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NEF: The Fight Against Illegal Fishing in West Africa and the EU

Sustainability Politics

Global losses due to Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) or pirate fishing are estimated to be between US$10 billion and US$23.5 billion per year. West African waters are estimated to have the highest levels of IUU fishing in the world, representing up to 37 percent of the regions catch, states a new report from the Environmental Justice Foundation titled 'Pirate Fishing Exposed:The Fight Against Illegal Fishing in West Africa and the EU'.

Along with the economic losses, pirate fishing in West Africa severely compromises the food security and livelihoods of coastal communities. In Sierra Leone, fish represents 64 percent of total animal protein consumed in the country, and an estimated 230,000 people are directly employed in fisheries.

IUU vessels compromise the health of fish stocks and the marine environment. Ninety percent of vessels documented by EJF in West Africa are bottom trawlers, which drag heavy trawl equipment along the seabed, resulting in damage to the bottom habitat and high levels of by-catch, including vulnerable marine life such as sharks and turtles.

Pirate fishing vessels also benefit from lower costs, thereby severely undermining legitimate fishing operators. By fishing in inshore areas reserved for local fishers, they also displace artisanal fishers into riverine areas where fish breed, resulting in further damage to the marine environment and the depletion of fish stocks.

Between 1st January 2010 and 31st July 2012, EJFs community surveillance project in southern Sierra Leone received 252 reports of pirate fishing by industrial vessels in inshore areas. EJFs local staff filmed and photographed 10 different vessels operating illegally, transmitting the evidence to the Sierra Leone Government and European authorities. Nine out of 10 of the vessels are accredited to export their catches to Europe.

Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), nations are required to monitor and control fishing vessels flying their flag. EJF investigations show that many industrial fishing vessels are 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.

EJF has documented the extensive use of Flags of Convenience (FoC), whereby a fishing operator buys a flag from a State that lacks the ability or willingness to monitor its activities. This report demonstrates how flag brokers actively assist unscrupulous fishing operators to flag hop between FoC registries and hide their ownership of vessels. Twelve percent of large-scale fisheries vessels flagged to the top 13 FoC registries are owned by European Union (EU) companies, while no information is available on the owners of a further 17 percent of FoC vessels. The consequent inability to identify the true owners of fishing vessels is hampering attempts to hold those profiting from pirate fishing to account.

The EU Regulation to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated fishing (No. 1005/2008), which came into force on 1st January 2010, attempts to deter pirate fishing by requiring all consignments of fish imported into Europe to be accompanied by a catch certificate, validated by the vessels flag State. The Regulation threatens to impose import restrictions on fishing vessels that operate illegally and on countries that fail to effectively monitor and control their fishing fleets.

This report contends that despite the Regulations implementation across the EU, millions of euros worth of illegally-caught fish entered Europe through the Spanish port of Las Palmas in 2011. Following the submission of evidence gathered at sea by EJF, 1,100 tonnes of fish was seized in March 2011 in Las Palmas and held for four months whilst an unprecedented international investigation was carried out. Crucially, the seafood in question was eventually released when the flag States involved declared the catches were legal, highlighting a fundamental short-coming in the regulation which relies on flag States to verify the legality of the catch, despite some flag States clearly being unable or unwilling to monitor the location or activities of their flagged vessels.

A lack of communication and coordination between the EU and coastal States in West Africa further compromises the process of verifying fishing licences and catch certificates. Ninety percent of global seafood catches occur in coastal State waters, however there are still few mechanisms for these States to feed in information and respond to enquiries in cases of suspected IUU fishing.

In addition to fish destined for the EU market, EJF has documented increasing volumes of illegal catches that are transhipped at sea onto large refrigerated cargo vessels destined for East Asia. In one incident, EJF infiltrated an illegal transhipment in the Guinea and Sierra Leone border area but was unable to prevent the fish from being imported into South Korea (referred to as Korea in this report) due to the lack of international cooperation and inadequate port State controls.

Evidence presented in this report clearly demonstrates that both flag States and port States must do more to combat IUU fishing, and notes that coastal States are also an important actor in this.

An Al Jazeera investigation, in collaboration with EJF, documented attempts by IUU vessel operators to bribe local officials in order to carry on IUU activities and avoid punishments. All vessels identified by EJF operating illegally in Sierra Leone had fisheries observers on board, but in every case they were unable to stop the vessels breaking the law and were sometimes forcibly prevented from communicating with coastal State authorities.

Investigations show that compliance with Vessel Monitoring Systems (VMS) rules across the region is inadequate. This is also facilitating IUU fishing. For example, Guinea does not currently have a functioning VMS. This lack of Monitoring, Control and Surveillance (MCS) in Guinea, combined with a recent crackdown on illegal fishing in Sierra Leone, has led many vessels to relocate there. Crew on board an illegal fishing vessel interviewed by EJF in June 2012 described Guinea as the easiest place in the region to fish illegally.

The lack of a Unique Vessel Identifier (UVI) enables unscrupulous operators to change their vessels names or flag hop to avoid detection and sanctions, making it difficult for coastal countries to ascertain whether vessels have histories of IUU fishing and whether vessels are managed by legitimate operators. For example, Kummyeong 2, documented by EJF as fishing illegally in Sierra Leone in December 2011, was identified three months later in Guinea operating under a new identity.

This report contends that the rights and responsibilities of local communities and stakeholders are too often ignored and that their full engagement in sustainable fisheries management can have important results. For example, EJFs community surveillance programme and the subsequent investigations have led to over US$500,000 in fines and a dramatic reduction in illegal fishing activity in Sierra Leones Inshore Exclusion Zone (IEZ). Investigations are ongoing by the EU to determine possible sanctions for vessels identified fishing illegally by EJF. Korea has agreed to implement new monitoring procedures for its fishing boats, as well as investigating the illegal activities identified by EJF.

As pirate fishing continues to destroy marine environments and blight the lives of coastal communities in West Africa, there is an urgent need for governments, international organisations, and the seafood industry to address this issue.

Successes in combating IUU fishing in West Africa

  • All vessels known to have been illegally targeting the IEZ had left Sierra Leone by the end of January 2012
  • Sierra Leone has imposed US$300,000 in fines on fishing vessels discovered fishing illegally by EJF
  • Korea is considering sanctions for 14 vessels involved in IUU fishing as a result of EJFs investigations
  • Korea is in the process of imposing new rules on vessels operating in West Africa, requiring them to carry VMS
  • Panama has fined Seta 73, a reefer documented by EJF transhipping illegally, US$200,000
  • The Spanish port of Las Palmas has tightened controls on the import of fisheries products and recently rejected a 28 tonne consignment of fish following EJF investigations
  • Artisanal fishing communities in all coastal areas of Sierra Leone and Liberia are reporting an increased ability to fish due to the reduction in trawler incursions into the IEZ
November 2012