How to stop illegal fishing

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How to stop illegal fishing

Can fishers, coastguards, and marine activists stop the thieves from powerful nations from stealing from the seas of West Africa? Aïda Grovestins writes.


A Liberian soldier on patrol with Sea Shepherd, about to go onboard an illegal shrimper ship. Credit: Sea Shepherd Global

On the shore of the Liberian fishing town of Robertsport, Wilson Weah prepares his canoe for a night’s fishing. Pointing out to the sea, he says: ‘We used to see big trawler ships cutting through our nets, but since our coastguard started patrols at sea we catch more fish again.’

The fishers from Robertsport go out alone or in groups with their canoes. Weah is the head of the local fishers co-operative. He says: ‘Everybody here lives from fishing to support their families and to pay for their children’s school fees.’

Liberia has the longest coastline in West Africa and the government wants to improve food security and make sure the country’s 33,000 fishermen have enough money to live.

In February 2017 the Liberian army started sea patrols with the ocean conservation organization, Sea Shepherd. The organization gives the Liberian coastguard a ship, small boats. and a mostly volunteer crew.

Liberia is now a leader in the fight against illegal fishing. They have held 15 fishing ships for illegal fishing and other fisheries crimes. In the seven years before this they made only three arrests.

On Sea Shepherd’s boat, the Bob Barker, the Liberian army coastguard gets training on how to go on board a trawler, check documents, do body searches, and make arrests.

‘We were on patrol on just around 40 per cent of our coast,’ says Major General Prince Johnson, Chief of Staff for the Liberian Army. ‘Sea patrols with Sea Shepherd make it possible to check almost 90 per cent of our waters.’

Big industrial ships, mostly from Europe and Asia, steal tonnes of fish in the unchecked waters of West Africa. They enter illegally in places for traditional fishing, causing overexploitation and conflicts. To protect fish in their own seas, rich countries send their fishing ships to the shores of poor countries and to the high seas. In these places there is less money for patrols.

The illegal fishing boats

‘Most of the boats arrested for illegal fishing are Chinese or Asian,’ says Johnson, ‘but we have also arrested European ships. Europeans don’t always want to work with us and don’t like that we enter with weapons. But since we are also sometimes dealing with illegal drugs and child trafficking or money laundering at sea, we can’t board a ship without weapons.’

Anteo Broadfield is Sea Shepherd’s Australian captain on the Bob Barker. He says that finding illegal boats can be very hard ‘because these ships know how to avoid us and the area is very big. These ships turn off their AIS [automatic identification system] and they have a black ship with no lights. And they do this just before they come to the border of Liberia. If we are not there, no-one sees them. So, patrols are the answer to the illegal fishing problem. When we see a big ship, we take two small boats with the coastguard to inspect the ship.’

Most of the ships fishing illegally are doing it without a licence, inside the traditional fishing zone, or using illegal fishing equipment. Local traditional fishers also give information about ships which may be illegal.


Traditional fishers, like those in Sierra Leone, are fighting to protect their livelihoods - and fish - from foreign trawler ships. Credit: Saidu Bah/Getty

A multi billion dollar business

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says illegal fishing is up to 26 million tonnes of fish a year, valued at between $10 and $23 billion – more than 15 per cent of the fish caught in the world.

EU and Chinese subsidies lead to illegal overfishing. The FAO says half of the fishing waters in West African waters have already been overfished.

Rashid Sumaila is professor of ocean and fisheries economics at the University of British Columbia. He says: ‘A lot of the subsidies are, for example, for fuel and building new ships. This will mean more fishing in overfished areas.’

Because of the subsidies, industrial ships can travel farther and fish for much longer. These subsidies encourage overfishing and create inequality in the market place.

The big problem with the industrial fishing ships is their efficiency and their big catches of extra fish. The nets used catch tuna and everything else for over a kilometre.

Broadfield says, ‘One ship we observed carried 133 sharks as a catch – from one morning of with a net. They left them on the other side of the boat. Dead. 133 sharks. That is the cost of tuna that ends up in Europe, in America, and the rest of the Western world.’

The West African seas are rich in tuna. The World Wildlife Fund says it is one of the most diverse and economically important fishing zones in the world.

Broadfield shows a video of a Spanish ship checked last year. They found 187 dead blue sharks, which were caught in the nets with their fins cut off, for the Asian market.

Shark fin soup is a delicacy in Asia and they are killing more and more sharks. A third of shark species are so overfished that they risk extinction. The 2013 European Union Finning Ban was passed to stop removal of fins and dumping of shark bodies to make room for more fins. But for this ban to work checks at sea are necessary.

Very often in the fishing industry a catch from fishing ships is moved to big refrigerated cargo ships, which transport the fish to port. The fishing boats can continue fishing, reducing their costs.

Broadfield says that this offers companies a way to avoid regulation in the ports. ‘Legal ships move their catch onto these refrigerated cargo ships, but illegal ships are moving their catch onto these refrigerated fish ships,’ he says. ‘On these ships the catches are put together and go to the market as legal fish.’

Risks to fishers and their families

People living on the coast of West Africa need fishing to live. But many West African governments continue selling fishing permits to foreign countries.

Senegal has one of the richest fishing areas in the world. But they can’t compete with the foreign industrial trawler ships and so its fishers are now entering the waters of other countries, creating conflicts with the local fishers there. The situation in Senegal is so bad that its government is talking with the Liberian government to let its fishers fish there. This makes the Liberian fishers angry.

In Senegal, as in other West African countries, the problem is not only on the coast, as the fish feed all of the country and support people who buy, sell, and transport them. After less migration from Senegal to Spain, the number of fishers trying to reach Spain’s coast has risen again.

Greenpeace says African states should work together and protect the income of their own fishers. ‘At the same time,’ says Aliou Ba, political adviser of Greenpeace Africa, ‘we need foreign nations to make sure that their fishing does not stop the sustainability of fisheries in the countries they work in.’

The future

Sea Shepherd spokesperson Peter Hammarstedt is happy to see that illegal fishing is finally on the political agenda and is beginning to receive attention. ‘But,’ he says, ‘as there are new laws, we need to make sure that there are more patrols at sea.’

‘Patrols at sea are necessary to get information, such as papers to show who owns the ships, fishing records of the catch, and documents of the crew working on the ship. Technological solutions like the use of satellites can help but are not as good as old-fashioned police work at sea.’

Sea Shepherd looks for areas where it can work with governments to help build a strong ecosystem and biodiversity. There are over 1,000 species of fish, as well as dolphins, and whales, five species of endangered marine turtles, and the largest group of monk seals, all in the West African seas. With the overfishing now species can’t regenerate quickly enough to survive. Sharks are at the top of the ocean food chain and are therefore necessary to keep the oceans healthy.

Fishery experts and ecologists say there will be a global fisheries collapse by 2048 if there is no action to protect ocean ecosystems against bad fishing practices. A big increase in the number of patrols, sharing of information between West African countries, and checking the West African waters by all countries could stop such a collapse. Stopping subsidies for fishing and more marine protected areas are necessary for healthy ecosystems.


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