Mauritanian opposition seethes at China fish deal

NOUAKCHOTT (Reuters) - Mauritanian opposition lawmakers and fishermen are fuming over what they say is a lack of transparency and safeguards in a 25-year offshore fishing licence granted to a Chinese firm.

A man sits in front of small wooden fishing boats in the Mauritanian port city of Nouadhibou, March 12, 2006. REUTERS/file

Backers of the deal ratified on Monday say it helps Mauritania by requiring that Poly Hon Done Pelagic Fishery spend $100 million on building a processing factory, a manufacturing site for traditional fishing boats, and a training centre.

The controversy -- which at one point saw furious fishermen lobbing eggs at lawmakers who promoted the licence in parliament -- flows into wider questions about China’s vigorous African investment, which has been watched by rival world powers and locals worried about losing access to their natural resources.

Mauritania, a predominantly Arab desert nation, has some of West Africa’s richest fishing waters. Fishing accounts for about 10 percent of its gross domestic product and up to 50 percent of its export earnings. The European Union pays Nouakchott about $100 million annually for fishing rights.

According to the Poly Hon Done Pelagic Fishery deal, a copy of which was seen by Reuters, the firm is spared all import customs. For the first five years, it is exempt from paying tax on profits equivalent to 20 percent of its investments and may employ foreigners to make up as many as 30 percent of its staff.

These perks, and a perceived lack of public accountability around the deal, prompted opposition lawmakers to boycott the vote in parliament.

“We did not have access to the amendments of the contract that they are asking us to ratify,” said the opposition’s Saleck Ould Sidi Mahmoud. “The company is getting too many tax exemptions.”

Cheikhany Ould Amar, head of the Mauritanian industrial fishing association, said he was worried because the deal did not provide enough safeguards for protecting deep-sea fishing resources that he described as already over-exploited.

Poly Hon Done catches might be under-reported, and any violations hard to enforce, he said:

“The agreement gives no guarantee on controls.”

After the ratification, Mauritanian fisherman stormed the assembly to throw eggs at lawmakers who had voted in favour.

Officials from Mauritania’s government and Poly Hon Done were not available for comment, but an economic adviser at the Chinese embassy said there were only minor differences between this and previous Chinese-Mauritanian deals.

The adviser, Yang Poipoi, dangled the prospect of 2,000 Mauritanians being hired by Poly Hon Done, even if they are not professionally qualified.

“We could find better fisheries agreements elsewhere but because of the friendship between our two countries, we should make an effort,” she said.

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