Illegal overfishing by Chinese trawlers leaves Sierra Leone locals ‘starving’ – says Guardian report

Sierra Leone Telegraph: 05 February 2022:

Many questions are being asked about the competence of the Bio-led government in managing the Sierra Leone economy after four years in power. And the fishing sector is no exception, whiles the government loses hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue every year from the country’s natural resources.

Incompetence, rampant corruption and poor governance have become the hallmark of a government that is solely bent on staying in office for a second term, despite the massive damage being done to the country’s economy.

With unemployment at an alltime high of over 80%, declining export revenue, and a currency that is losing its value against the Dollar and Sterling every month, the government has resorted to massive borrowing – ramping up the country’s debt levels to an alltime high of almost $3 Billion with very little evidence of government spending on improved healthcare, provision of reliable supply of electricty and water.

A recent report published by the UK Guardian Newspaper speaks of grotesque failure by the Bio-led government to manage the country’s fishing sector which is being bled by foreign trawlers, costing the government over $50 million in lost revenue.

This is the Guardian Report:

As illegal industrial-scale fishing by foreign fleets pillages fish populations, despairing coastal communities say they feel powerless

Along Tombo’s crumbling waterfront, dozens of hand-painted wooden boats are arriving in the blistering midday sun with the day’s catch for the scrum of the market in one of Sierra Leone’s largest fishing ports.

In a scrap of shade at the bustling dock, Joseph Fofana, a 36-year-old fisherman, is repairing a torn net. Fofana says he earns about 50,000 leone (£3.30) for a brutal, 14-hour day at sea, crammed in with 20 men, all paying the owner for use of his vessel. “This is the only job we can do,” he says. “It’s not my choice. God carried me here. But we are suffering.”

Every day, about 13,000 small boats like Fofana’s cast off from Sierra Leone’s 314-mile (506km) coastline. Fisheries employ 500,000 of the west African nation’s nearly 8 million people, represent 12% of the economy and are the source of 80% of the population’s protein consumption.

But a dozen fishermen interviewed by the Guardian say their catch is dwindling rapidly due to sustained overfishing on a large scale. “Many years ago, you could see fish in the water from here, even big ones,” says Fofana. “Not any more. There’s less fish than ever before.”

Tombo’s fishing community put the blame squarely on foreign fleets. About 40% of industrial licences are owned by Chinese vessels; though legal, locals say they pay meagre fees for their permits, under-declare their catch and add little to the local economy.

Joseph Fofana says he earns £3.30 for a 14-hour day at sea. ‘This is the only job we can do,’ he says. ‘It’s not my choice.’ Photograph: Peter Yeung

At the same time, illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing is a huge problem, costing Sierra Leone $50m a year, President Julius Maada Bio said in 2018. Last year, a joint operation by the Sierra Leonean navy and the conservation organisation Sea Shepherd Global led to the arrest of five foreign-owned fishing vessels in two days, including two Chinese-flagged trawlers found to be fishing without a licence.

Those in Tombo who have protested at the illegal fishing say they face violence from the crews. Alusine Kargbo, a 34-year-old mackerel fisherman, says trawlers’ crews threw boiling water at him when he confronted them over fishing in areas where trawling is prohibited. “Before, the trawlers weren’t in our zones, now they are,” Kargbo says. “The difference is so great [in terms of his catches] compared with before, I’m struggling to feed my children.”

Alusine Kargbo says boiling water was thrown at him when he confronted a trawler fishing illegally. Photograph: Peter Yeung

Others are being forced farther afield in search of fish. Ibrahim Bangura, 47, often goes on three-day fishing trips into the Atlantic, a deadly venture in the rainy season. But while the potential reward is greater, he says conflicts with Chinese trawlers are more likely. “There’s so, so many of them,” says Bangura. “They disturb my property, trash my nets. And if you try to stop them, they will fight you.”

In addition to dominating licensed markets, China is consistently ranked as the worst offender for IUU fishing in a global index of 152 countries. Across west Africa, illegal trawling is devastating marine ecosystems and undermining local fisheries, which are a critical source of jobs and food security. A study in 2017 found that Sierra Leone, Senegal, Mauritania, the Gambia, Guinea-Bissau and Guinea lose $2.3bn (£1.7bn) a year due to IUU fishing, which amounts to 65% of the legal reported catch.

Some experts warn that Sierra Leone’s coastal communities face devastating consequences of legal and illegal overfishing. “The Chinese fleet has been taking the profits of the fisheries for 30 years and the impact on fish stocks has been terrible,” says Stephen Akester, an adviser to Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources between 2009 and 2021. “The resources are disappearing, fishermen are suffering, families are starving. Many have just one meal a day.”

“Imagine working for weeks and not being able to catch food,” says Woody Backie Koroma of the Sierra Leone Artisanal Fishermen Union. “They are getting debts. They go to bed without food.”

Such is the strain, says Koroma, that one debt-ridden fisherman in Tombo killed himself last year after his boat was confiscated by the local authorities.

Efforts to manage the sector, including the creation of an inshore exclusion zone that prohibits all but subsistence fishing in the six nautical miles closest to shore, installing movement trackers on industrial trawlers and creating community fishing associations to promote sustainability, have so far had limited impact due to policing and funding challenges, according to officials. A month-long ban on industrial fishing in 2019 was criticised as being too short to allow stocks to replenish.

“We receive a lot of reports and intelligence of illegal fishing,” says Abbas Kamara, an officer at Tombo’s fisheries ministry. “But it’s difficult to corroborate. The trawlers work day and night.

“Fish is very important to Tombo – it’s how people survive – but the fish go to the Chinese,” says Kamara.

The Chinese embassy in Freetown did not respond to the Guardian’s request for comment.

Amara Kalone, at the Environmental Justice Foundation, a charity that monitored foreign vessels in Sierra Leone until last year when funding for the project ran out, says fleets are adapting their tactics to evade restrictions brought against industrial fishing.

“Semi-industrial ships are coming closer to the estuaries, and they are in a legal grey area,” he says. “Other crews are using very fine, monofilament nets, which are illegal but hard to track.”

Another major concern is the rise of marauding fishing crews from neighbouring countries such as Guinea and Liberia, which catch juvenile fish in protected breeding grounds, fatally undermining fish populations, according to Salieu Sankoh, coordinator of the West Africa Regional Fisheries Programme in Sierra Leone. “It’s a serious threat to the nutrition of the population,” he says. “Some local boats go to the sea and come back with nothing.”

In Tombo, as the sky turns orange over Sierra Leone’s Western Peninsula and the ocean becomes unusually still, a sense of despair sets in for the many artisanal fishers struggling to stay afloat.

Low hauls mean that Ali Mamy Koroma, a 40-year-old fisherman with two wives and six children, has had to borrow 1m Leone (£65) to pay his bills. “I feel like I’m drowning,” says Koroma, slumped against the wall at the back of Tombo’s indoor market. “But I can’t swim. There is no way out.”

Source: This story is published in the Guardian Newspaper in London.

We hope that the government of Sierra Leone will take swift action to reverse this appalling exploitation of the country’s depleting natural resource.

1 Comment

  1. When you have a government that have lost its way and can’t provide the basic service for its people, the predictable outcome is always the same. The first duty of any government is to provide security for its people. Defend the territorial integrity of the state. Land, air sea and water. Protect lives, property and above all else prorect the livelihoods of its citizens. In the absence of all of the the above, any government that fails to meet this fundamental pillars of a state, ceased to exist. Which makes its existence all but in name. Is Sierra Leone under Bio a BANANA REPUBLIC? I will like to think so. Because lets be honest with ourselves, everyone will like a slice of Banana not Marmite . Which I rather our country is a Marmite. No one will take the piss with us. You either love us or due to our strict interpretation of the laws of the Seas, you hate us. Unfortunately as a nation and a banana Republic that is where we found ourselves. For international criminals is a Godsend opportunity, that are always looking out for such weak States that are incapable of defending themselves to take full advantage of the Situation.

    We saw what is happening with our fishing stocks, with European and Chinese trawlers, who are busy stealing from us, knowing full well the inept ability of the Bio government to get a grip with this particular issue, have put our fishermen breadline on the brink. Here is a government that can’t support its citizens in their hours of need, at the sametime don’t have the back bone to standup to this Chinese and European criminals, that are ruining our fishing industries. This is clearly a case of you harvest what you sowed. This foreign criminals have no respect for Bio, because they know they are corrupt to the bone marrow. They take the risks in fishing in our territorial waters because they calculate if they get caught, they will just bribe or talk their way out of trouble.

    If Bio is serious, any Chinese or European national caught fishing in our territorial water and is tried and found guilty, should be sent to long prison terms. That is how the Egyptian government managed to tackled fishing piracy in their waters. Just send two or three would be foreign fishermen at Pademba Road prison. Then that will teach others, is a risk not worth taking. But is Bio and his fisheries Ministry up for the challenge, that is the 65 million dollars questions that remains to be answered. We cannot allow criminals to come and get rich at the back of our poor fishermen. We need to fight back.

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