West Africa Rising: Could Guinea-Bissau jack up fishing rates on the EU?

The once debt-encumbered country’s four-year fishing agreement with the European Union expires next month. The world’s wealthiest monetary zone currently pays just 7 million euros or $10 million a year.

West Africa Rising is a weekly look at business, investment, and development trends.

Let’s play Price is Right: How much would you cough up to fish – nay, trawl clean – a tropical sea the size of Maryland? A mangrove-lined fish habitat ripe for the scooping? A warm-water gulf just a few days’ cruise from some of Europe’s top seafood diners?

The question is more than game show material for the tiny West African nation of Guinea-Bissau, a fisherman’s paradise looking to earn some revenue off the only boon the broke government has going for it: its miles upon miles of salt water for trawling.

The once debt-encumbered country’s four-year fishing agreement with the European Union expires next month. Whether it can renew it for a higher rate will say much about the willingness of developed nations to do business on equal terms with a country like Guinea-Bissau.

For the rights to float 37 ships into fish-rich seas and to trawl the seafloor with undersea nets as wide as 200 meters, the world’s wealthiest monetary zone currently pays just 7 million euros, or $10 million a year.

“Seven million is peanuts,” says Nelson Gomes Dias of the of the Swiss-based International Union for the Conservation of Nature. “The potential is $250 million [in earnings] each year for the fish sector, but we only get seven million euros.”

Guinea-Bissau's debt history

Such is the consequence of carrying more than a billion dollars in debt.

Freed from Portuguese rule in 1974, Guinea-Bissau spent its first three decades racking up an unmanageable loan sheet, with interest payments no cashew-based economy could afford to respect.

By 2007, when Guinea-Bissau’s government flew to Brussels to sign a fishing contract, it couldn’t afford to turn down any offer – even peanuts.

A group of lending countries forgave $1.2 billion of Guinea-Bissau’s debt in December, and could forgive another $256 million this year. The financial wiggle room, Mr. Dias says, could change the tone that this cash-strapped country brings with it when it goes to Europe next month.

“If you go to the European Union, and you can’t pay your salaries – the teachers are on strike, the civil servants are on strike – you cannot negotiate,” he says. “The finance minister goes with you, he gives pressure, he says: ‘Sign, just sign, anything.' ”

“Maybe now we can negotiate because our macroecnomic situation is much better,” he added.

A new bargaining position?

Upcoming negotiations could be consequential for the nation’s land-based economy.

Inshore, the country of 1.7 million is a wreck: farmers can’t get their cash crop, cashews, to market. The port is turning into mud. Bissau’s state-run electric company is nearly bankrupt. Its telecom company isn’t far behind.

The country’s cops can’t even buy gas, let alone Crown Vics, to chase down the drug cartels that have reduced this neglected relic of the Portuguese empire into a cocaine traffickers’ thoroughfare.

Rich seas

Yet out there, on the waves, the cash-strapped country is a treasure trove.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature counts 21,000 miles of what should be among the region’s richest waterways. Bissau is where Canary Islands' currents mix with mid-Atlantic brine, forcing fish food-packed deepwater from the bottom of the sea to the top of the waves.

It’s a great place to be a shrimp and an even greater place to be a shrimper. Baracuda, sol, and tuna swim off the shore.

The EU's access amounts to a bargain at current rates.

At least they pay, though.

Many foreign boats that troll the country's waters never pay the state for the privilege, and the authorities don't have the naval forces to prevent such abuse, says Director General Virginia Pires Correia at the country's Ministry of Fisheries.

The country's coast guard doesn't have a ship. The air forces doesn't have a helicopter.

And it's unclear just how long it will be before Guinea Bissau's waters will be overfished at current rates. Foreign fishing vessels are allowed to reel in one of every two fish in the sea, claims Mr. Correia.

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