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Africa

Pirate fishermen sell illegal haul to Europeans

An investigation by the Environmental Justice Foundation has found that nine out of 10 trawlers caught fishing illegally in Sierra Leone send their catch to Europe. The government is working to fight the problem.

A two-year investigation by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) has found evidence of illegally caught fish entering the European market. The British-based environmental and human rights charity says nine out of 10 trawlers caught fishing illegally in Sierra Leone are actually accredited to export their catch to Europe.

The EJF claims that West Africa has the highest levels of illegal fishing in the world, and says it found evidence of bribery, attacks on local fisherman, the use of banned fishing equipment and trawlers fleeing to neighboring countries to avoid fines. The group is calling for vessels to be blacklisted, and it wants the European Union to strengthen regulations to stop illegal catches from entering Europe.

A view of downtown Freetown, Sierra Leone, Saturday, April, 1, 2006, with the city soccer stadium at top left, and the Mosque at centre. The toppled Liberian president Charles Taylor, who once escaped from an American prison is being carefully guarded as he awaits trial on war crimes charges in an international court Monday.(ddp images/AP Photo/George Osodi)

The government in Freetown is struggling to combat illegal fishing

In less than two years, the EJF has received 252 reports from local fisherman of pirate fishing along the coast.

"The problems are many," Siaka Swarary, a local fisherman from the outskirts of the capital, Freetown, told DW. He says the trawlers that operate far out at sea are ruining the livelihoods of the local fisherman.

"We are disturbed by the bigger trawlers. Sometimes we go one, two, three days [without a] catch." Swarary says his brother lost a fisherman at sea last year when a trawler hit his boat at night and didn't stop to help, leaving the man to drown.

"Our wives, our children…everyone is suffering because we are surviving from this fishing. Without fishing we cannot pay school fees for our children or take care of our family," he said.

A blow to the economy

Sierra Leone loses around $30 million (23.4 million euros) every year through illegal fishing. For a country trying to rebuild itself after more than a decade of civil war, it's crushing for the economy.

Soccoh Kabia, the minister of fisheries and marine resources, says the main problem is that trawlers come inside the exclusion zone – an area reserved for local fisherman.

Fischer bringen am 09.03.2011 in der Hauptstadt Freetown in Sierra Leone mit Booten ihren Fang an Land. Vor 50 Jahren, am 21.04.1961 errang Sierra Leone die Unabhängigkeit von Großbritannien. Nach einem Jahrzehnt blutigen Bürgerkrieges ist das Land seit 2002 mit seinem Wiederaufbau und der Aufarbeitung der jüngeren Geschichte beschäftigt. Das Land zählt weiterhin zu den ärmsten Ländern der Welt und nahm beim Human Development Index 2010 den 158. Platz (von 169) ein. Foto Tom Schulze

Many subsistance fishermen are just barely gettting by

"Many, not all of them, have disregarded that regulation with impunity and have often threatened the lives of fishermen, destroyed their gear, destroyed the environment. The [fish] spawning ground is in that area, so they have definitely affected the development of those areas," he said.

But Kabia, who has been working closely with the EJF and other partners, says things are slowly improving and that they have already collected more than $1 million in fines over the last 18 months. Last year, the West Africa Regional Fisheries Program, supported by the World Bank, began its work to combat illegal fishing.

"Recently, the government of Liberia had a vessel that escaped prosecution there, and they contacted our minister here in Sierra Leone to see if we could assist in arresting this vessel," said Salieu Sankoh, the program's national project coordinator in Sierra Leone. "We were able to arrest [the crew] and send [them] back to Liberia, which to us is a big feather in our cap."

More needs to be done

The EJF says more needs to be done to help West African coastal states reinforce their own security systems, so that more of these arrests can be made. It's calling for the EU to strengthen regulations, as well as the penalties for illegal fishing.

Swarary and his fellow fishermen have noticed fewer trawlers, but he says they still come at night, under the cover of darkness. He says he's doing everything he can to keep his children from following in his footsteps.

"It's a very hard life. I'm suffering so much," he said. "I don't want my children following me. That's why I prefer to suffer myself and put them [through] school, and maybe after school they will get a better job."

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