The waters off the 754-kilometer-long coast of Mauritania are among the richest fishing grounds in the world. In 1986 estimates of the country's potential annual marine resources ranged between 400,000 and 700,000 tons. Mauritanian officials estimated the potential annual catch at 525,000 tons, a level close to that of Senegal, which had the largest fishing industry in West Africa. The actual catch, however, could only be estimated on the basis of export figures from Mauritania, recorded catches of licensed operators, and estimates of unrecorded and unlicensed catches. Unrecorded and unlicensed fishing in Mauritania's waters were believed to be high, perhaps in excess of 100,000 tons annually. In 1983 recorded exports and declared licensed fishing catches were estimated at 450,000 tons. Combining these figures, experts believed Mauritania's waters were close to being overfished. Although these waters had long been commercially exploited by foreign fleets, Mauritanians historically had done little fishing. The majority Maure population consumed little fish, and only the small Imraguen ethnic group fished for subsistence.
Until 1979, Mauritania's efforts to exploit the economic benefits of its fishing grounds focused on licensing foreign operators in territorial waters (confined until 1980 to a thirty- nautical-mile limit). These efforts, coupled with some port and processing development designed to attract fleets to land their catches at Nouadhibou, were only partially successful. The principal benefit came in the form of licensing royalties, calculated on the basis of 10 percent of an operator's reported catch. Because Mauritania had no means of patrolling its waters, many foreign operators were never licensed, and licensed operators consistently underreported their catches. Nevertheless, revenues from fishing royalties were very important to the government and in 1977-78 accounted for almost 20 percent of total budget receipts. In addition, the port and processing facilities were underused. In 1967 only 35 percent of the 52,000- ton annual processing capacity was used. Foreign operators preferred to use the facilities at Las Palmas, in Spain's Canary Islands, where they could avoid the supply, handling, water, and electric power shortages prevalent at Nouadhibou.
In 1979 Mauritania initiated its New Fisheries Policy and established a 200-nautical-mile EEZ. The New Fisheries Policy had three objectives: the formation of Mauritanian-controlled joint ventures, the creation of a national fishing fleet, and the establishment of a Mauritanian-controlled fish processing industry at Nouadhibou.
The first of these objectives led to the replacement of licensing and royalties agreements with foreign operators by newly formed Mauritanian-controlled joint ventures. In principle, such joint ventures implied a 43 percent government share, an 8 percent local private sector share, and a 49 percent foreign share. In practice, Mauritanian control of these ventures was nominal. The foreign partner provided all the capital and equipment and controlled all operations. Government and private shares were to be purchased out of venture profits over periods as long as twenty years. By 1986 the most important of the joint venture agreements that had been established was the Mauritanian- Soviet Maritime Resources Company (Mauritanienne-Soviétique des Ressources Maritimes--MAUSSOV). Between 1985 and 1987, MAUSSOV accounted for about 55 percent of total export tonnage and 20 to 30 percent of the total value of fish exports. The next most important joint venture was the Mauritanian-Romanian Fishing Company (Société Mauritano-Roumaine de Pêche--SIMAR). Between 1985 and 1987, SIMAR accounted for 16 to 18 percent of total export tonnage and 7 to 10 percent of the total value of fish exports. Other significant joint ventures were established with Algeria, Iraq, and the Republic of Korea (South Korea).
The development of a national fishing fleet and processing industry led to the creation in the early 1980s of two public enterprises. The government also participated in and lent support to several privately owned Mauritanian fishing and processing companies. The most important of these was the Mauritanian Commercial Fish Company (Société Mauritanienne de Commercialisation du Poisson--SMCP). Owning no boats or facilities, the SMCP was a marketing board that bought all fish landed at Nouadhibou. By the terms of their agreements, joint ventures were required to land a portion of their catches--in practice, only the more valuable demersal (sea-bottom) fish--for local processing. The SMCP arranged processing and cold storage at port facilities before resale and export. Between 1985 and 1987, the SMCP exported 14 to 17 percent of the total catch and accounted for 71 to 82 percent of the demersal catch, which translated into 75 to 88 percent of the value of demersal exports and 43 to 60 percent of the value of total fish exports. Another public enterprise, the Mauritanian Refrigeration Company (Société des Frigorifiques Mauritaniens--SOFRIMA), operated processing facilities as well as a fleet of fishing boats. Several small privately owned Mauritanian companies also operated facilities or fleets of fishing boats.
Between 1968 and 1974, processing capacity at Nouadhibou rose by 22 percent per year until it reached an annual capacity of around 140,000 tons. Between 1970 and 1979, however, companies landed between 50,000 and 80,000 tons of fish annually for processing at Nouadhibou--far below the port's capacity. During the first years of the New Fisheries Policy (1979 to 1982), tonnage landed dropped to under 10,000 tons. Once joint venture agreements were signed, however, average annual tonnage landed began to rise, reaching about 58,500 tons annually between 1984 and 1986. Joint venture companies built additional processing capacity, and by 1985 the port had an annual processing capacity of some 200,000 tons. Despite government policy requiring certain landings, however, at the rates companies were landing their catches, only 30 percent of the port's capacity was in use.
Because of poor services and high costs, Nouadhibou was unattractive to fishing fleets. Its principle problem was lack of handling equipment for quickly unloading frozen or iced fish from vessels to cold storage. In addition, fish spoiled quickly in the desert heat, and the high cost of electrical power for processing and cold storage (three times the cost at Las Palmas) made landing of any but the most valuable fish varieties uneconomical. In addition, supplies and equipment were not readily available. Many items had to be brought in on an emergency basis by air, further inflating the cost of operations. Local banking facilities were limited, and international communications were difficult and often unavailable. Finally, Nouadhibou--with only two small hotels and scant recreational opportunities--offered little attraction to crews of vessels calling at the port. For the most part, crews who used the port either stayed on ship, went directly to chartered flights home, or took commercial flights to recreational ports such as Las Palmas or Dakar. Thus, the local economy benefited little from their presence.
Compounding these problems, the types of fishing vessels in use and the economics of the international market in fish varieties also made Nouadhibou unattractive for fish processing. The most economical types of vessels in use in the mid-1980s were large trawlers capable of freezing, processing, and transshipping catches independently of any port. The largest were Atlantic- and Super Atlantic-class factory trawlers, built for the most part in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) and operated by the Soviets and Romanians. In the mid-1980s, these ships accounted for the bulk of Mauritania's reported catch, including 85 percent of pelagic (open-sea) fish. Between 1985 and 1987, pelagic fish represented about 79 percent of the total catch. The pelagic catch included sardines, herring, tuna, and anchovies. Although it represented the bulk of tonnage caught, the pelagic catch included the least valuable of fish varieties in Mauritania's waters and was fished almost entirely by the Soviet and Romanian joint ventures. From 1985 to 1987, MAUSSOV and SIMAR accounted for 90 percent of the pelagic catch. Because of their size and draft, the Atlantic- and Super Atlantic-class pelagic freezer- factory trawlers could not enter Nouadhibou, and they transshipped their catches to refrigerated carrier vessels anchored outside the port.
The most valuable varieties of seafood in Mauritania's waters were demersals, including cod, sole, octopus, squid, lobster, and shrimp. For these varieties, joint ventures and local operators used demersal freezers and demersal ice boats. The ice boats had to unload their catches for processing at port before export, but the freezers were somewhat less dependent on port processing. In 1983 the government began requiring the landing and processing of all demersal catches at Nouadhibou under the SMCP monopoly. Between 1985 and 1987, the demersal catch was estimated at about 21 percent of the total catch, with the SMCP accounting for 71 to 81 percent of the demersal exports, representing as much as 60 percent of the total value of fish exports in those years.
Despite difficulties, the New Fisheries Policy was partially successful. Its adoption led to the formation of important joint venture operations and the growth of locally owned fishing fleets. Efforts to encourage local fishing brought some opportunity for sales to processors and exporters, estimated at 10,000 tons per year. In the 1983-85 period, 70 percent of the total estimated catch in Mauritanian waters was brought in by joint ventures and ships flying the Mauritanian flag. This activity generated approximately US$150 million in gross export receipts and made fishing the country's most important source of foreign exchange. The remaining 30 percent of the reported catch continued to be fished by companies under older licensing agreements. These older agreements were due to expire by 1988 and included, in particular, operations of the Spanish and Portuguese fleets. A comprehensive fishing agreement covering the operations of these and other European operators that mainly fished for demersals was under negotiation with the European Community (EC) in 1987. To better control the estimated 100,000 tons of fish taken by unlicensed trawlers, the government, the World Bank, and the donor community were considering measures to increase surveillance and reporting. In late 1987, studies sponsored by the World Bank and donor community were under way to determine ways to increase the value-added portion of the industry to GDP.
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