Pirate fishermen off Sierra Leone 'export to EU'

Sierra Leonean fisherman
Image caption Sierra Leone's fishermen say the foreign trawlers do not leave them enough fish

The vast majority of pirate vessels illegally fishing off Sierra Leone are accredited to export their catches to Europe, an environmentalist group says.

An Environmental Justice Foundation report says West Africa has the world's highest levels of illegal fishing.

It says pirate fishermen fish inside exclusion zones, attack local fisherman and refuse to pay fines.

An EU spokesman said he was "very concerned" that illegally fished produce could enter Europe's markets.

The UK-based campaign group has called for vessels which break the law to be blacklisted.

It urges that weaknesses in EU regulations be addressed to stop illegal fish entering Europe.

"The EU is relying too heavily on the assurances of flag states that plainly are not monitoring their fishing fleets in West Africa," said EJF Executive Director Steve Trent.

"Authorities inspecting fish in European ports have very little reliable information on what is happening in the areas where it is caught.

"We must urgently improve communication between the EU and coastal States if we are serious about ending pirate fishing and protecting some of the world's most vulnerable coastal communities."

Oliver Drewes, spokesman for European Fisheries and Maritime Affairs Commissioner Maria Damanaki, told the Reuters news agency that if the abuses were confirmed, the offending vessels would be banned from exporting to the EU and barred from European ports.

'Out of control'

The EJF's 36-page report - entitled Exposing Pirate Fishing: The Fight Against Illegal Fishing in West Africa and the EU - documents "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".

"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 world's most valuable import market for fish," says the report.

It found pirate fishing vessels were out of control:

  • Refusing to pay fines
  • Covering their identification markings
  • Using banned fishing equipment
  • Transhipping fish illegally at sea onto large refrigerated cargo ships destined for East Asia
  • Refusing to stop for fisheries patrols
  • Bribing enforcement officers
  • Fleeing to neighbouring countries to avoid sanctions
  • Committing labour violations
  • Using flags of convenience (bought from a country that lacks the ability or willingness to monitor activities)

The evidence of illegal activity collected through what the EJF called its "community surveillance project" has been sent to the governments of Sierra Leone and South Korea, as well as the EU.

The report quotes Victor Kargbo, head of Fisheries Enforcement in Sierra Leone, as saying a corner had been turned in the fight against poachers in Sierra Leone, but that efforts must be co-ordinated to prevent "unscrupulous operators" simply relocating and continuing their activities elsewhere.

"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," he said.

Sierra Leone's Minister for Fisheries and Marine Resources Soccoh Kabia told the BBC: "This is a problem that has affected us for many years now and and has had serious repercussions for us as a people in terms of economic consequences as well as threatening our food security."

But he said that those fishing illegally should not think they can get away "scot free because one of these days we're going to get you and you'll pay for it".

West African waters have the highest levels of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing in the world, representing up to 37% of the region's catch, says the report.

It reported 252 cases of illegal pirate fishing by industrial vessels in inshore areas over an 18-month period.

In addition, the EJF said 90% of the pirate vessels it investigated in West Africa were bottom trawlers "which devastate marine environments by dragging heavy trawl equipment along the seabed".

Global losses from pirate fishing were estimated to amount to $10-$23.5bn (£6-15bn) each year, said the EJF.

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