Abidjan/Wädenswil, 26 July 2018: This week on 25th July, there was a perfect reason to celebrate the Africa Day of Seas and Oceans, as OceanCare alongside partner organisations, concluded the first official meeting of the Abidjan Aquatic Wildlife Partnership (AAWP).

Compared to terrestrial ‘bush meat’, the plight of aquatic wildlife such as dolphins, manatees, turtles, crocodiles and seabirds which are hunted, traded, consumed or otherwise utilised in Africa often ‘falls through the cracks’ of national, regional and international policies. Aquatic wild meat, the term used to describe the products derived from such species when used as subsistence food or traditional uses, including meat, shells, bones and organs, as well as bait for fisheries, is unfortunately an increasing problem, particularly in West Africa.

The Abidjan Aquatic Wildlife Partnership (AAWP) is a multi-stakeholder partnership that OceanCare has been instrumental in establishing, under the guidance of the Abidjan Convention, to work in the West, Central and Southern African region to address this very issue.

Joanna Toole, Ocean Policy Consultant working with OceanCare said: “Increasing illegal and unregulated hunting and trade, caused in part by an unsustainable combination of human population growth, increased industrialisation, over-fishing and marginalisation of coastal communities,  is threatening aquatic animals and unsettling the delicate balance that allowed humans and wildlife to co-exist in earlier generations. Without action at regional level both humans and animals will suffer, as reliance on species such as turtles, dolphins and manatees for food and income purposes is completely unsustainable in the long term. Many of these species are already under threat from a multitude of pressures and cannot sustain increased exploitation from humans”.

OceanCare has spent the last year and a half working alongside the other founding partners, the Abidjan Convention, the USAid funded West Africa Biodiversity and Climate Change (WA BiCC) Program and Wild Migration to develop this much-needed partnership from concept to reality.

Forty plus participants, including African and international  experts from academia and non-governmental organisations, governments from West Africa and representatives from relevant international bodies came together to frame the AAWP’s objectives, structure and function and discussed priorities for collaborate action to form the beginning of a regional action plan.

Meeting participants were united in their belief that this is an issue which is not only relevant to conservation efforts but is also intrinsically linked to food security, human livelihoods and poverty. Many people rely upon the utilisation of these species to provide for their families so the Partnership agreed that any proposed solutions must tackle the complex issues of alternative livelihoods and consider huge global problems such as over-fishing by foreign fleets and Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing. In addition there are cultural issues to consider, including the utilisation of these species as traditional food sources or as medicine. Another crucial consideration is the grey area between accidental by-catch of non-target species and deliberate capture.

The Partnership also highlighted issues relating to weak legislation and poor enforcement of existing laws. The need for capacity development to assist authorities in recognising and addressing wildlife crime issues, as well as educational outreach measures at community level were also raised as important priorities.

Despite the enormity of the task ahead, members of the Partnership were hopeful and particularly praised the initiatives already underway at a local level in several countries. The Partnership will allow for better knowledge exchange and for learnings of these existing projects to benefit and inspire work to begin elsewhere.

Joanna Toole continued: “This meeting represents a significant step towards taking collective cross-sectoral acton aimed at understanding the problem of aquatic wild meat and find solutions that are good for animals, people and planet. We know that there is a lot more information we need to acquire, a lot more people we have to engage and a lot more cooperation that needs to take place at national, regional and international levels but uniting the knowledge and influence of the people who attended this meeting is a really promising start”.

The Partnership which now has an Ad-Hoc Steering Group will now begin its work to finalise the draft Action Plan, establish communication mechanisms and initiate outreach to more key stakeholders. It is expected that projects focussed on improving data collection, so that governments and other key stakeholders can be empowered with the knowledge needed to begin tackling the issue will be initiated as a first step. The Government Parties to the Abidjan Convention will have the opportunity to review, endorse and provide input to the work of the Partnership when they next meet in the spring of 2020.