal still comes from Peru. Egypt, for example, has part-financed some 20 fish meal plants in Mauritania.
Q: In general terms, how does the Russian fleet operate in African waters?
Our boats work seasonally in that they follow the small pelagic fish stocks. From December until May/June, they operate in the Guinea-Bissau/Senegal area, then they move north to Morocco and Mauritania. Meanwhile another part of the fleet is fishing off Angola and Namibia for other small pelagic stocks. We concentrate on mackerel and jack mackerel in particular. Other European fleets target sardinella but they are the second choice for us. Our vessels also differ from their European counterparts in size: Russian vessels are capable of handling 150 tonnes a day, while some Dutch trawlers can deal with double that amount. That said, part of the European fleet hails from former Eastern Bloc countries like Poland and Lithuania, and they fish like we do. They may fly under a European flag, but their crews and capital are still in large part Russian.