8 reasons why the Moroccan octopus industry hasn’t got a leg to stand on, as it were

The elderly Galician in the seafood bar down the street is essentially a demand side economist. Octopus? No problem. Customers? Never been worse. Although he doesn’t know why, he’s basically right about the first bit. Here’s a snapshot of why that is:

  1. The Moroccan catch fell from 107,000 tonnes in 2000 through 96,000 in 2001 and 57,000 in 2002 to 16,000 tonnes in 2003. The 2003 figure comes despite 21 months of prohibition by the Moroccan authorities.
  2. The Moroccan National Institute of Halieutic Resources (INRH) says that better regulation and breaks of this kind will not help in the long run because the problem is one of over-fishing by 50% of the available capacity.
  3. It’s all the fault of King Hassan II who in the mid-70s and with his eye on the southwest Sahara’s oil resources thought he’d be clever and populate the south of the country with Moroccans. He did this by creating a deep-sea fishing industry funded by the petrodollars that surged into the European banking sector following the oil price hikes. This was not as stupid as some of you may think it sounds, particularly compared with what sub-Saharan Africa did with its Arab money.
  4. Not being daft, Moroccans discovered that you didn’t need a big boat to go out into the Atlantic and catch octopus. Now, apart from the 288 large boats and 350 coastal vessels involved, there are estimated to be between 12 and 15,000 small craft active, of which 5,000 are regulated. These small fishermen destroy the young octopus near the coast and don’t respect the closed season, says the INRH, which is basically a lobbying group for major players. But no one’s stopped Mohammed the Fish in the past because off his political weight.
  5. Now the government seems set on action, proposing cutting coastal vessels to 100, introducing quotas per boat, increasing the number of safe areas for the young, and setting in motion conversion plans for the boats and factories affected. At least one of the fishery lobbies is against the scheme and the authors are not optimistic.
  6. Fish prices in general are too high and the Rabat fish market is shot to hell, say traders; even Ramadan – normally a golden month – hasn’t helped this year.
  7. While Spanish octopus imports will have risen by between 20 and 25% this year, the shortfall in Moroccan production is being made good by an increase in imports from China, Mauritania, Tunisia and other markets. There seems to be no appreciable impact on wholesale prices.
  8. A good number of the unemployed fishermen and their dependents will end up in Spain. Unfortunately they can’t afford to go to Galician octopus bars.

I had to write something about Maghrebi agriculture last week and came across this stuff. While the Moroccan government continues to get mediaeval with political journalists, much of the Moroccan press has improved beyond recognition in the past decade. Sources used here: Le Matin, GlobeFish, La Vie Éco, L’Economiste, Assabah. Cartoon: the excellent L’œil de slim in La Vie Éco.

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