Recently, reports have come out accusing China of exploiting West African coasts in illegal fishing schemes. This much less documented environmental impact is worth a quick mention as it needs attention from both African nations and Chinese government officials.

The New York Times published an article accusing Chinese fishing fleets of using ecologically dangerous methods like bottom trawling to catch hoards of fish in West African waters. Bottom trawling, the practice of pulling fishing nets across the seafloor, is deemed as most dangerous by marine conservationists. The New York Times cites a study conducted by Greenpeace, which states that hundreds of Chinese-flagged vessels were extracting tons of fish from the coasts of The Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mauritania, Senegal and Sierra Leone.

The accused Chinese-owned ships, the researchers found, would underreport the weight of the yields of their fishing expeditions and turn off their tracking devices that are required by international maritime law.  They also faulted the ships for not having licenses and using illegal nets that have tiny mesh openings that indiscriminately extract fish from the waters.  Rashid Kang, the director of the China Ocean and Forests campaign at Greenpeace said that this would undermine China’s soft-power in the region. He warned, “At a time when China talks about win-win partnerships with African governments and is concerned with improving its international image, these kinds of [overfishing] practices damage marine resources, threaten local livelihoods and undermine China’s soft power.”

The above mentioned research also placed a part of the blame on local laws in Africa that were lax about controlling their waters. These local governments have eagerly signed agreements with Chinese fishing companies, desperate for the economic gains. It is therefore no wonder that Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman, Hong Lei, defended China’s ships saying, “These ships and companies contribute to local employment, increase tax revenue and contribute to the local economy, and are thus welcomed by local governments and people.”

China has its own needs to satisfy through the prowling of African waters. Reports have suggested that 50 percent of China’s fish stocks are fully exploited. At the same time, Chinese consumers have also increased their demand for seafood. The Diplomat reports that their consumption has increased 6 percent per year between 1990 and 2010, accounting for 34 percent of all fish consumed annually.

But the argument that fishing off the coast of Africa is a win for both China and Africa is challenged by the Overseas Development Institute, which has said that West African countries are actually missing out on major economic opportunities. The Guardian discusses the report, saying that if governments in western Africa could terminate unauthorized fishing by foreign commercial vessels and build national fleets and processing plants, they could generate billions of dollars in wealth and create around 300,000 jobs. Instead, researchers argue, artisanal fishers are losing their livelihood and risking their lives trying to find fish in the depleted waters.

Some African governments have attempted to patrol their waters and protect their seas. The Cameroonian navy “caught red-handed” a Chinese vessel and its crew illegally fishing in its waters. The crew faced legal proceedings and their cargo was ceased. In South Africa, it was reported that illegal fishing vessels, carrying more than 600 tons of squid were impounded and fined. After paying for their crimes, “the vessel masters were authorized to proceed with their voyage to China,” said the report. South Africa is also teaming up with Norway to train officers to control fisheries, educate police officers and prosecutors. This program, which will cost around 3.6 million USD, is planned to extend to East African coastlines and also include Namibia.

Like many other examples of China-Africa interactions, African governments need to strengthen their abilities to ensure that they receive a fair deal from their Chinese counterparts. Although the instances of tough measures against criminal activities are encouraging, they are very much few and far between. The Chinese government must participate in these discussions and measures, just like it did in the case of the ivory crisis, in order to bring about significant progress.