We live in a world of plenty, yet millions of people are impoverished. More often than not this paradox endures because of the plunder of resources by politically connected elites, powerful commercial enterprises and corrupt criminal networks.

The global commons, which include the vast part of the world’s ocean, have not escaped this plunder. Much of the Earth’s population has been short-changed, economically, environmentally and nutritionally by legal (though careless) overfishing and the scourge of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

Millions of African citizens depend on fishing for their jobs, food and income, yet for years Africa’s rich coastal waters have been plundered by foreign fleets, often fishing illegally. This is an issue close to my heart, both personally and professionally.

My diet is mainly fish-based and I haven’t eaten meat or poultry products for 27 years. I was born near the ocean in Monrovia, Liberia and during my regular travels in the region over the last quarter century I have noticed the steep decline in the quality and quantity of fish available on the local markets across West Africa, and a related sharp rise in prices. 

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“Natural resource plunder is organised theft disguised as commerce,” according to Kofi Annan, the chair of the Africa Progress Panel (who I now work with). “Commercial trawlers that operate under flags of convenience, and unload in ports that do not record their catch, are unethical.” I agree with him fully.

The social and economic costs of this plunder are huge. IUU fishing represents a theft of revenue comparable to tax evasion. Overfishing – legal, but careless – reduces fish stocks, lowers local catches and harms the marine environment. Both destroy fishing communities, who lose opportunities to catch, process and trade fish.

The 2014 report from the Africa Progress Panel (APP), Grain, Fish, Money: Financing Africa’s Green and Blue Revolutions, noted that one large trawler can catch 250 tonnes of fish in one day, which is as much as 50 small local artisanal fishing boats would catch in a year. It also highlighted that IUU fishing costs West Africa alone $1.3 billion per year.

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Halting IUU fishing would enable African countries to unleash the full potential of their fisheries. A recent report by the Overseas Development Institute found that 300,000 new jobs could be generated if western Africa invested significantly more in the fisheries industry.

Overfishing and IUU fishing damage not only African communities, but the global economy as well. A concerted global response is crucial if we are to tackle it. We need collective efforts from governments, businesses and civil society groups.

Halting IUU fishing would enable African countries to unleash the full potential of their fisheries. 

The APP has consistently stressed that improved transparency is fundamental to all efforts to improve the governance of natural resources in Africa, so that wealth is shared among the greatest number of citizens. The fisheries sector is no exception. Many experts agree that one effective way of protecting fisheries and improving fisheries management is to increase transparency and participation. 

Fortunately, concerns about sustainable fisheries and marine conservation are higher on the international political agenda than ever. If effectively implemented, two new international measures could help to swiftly halt the plunder of some of Africa’s most vital ocean resources: the 2009 Port State Measures Agreement, an international treaty to combat IUU fishing, and the global Fisheries Transparency Initiative (FiTI). 

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The adoption of the global FiTI Standard in Bali in late April 2017 launched a new era of transparency in fisheries. The Standard is the first voluntary international agreement on the kind of transparency and participation needed to support reasonable fisheries management, and is the first document to set global norms for fisheries transparency.

As APP member and FiTI founder Peter Eigen says: “Still too often, even basic information about the fisheries sector remains out of the public domain. The FiTI Standard is coming at a crucial point in time, where we all must work together to conserve and sustainably use our ocean, seas and marine resources. It sets clear requirements on what is expected from countries regarding transparency and multi-stakeholder participation in fisheries.” So far, five countries have committed to implement the FiTI: Guinea, Indonesia, Mauritania, Senegal, and the Seychelles. The APP is urging all coastal and island African countries to join these pioneers. The APP is also encouraging all civil society groups to use the new FiTI Standard platform to push for improvements in fisheries governance and to pressure governments to act, when necessary.

The African people – the true owners of Africa’s fisheries resources – have an essential role to play in Africa’s transformation. Citizens must not shy away from actively participating when they can force change. They have a responsibility to act in the national interest, and they must live up to this. As Kofi Annan has said repeatedly, “When leaders fail to lead, the people will lead and make them follow.”

- This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. 

This post is part of a series produced by Virgin Unite in partnership with Ocean Unite, an initiative to unite and activate powerful voices for ocean-conservation action.