Sierra Leone diary

Sierra Leone diary

Sierra Leone is one of the world's poorest countries.

Hassan Arouni

Hassan is a regular presenter on the BBC's African service

Yet it loses an estimated $29 million a year to illegal fishing.

It is mostly carried out by industrial trawlers, working with an underpaid crew, who come into the inshore areas which should be reserved for local fishermen, and take their fish.

This results in a direct loss of value of catches that could be taken by local fishermen as well as a loss of income and employment in fishing-related industries.

It also uses up a crucial source of food security and contributes to the depletion of world fish stocks.

The BBC's Hassan Arouni is in Sierra Leone, looking at how illegal fishing is damaging local communities.

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Part one

I am staying in a hotel overlooking Man of War Bay - in Sierra Leone's capital, Freetown.

I woke up this morning to the sound of waves lapping against the shore and the fishermen already at work, hauling in their first catch of fish.

This country - my home country - is still recovering from the devastating ten year civil war, which ended in 2002, and jobs are really hard to come by.

Fishing offers an income to several thousand people here who would otherwise have nothing.

I have spent a good deal of time in the past few months on the beaches here - Man Of War Bay's "Small Beach" and the nearby five mile long Lumley Beach.

I often come here in the evenings to watch the fishermen at work. Very often, after three hours of work, casting their nets, pulling everything by hand they would land something disappointingly small, small catches and even smaller fish.

This is very different from what I used to see when I was growing up in Sierra Leone.

Emptying the seas

Back then, in the 1970s and 80s, the waters were full of fish and the fishermen were always guaranteed big catches.

Barracuda, tuna, shrimp, sardines, lobster, mackerel and snapper. Now it is different. They say they are facing competition - from foreign-owned boats which are emptying the seas, and often illegally.

I am hoping that coming back here to Sierra Leone, I will be able to find out what is going on by speaking to the fishermen and the women who market their fish, government officials and hopefully some of the people involved with some of the foreign owned companies that operate here.

Fishing is just another example of how Sierra Leone has insufficient control over its natural resources.

The government says it's working towards a better deal for the country and its fishermen, as with its other resources: diamonds, golds, precious metals.

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Part two

Fishermen mending their nets

Local fishermen say they have been attacked by foreign trawlers

I first came to Tombo Village 20 years ago, to catch a boat to take me to the southern coast of Sierra Leone.

I was then a student at university and in preparation for my final exams, I had to study aspects of the local fishing industry.

Tombo was already a big fishing village, with its own fleet of brightly painted, wooden-planked boats, and lots of others coming from elsewhere along the coastline with their daily fish catch.

The one image that stayed in my mind from that visit was the number of huge dead sharks lying on Tombo beach.

Their fins had been sliced off to sell to Chinese traders who - I was told - used them in a dish called shark-fin soup.

Lack of jobs

Coming back now, I am amazed to find how much the village has grown.

The ten year civil war which ended in 2001, led to huge displacements of people in Sierra Leone, and there is a desperate lack of jobs.

So, what had been a village of a few thousand people, has grown to about 30,000.

Almost every one of them earns a living in one way or the other, from the sea here.

From market women - who buy, smoke-cure and take the fish all around the country, to young men - some still in school - who support themselves through fishing.

The village is a huge shanty town of shacks built close to each other. A lot of petty trading takes place with hawkers selling basic foodstuffs like chillies, salt, red palm oil, rice and of course fish.

Boiling water

The fishermen range from teenagers to old men in their sixties and seventies and they have told me about the encounters they had with foreign-owned trawlers from as far away as China, Korea and Europe.

They said these vessels entered the Inshore Exclusion Zone - or IEZ - which is supposed to be reserved for local artisanal fishermen - and would destroy their nets.

One man told me how the crew on one of these trawlers had poured boiling water onto the local fishermen while they were in their boats.

The fishermen, who are extremely poor, complain of dwindling catches, which force them to go further out at sea, and to stay out longer in their fragile fishing boats.

And they blame all this on what they claim is overfishing and illegal fishing practices, by the foreign-owned trawlers.

Later, I will join the navy on one of their patrol boats to see how they try to catch the pirate fishers in the act.

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Hassan Arouni will be presenting a day of special reports on illegal fishing for the BBC World Service on Thursday 3 July.

To see more pictures from Hassan's trip to Sierra Leone, click here.