From Sea Blindness to Wealth Blindness

To ensure maritime security, states must understand the economic potential of their territorial waters.


Guest written by Dr. Ian Ralby, Founder and CEO of I.R. Consilium

Until recently, Africa suffered from “sea blindness.” States around the continent paid little attention to their maritime space, and did almost nothing to pursue their maritime potential. With the spike in international concern about piracy — first off Somalia and then in the Gulf of Guinea — a shockwave of activity spread across the continent, giving rise to extensive maritime security and law enforcement activity.

While African maritime law enforcement agencies will need considerably more work to thoroughly meet their responsibilities, the acceleration of maritime development over the last several years is unmistakable. The multinational cooperation among the Navies of Ghana, Togo, Benin, and Nigeria in successfully interdicting the M/T Maximus, after it was hijacked in February 2016, is perhaps the clearest example of this operational improvement.

That cooperation can be credited to new maritime strategies that address security and development at the national, regional, inter-regional and continental levels. In particular, the Djibouti and Yaoundé Codes of Conduct now provide models for regional approaches to shared maritime security concerns.

But while Africa is nowhere near as sea blind as it was, it still suffers from another maritime ailment impeding it from reaching or even approaching its maritime potential: wealth blindness. Though many states now realize that their maritime domains possess economic value, the prevalence of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing throughout Africa remains a painful indication that criminals know Africa’s maritime potential better than most states.

If someone is handed a bucket of gold and told to sell it for as much as possible without looking up the price, they may be pleased to receive $100,000, not realizing that is only 10% of the value. The same is true of the African maritime domain. States will negotiate fishing licenses, economic agreements or infrastructure concessions without knowing their worth, and consequently sell themselves short. In one small African state, for example, a block of fishing licenses was sold for roughly €700,000 when its value should have been more than €55 million. That state remains stuck with the agreement.

Furthermore, states may inadvertently attract maritime crime by setting penalties so low that breaking the law carries no risk. If stealing a given quantity of the same fish in the US would produce a penalty of $1 million versus a penalty of $1,000 in Africa (if it is even enforced), IUU fishing in Africa will continue to flourish. Similarly, if the regulations do not address the actual biodiversity of the territory, opportunities for illicit exploitation will be identified and pursued.

States must therefore conduct marine biological, hydrographic, scientific and commercial studies to understand what they have, what it is worth, and how to exploit it in a sustainable fashion. This also requires creativity. If handed a bucket of clay and told to fetch the best price for it, an individual might this time be pleased to receive $100 for it. But they may have overlooked that a local sculptor could have turned that clay into a work of art worth $10,000. Issuing cameras to local fishermen and offering them rewards for information leading to arrest of IUU fishermen, for example, takes advantage of existing capacity in a low cost, but highly effective way.

So as states continue to overcome their sea blindness, they must also now recognize the possibility of being wealth blind and take steps to confront it. This is not just true in Africa. All states, around the world, must work to resist the tendencies toward both sea blindness and wealth blindness and, for the sake of sustainability, security, stability, and prosperity, pursue a course to maximize their maritime potential.

The views and opinions expressed on the Natural Security Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Stimson Center.