Author: Captain Saio S. Marrah (Rtd) – Expert in International Relations and Security Studies……..
There is a broad-spectrum of international consensus regarding best practices in monitoring and inspecting commercial fishing vessels aimed at eliminating or to say the least – limiting the prospects for criminal activities at sea. That said, the stark reality is that many countries (especially south of the Sahel) lack the wherewithal and the proficiency to actualise the necessary degree of law enforcement. Adding to their woes, many countries do not have the patrol vessels and where available, they cannot afford to pay the fuel cost to facilitate robust costal patrol that can keep pirates away.
Regrettably, where law enforcement officials are poorly paid, they may easily slip into the slippery but firm grip of corruption and eventually look the other way in return for an infinitesimal bribe. The situation is made even more convoluted due to the trans-national nature of pirate fishing. This is so because, illegally caught fish may be trans-shipped on the high seas, or maybe easily laundered through foreign ports.
Due to all these intricacies and obscurities, one may feel despondent and certainly downhearted over pirate fishing, in that its structural causes coalesced with its inherent difficulties of monitoring, inspecting and prosecuting wrong doers appears to be herculean if not absolutely unfeasible. But it can be said that, with the necessary political will, discipline and selflessness, far better results can be achieved in the battle against pirate fishing. Because under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), nations are required to monitor and control fishing vessels flying their flag. Nevertheless, investigations indicate that many industrial fishing vessels are out of control.
Generically, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing seems to flourish in countries where open and accountable governance is lacking. Similarly it can also thrive in states that the activities of the civil society are silenced. In addendum, one can persuasively argue that, pirate fishing will thrive in an opaque environment where corrupt officials, powerfully vested interests and various forms of mismanagements are able to subsist beyond the scrutiny of the government and the public. However, creating an environment that is less conducive to corruption is certainly not a panacea for our costal area, yet it may be a vital condition to ensure fishing contributes to pro-poor development revenues and ultimately the conservation of our remarkable but vulnerable marine ecosystems.
Pirate fishing, otherwise known as Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing in Sierra Leone persist to be rampant; whiles its economic, ecological and security ramifications remain telling. According to recent findings, global losses incurred due to Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated fishing are estimated to be between US$10 billion and US$23.5 billion per annum. Sadly, impoverished West African waters are estimated to have the highest levels of Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated fishing in the world, representing up to 37 percent of the region’s catch.
Besides the economic losses, pirate fishing in Sierra Leone severely compromises the food security and sustenance of our coastal communities; hence pirate fishing has a devastating impact on coastal fishing communities. Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing destroys artisanal fishing gears and there are instances when they even attack our local fishers; thereby jeopardising the lives and livelihoods of coastal communities that have few alternative sources of food and income.
Research indicates that an estimated 230,000 people are directly employed in fisheries. Fish is a vital source of protein in Sierra Leone and across West Africa. It’s scientifically proven that fish provides a wide range of essential micro-nutrients, protein, vitamins and minerals that are often lacking in the carbohydrate-rich staples that form the bulk of the diet of people in Sierra Leone in particular and West Africa in general. In Sierra Leone for instance, fish provides 64% of animal protein and in remote coastal communities it can be convincingly maintained that almost all animal protein is derived from fish.
Pirate fishing vessels compromise the health of fish stocks and the marine environment. It can be stated that 90% of vessels operating in West Africa are bottom trawlers – which drag heavy trawl equipment along the seabed. The downside of this is that its harms the bottom habitats and leaves marine lives vulnerable. Whiles pirate fishing vessels profits from such criminal acts; they fundamentally undermine legitimate fishing operations in Sierra Leone thereby reducing our competitive stance at the international level. By fishing in inshore areas reserved for local fishers, illegal fishers displace our artisanal fishers into areas where fish breed, resulting in further damage to the marine environment and the depletion of fish stocks.
These pirate vessels fish well inside exclusion zones, they attack our brothers and sisters engaged in fishing, they refuse to pay fines (when caught), they conceal their identification markings, they use banned fishing equipment and under water explosives, they tranship fish illegally at sea, they refuse to stop for fisheries or naval patrols, they bribe law enforcement officers, they flee to neighbouring countries to evade sanctions, and they flagrantly perpetrate labour violations.
When countries lack a Unique Vessel Identifier, it enables devious operators to change their vessel names or flag hop to avoid detection and sanctions, making it complicated for Sierra Leone coast guards to ascertain whether vessels have records of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing or are managed by legitimate operators. As pirate fishing persists to obliterate marine environments and blight the lives of our coastal communities in Sierra Leone, there is an urgent need for governments, international organisations, and the seafood industries to address this issue.
But the media should take the lead in enlightening the people of Sierra Leone and the world about such criminal activities. That said, the appropriate authorities should and must work concertedly with journalists so that the latter can relate the challenges, threats, problems and success of operations to the world for appropriate actions to be taken without procrastination.
There isn’t any need to be Media-phobic. The Media is an essential tool of our society and the community of nations. They aren’t our enemies; they are a sophisticated pressure group, a shadow opposition of the government, a mouthpiece, an outlet of information and a good source of research. Tell them the problems and the challenges of tackling pirate fishing, the world will know in a minute and attention will be drawn to it and gradually the solution to the problem will emerge. Therefore, as the issue (pirate fishing) is inter-ministerial, collegiality is highly essential in formulating policies to arrest this rampant problem. But whiles the government is bureaucratically planning in concert with the international community, the journalists can utilise available information to sensitise people and mount pressure on the international community so that illegal fishers will comply with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
We need to protect and restore the dignity of our brothers and sisters engaged in the fishing industry, we must ward-off criminal foreign fishers from our shores and our territorial waters, we must have full control of our ocean and coastal areas and must realise the full benefit of our marine resources and increase our foreign direct investment in that sector.