Following a two-year investigation by The Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), Exposing Pirate Fishing: The Fight Against Illegal Fishing in West Africa and the EU highlights how local fishing communities are fighting back to combat this illegal trade.
During the two-year surveillance investigation, EJF documented rampant pirate fishing in Sierra Leone and laundering of the illegal catch into the European seafood market by vessels accredited to export fish to the EU.
The vessels were found to be out of control: fishing well inside exclusion zones, attacking local fishers, refusing to pay fines, covering their identification markings, using banned fishing equipment, transhipping fish illegally at sea, refusing to stop for fisheries patrols, bribing enforcement officers, fleeing to neighbouring countries to avoid sanctions, and committing labour violations.
West African waters are estimated to have the highest levels of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing in the world, representing up to 37 per cent of the regions catch. Along with the economic losses, pirate fishing in West Africa has devastating impacts on coastal communities by severely compromising food security, local livelihoods, the health of fish stocks and the marine environment in some of the worlds poorest countries.
Key findings of the report include:
- 252 reports of illegal pirate fishing by industrial vessels in inshore areas were made to EJFs community surveillance project by 23 coastal communities in an 18-month period
- Despite the EU Regulation to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated fishing, evidence collected on 10 vessels believed to account for the majority of reports revealed that nine are accredited to export their catches to the EU, the worlds most valuable import market for fish
- Ninety per cent of vessels documented by EJF in West Africa were bottom trawlers which devastate marine environments by dragging heavy trawl equipment along the seabed resulting in damage to the bottom habitat, high levels of by-catch including vulnerable marine life such as sharks and turtles
- Evidence of extensive use of Flags of Convenience
- Evidence of increasing volumes of illegal catches being transhipped at sea onto large refrigerated cargo vessels destined for East Asia
- Photos of physical violence against a local fisher who was knocked unconscious with an iron bar retrieving hooks from a South Korean trawler net
- How the proper application of technology such as Vessel Monitoring Systems / GPS units can help combat illegal pirate fishing
- The important role of local communities in successful sustainable fisheries management
EJF has been working in partnership with local fishers and coastal communities in Sierra Leone since the beginning of 2010 to document and report illegal fishing. The groundbreaking community surveillance project resulted in a collection of evidence that has been used to report illegal activities to the Sierra Leone government, the South Korean government, and the EU.
EJFs investigations have had important results, leading to over US $500,000 in fines for illegal vessels and ongoing investigations by the EU, South Korea, and Panama. The EU is believed to be considering blacklisting the vessels involved in the investigation under the EU IUU Regulation, which would mean they would be prevented from exporting fish to the EU and be blocked from accessing European ports.
As well as calling for the vessels to be blacklisted, EJF wants weaknesses in the EU IUU Regulation to be addressed so that illegally caught fish cannot get access to the European seafood market.
Victor Kargbo, head of Fisheries Enforcement in Sierra Leone, said: We have turned the corner in the fight against pirate fishing in Sierra Leone but if we dont coordinate our efforts, these unscrupulous operators will just go elsewhere and continue their activities unabated. The EU can play a crucial role in deterring illegal fishing by making sure all fish entering has a catch certificate, but they should only accept imports from flag States that monitor their fleets properly.
EJF Executive Director Steve Trent said: We are encouraged by the success of community surveillance in Sierra Leone but we are also very concerned by the weaknesses in European controls that our investigations have revealed. The EU is relying too heavily on the assurances of flag States that plainly are not monitoring their fishing fleets in West Africa. Authorities inspecting fish in European ports have very little reliable information on what is happening in the areas where it is caught. EJFs community surveillance project is going some way to address this information gap, but we must urgently improve communication between the EU and coastal States if we are serious about ending pirate fishing and protecting some of the worlds most vulnerable coastal communities.
Further ReadingYou can view the full report by clicking here.