Last week OceanCare participated in the 12th conference of the parties to the Abidjan Convention in the Ivory Coast, West Africa. The Abidjan Convention provides an overarching legal framework for all marine-related programmes in West, Central and Southern Africa. OceanCare contributed to important discussions on different issues of ocean conservation and management and are particularly pleased to have successfully raised the profile of aquatic bushmeat amongst delegates at the meeting, resulting in the Convention agreeing to take critical steps towards addressing this issue in the region.

Aquatic bushmeat is the meat of aquatic wildlife – mammals, reptiles and amphibians that have been harvested for food, medicine or other traditional uses, including as bait for fisheries. Although wildlife has been harvested as food for generations, human population increases and industries put pressure on local natural resources which forces local communities to exploit species they may not have been utilised before or to harvest them in greater numbers. Increased killing and consumption of aquatic species such as manatee, dolphin, crocodiles, turtles and sea birds is thought to be linked with reduced fish stocks caused by over-fishing by distant industrialised fishing fleets and illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. It is a global problem which is documented across tropic, temperate, sub-Arctic and Arctic regions and is known to be wide-spread across West Africa.

An alarming observation that the OceanCare team took from the conference was that it is clear that the extent of the problem is far greater than what has so far been documented.  Almost every country delegate OceanCare spoke to was able to give an anecdotal insight into the extent of the problem in their country. These ranged from stories of female turtles being regularly killed on beaches as they come to lay their eggs in the sand and their eggs also being stolen, to the sale of the meat of aquatic species in supermarkets and accounts of dolphins being washed up on shore with ropes around their tails, a sure sign of deliberate by-catch and these animals being used as bait.

OceanCare is therefore relieved that that amongst other steps, the Abidjan Convention agreed that there is an urgent need for a large scale assessment of aquatic wildlife species on sale in markets, collection of data about the origins of the meat, reasons for the harvest, and other factors that will help stakeholders understand and take the most appropriate action for tackling the issue. Critically, the Convention also agreed that a strategic partnership should be formed, led by the Abidjan Convention Secretariat and comprising of local and international partners who would develop an action plan to combat trade, direct consumption, illegal logging, and other uses of endangered, threatened or protected coastal and marine species. OceanCare looks forward to being part of such a partnership and has hopes that the bringing together of expertise, ideas and resources will provide the solutions necessary to reverse this apparent trend in aquatic bushmeat consumption.

The link between fisheries decline and the rise of aquatic bushmeat is one which has also caught the attention of The World Bank who following communication with OceanCare became involved with efforts to raise this issue within the Abidjan Convention. In a recent blog post, Peter Kristensen of the World Bank talks about his work with OceanCare and his hopes that West African regional conventions and commissions will bring aquatic bushmeat to the forefront of their discussions and that the international community will support governments to protect their marine endangered, threatened and protected species. OceanCare is grateful that such an important and influential global institution as the World Bank recognises the urgency of the issue and the benefits that could be brought to both humans and wildlife by tackling it and hope that the World Bank will be part of the partnership being developed.

OceanCare and the World Bank have been working closely with several organisations in the build up to the conference including the Abidjan Convention Secretariat, West Africa Biodiversity and Climate Change (WA BiCC), Wetlands International Africa and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).  A joint side event, organised by Wa BiCC was well attended by national and international delegates and resulted in some thought provoking discussion and sharing of ideas. OceanCare participated on the panel to provide an international perspective and spoke the need for increased information and collaboration and to provide distinction between incidental harvest i.e. by-catch and intended or directed hunts.

OceanCare is delighted that the Abidjan Convention is in agreement on a proposed approach for addressing aquatic bushmeat, however now the real work begins in implementing the actions needed to make progress. Over the coming months, OceanCare will engage in follow up discussions and planning with the other relevant organisations and looks forward to ensuring that the decisions taken at this conference become a reality.

OceanCare were also able to participate and influence other important discussions which took place at the conference, including on ocean noise. The OceanCare team were able to draw upon their involvement in the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) to highlight that the Family Guidelines on Environmental Impact Assessment for Marine Noise-generating Activities currently in the final stages of development by CMS should be taken into consideration by the Abidjan Convention.

We were also pleased to note that the issue of marine debris is being taken seriously by West, Central and Southern African governments and that decisions taken on this issue by the Abidjan Convention included commitments to increase data collection and the setting up of a regional database. Although data collection may seem like a small step, it is an essential to inform governments of the necessary actions to take and to help prioritise resources in regions where resources may be minimal.