EU states broke law by allowing fishing off Gambia, Equatorial Guinea: watchdog

ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Portugal, Spain, Greece and Italy broke European Union law by authorizing vessels to fish in the territorial waters off Gambia and Equatorial Guinea, according to the findings of conservation group Oceana published on Tuesday.

Fishing vessels from Europe and Asia are drawn to West Africa, particularly for high-value tuna. Many ships operate legally but West African states are vulnerable to illegal fishing because of corruption and a lack of maritime policing capacity.

Using data from their onboard tracking devices, Oceana found that 19 vessels illegally spent over 31,000 hours in Gambia and Equatorial Guinea’s exclusive economic zones - waters which extend 200 nautical miles from the coast - from April 2012 to August 2015.

“Oceana was unable to document the fishing effort of vessels not transmitting ... therefore, it is likely that the prevalence of fishing may be even higher,” the report said.

Illegal fishing costs West African economies $2.3 billion a year, according to a recent study published in Frontiers in Marine Science journal. Africa’s fisheries and aquaculture sector was estimated at more than $24 billion in 2011, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.

Both Gambia and Equatorial Guinea negotiated official access agreements with the EU. Such deals tighten oversight and allow European boats to only fish for surplus stocks.

However, the requirements of the deals have not been met, so they are considered dormant. European vessels are not allowed to operate in waters subject to dormant agreements.

The ships, according to Oceana, had signed private agreements with authorities in the two states. But the European Commission twice notified EU fisheries ministries, in January 2014 and again in April 2015, that they could not fish after agreements go dormant, even under private deals.

“This demonstrates serious shortcomings in transparency and accountability from these EU flag states,” the Oceana report’s authors wrote. The organization is based in Washington.

An official with Greece’s agriculture ministry told Reuters it had received no official warning of the issue but said it would investigate when it did.

“Greek authorities conduct strict checks on these matters,” the official, who asked not to be named, said, adding that only a few Greek vessels were granted overseas fishing licenses.

Italian and Portuguese authorities did not immediately respond to Reuters’ requests for comment, but they told Oceana they were investigating and were in contact with Gambian officials.

Spain told Oceana that after the second European Commission notification it had recalled from Gambia the one Spanish fishing boat still operating there at the time.

Spanish authorities did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for further information.

Additional reporting by Steve Scherer in Rome, Axel Bugge in Lisbon, Lefteris Papadimas in Athens, Emma Pinedo Gonzalez in Madrid, and Lamin Jahateh in Banjul; Editing by Edward McAllister and Matthew Mpoke Bigg