How to fight illegal fishing

Can fishers, coastguards and marine activists see off the thieves from powerful nations plundering the seas of West Africa? Aïda Grovestins reports.

A Liberian soldier, on joint patrol with Sea Shepherd, about to board an illegal shrimper. Credit: Sea Shepherd Global

On the shore of the Liberian fishing town Robertsport, Wilson Weah prepares his narrow wooden canoe for a night’s fishing. Pointing out to the sea, he comments: ‘We used to see big trawlers on the horizon emptying the ocean and cutting through our nets, but since our coastguard started inspections at sea we catch more fish again.’

The fishers from Robertsport go out alone or in groups with their colourfully painted canoes. Weah, who is the head of the local fishers co-operative, 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 ensure the livelihoods of the country’s 33,000 fisherfolk.

In February 2017 the Liberian army started joint at-sea patrols with the ocean conservation organization Sea Shepherd. The organization provides the Liberian coastguard with a ship, small boats and a largely volunteer crew.

Liberia has turned into a regional leader in the fight against illegal fishing. Since the start of this co-operation, 15 fishing vessels have been held for illegal fishing and other fisheries crimes; only three arrests were made in the seven years prior to this partnership.

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

‘We were patrolling just around 40 per cent of our coastline,’ says Major General Prince Johnson, Chief of Staff for the Liberian Army. ‘Joint at-sea patrols with Sea Shepherd have given us the opportunity to extend to almost 90 per cent of our waters.’

Big industrial vessels, mainly from Europe and Asia, plunder tonnes of fish in the mostly ungoverned waters of West Africa. They enter illegally in areas dedicated to artisanal fishing, causing overexploitation and conflicts. To protect fish stocks in their own seas, rich countries send their fishing fleets to the shores of poor countries and to the high seas. In these regions there is less capacity and money for patrols and enforcement.

The culprits

‘The majority of the boats that have been arrested for illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing [IUU fishing] are Chinese or Asian vessels,’ says Johnson, ‘but we have also arrested European vessels. Europeans don’t always want to co-operate 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 unarmed.’

They were dumped 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.

Sea Shepherd’s Australian captain on the Bob Barker, Anteo Broadfield, says that finding illegal boats can be very hard ‘because these vessels know how to avoid detection and the area is very large. These vessels will turn off their AIS [automatic identification system] and they will have a black ship with no deck lights. And they will do this just before they come up to the border of Liberia. Unless we are there in positions surveilling that border they can go unnoticed. So, surveillance is the key to combating the IUU fishing problem. When a big vessel is seen we take off in two small boats with the coastguard to inspect the vessel.’

In most cases those caught fishing illegally are doing so without a licence, inside the artisanal fishing zone or using prohibited fishing gear. Local artisanal fishers also provide information about suspect ships and dubious activity.

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

A multi billion dollar business

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates IUU fishing accounts for up to 26 million tonnes of fish a year, valued at between $10 and $23 billion – more than 15 per cent of the world’s fish capture.

Market-distorting EU and Chinese subsidies lead to illegal overfishing. Half of the fishing resources in West African waters have already been overfished, according to the FAO.

Rashid Sumaila, professor of ocean and fisheries economics at the University of British Columbia, says: ‘A big chunk of the subsidies given are capacity-enhancing, such as fuel and new vessel construction subsidies. These will stimulate more fishing of fish stocks that, in many cases, are already overfished.’

Due to the subsidies, industrial vessels can travel farther and fish for much longer without risking overspending. Apart from encouraging overfishing these subsidies create inequality in the market place.

The major problem with the industrial fishing vessels is the deadly efficiency of their fishing operations and their large by-catch. The nets used can encircle a school of tuna, and everything else within them, for over a kilometre.

Broadfield relates: ‘One vessel we had been observing carried 133 sharks as by-catch – from one morning of setting a net. They were dumped 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 marine region is rich in tuna. According to the World Wildlife Fund it is one of the most diverse and economically important fishing zones in the world.

Broadfield shows video footage of a Spanish ship checked last year. They found 187 dead blue sharks, which were caught in the nets as by-catch and whose fins were cut off, intended for the Asian market.

Shark fin soup is a delicacy in Asia and to meet the demand sharks are being killed in increasingly large numbers. A third of shark species are so overfished they risk extinction. The 2013 European Union Finning Ban was passed to prohibit at-sea removal of fins and dumping of shark bodies to make room for more fins. But for this ban to be respected, at-sea surveillance is essential.

A common practice in the fishing industry is mid-sea transshipment of catch from fishing vessels to large refrigerated cargo ships which transport the fish to port. The fishing boats can continue fishing, reducing their costs.

Broadfield says that at-sea transshipment of catch offers companies a means to avoid regulation in the ports. ‘Legal vessels offload their catch onto these refrigerated cargo ships, but illegal vessels or vessels underreporting or unregulated are also off-loading their catch onto these refrigerated fish ships,’ he says. ‘On these ships the catches are combined and enter the market as legal fish.’

Livelihoods at stake

People living in the coastal regions of West Africa are heavily dependent on fishing for their livelihood and for their animal protein intake. Yet many West African governments continue selling profitable fishing permits to foreign countries.

Senegal has one of the richest fishing areas in the world but, because they can’t compete with the presence of foreign industrial trawlers, its fishers are now entering the waters of neighbouring countries, creating conflicts with the local fishers there. The situation in Senegal is so bad that its government is negotiating with the Liberian government to let its fishers fish there, infuriating Liberian fisherfolk.

In Senegal, as in other West African countries, the problem is not just limited to the coast, as the fish feed the entire country and support a network of people who buy, sell, transport and process them. After a migration slow-down from Senegal to Spain, the number of fisherfolk trying to reach Spain’s coast has risen again.

According to Greenpeace, which regularly monitors the West African seas for IUU fishing, African states should manage their shared resources jointly 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 ensure that their fishing activities do not undermine the sustainability of fisheries in the countries they operate in.’

Looking ahead

Sea Shepherd spokesperson Peter Hammarstedt is happy to see that IUU fishing is finally on the political agenda and is beginning to receive the attention it deserves. ‘However,’ he says, ‘as policy and legislation is enacted we need to ensure that enforcement capacity also expands to ensure that the former is not just a paper tiger.

‘Boarding and inspections at sea are critical to obtaining information, such as paperwork establishing ownership, fishing logs establishing catch, and documentation of the crew on board. Technological solutions like the application of satellites can assist but do not replace good old-fashioned police work at sea.’

Sea Shepherd looks for regions where it can enter long-term partnerships with governments to help build ecosystem and biodiversity resilience. The West African marine region is home to over 1,000 species of fish, as well as dolphins and whales, five species of endangered marine turtles, and the largest breeding colony of monk seals. With the current level of overfishing, species can’t regenerate quickly enough to survive. Sharks are at the top of the ocean food chain and are therefore crucial to keep the ocean’s overall ecosystem healthy.

Fishery experts and ecologists are predicting a global fisheries collapse by 2048 if no fundamental collective action is taken to protect ocean ecosystems against harmful fishing practices. A huge increase in patrolling capacity, sharing of information and intelligence between West African countries, and joint monitoring of the West African waters by all countries combined, could prevent such a collapse. Putting an end to subsidized fishing and the creation of more marine protected areas are an absolute must to revive ecosystems.