Film exposes the tragedy of pirate fishing in Sierra Leone

Pirate Fishing
The Ocean 3 under arrest in Freetown harbour one week after being observed fishing illegally by EJF and Al Jazeera

The Ocean 3 trawler under arrest in Freetown harbour one week after being observed fishing illegally by EJF and Al Jazeera. All photos by EJF

A new Al Jazeera documentary follows reporter Juliana Ruhfud and producer Orlando von Einsiedel as they investigate Sierra Leone's multi-million dollar illegal fishing trade

Recently emerging from a vicious 11-year civil war, the country has struggled to rebuild itself. The abundance of fish in the Sierra Leone seas is vital for their recovery, accounting for 10 per cent of the GDP and 65 per cent of animal protein eaten here. The Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) have been working on the issue in Sierra Leone since 2008. They maintain that if the stock is sustainably managed, the fishing industry could be the answer to the country's problems, providing it with much needed additional income. Obai Taylor-Kamara, 3rd Counsellor, Sierra Leone High Commission said these resources are ‘the key to economic and social development'. However, if the rate of illegal fishing by international trawlers continues unchecked, there will soon be no stock left for the people of Sierra Leone to survive off.

In this documentary, Juliana Ruhfus digs deeper into the illegal fish trade occurring off the West African coast, exposing some of the people involved in the trade and the consequences it has on Sierra Leone's local community. As a country ranked 180 out of 187 on the Human Development Index, it has been given the title of one of the worst places to live. In a desperate attempt to catch one of the pirate fishers red handed, Ruhfus goes to great lengths to track the trawlers and contact officials who can help impose penalties. Using the few resources they have - including a community surveillance boat donated by the EJF - to track these giant trawlers, Ruhfus and Victor unravel the ugly truth behind the workings of the fishing industry.

Between corrupt local authorities and the cheating foreign fishing fleets who overstep their boundaries quite literally, the EJF are determined to get more people involved in the fight against pirate fishing. Taking steps such as convincing the European Union and other markets to keep a close watch on the source of the fish they import, as well as sanitary conditions, the EJF has made some progress since they first began work in Sierra Leone. Photographs and other GPS evidence of ships that are suspected to be committing illegal acts have been sent to EU and local governments. In the last 2 years, 300 sightings of the kind have been made, with 8 individual vessels photographed, and the EJF are encouraging foreign countries to blacklist vessels from fishing anywhere else once they have been caught fishing illegally. However, the EJF believe that not enough is being done on the EU's part to curb the practice.

In the discussion preceding the screening of the documentary, Max Schmid, EJF campaigner, said that the EU law encourages complete transparency of the source of the fish, under the EUIC Regulation introduced 26 months ago. ‘While there has been some change in behaviour, overall it isn't working' Max says. Schmid and Ruhfus both agree that the fines imposed on the companies held accountable are not high enough to make a strong impact on them and that more effective action needs to begin taking place.

Obai Taylor-Kamara said that there is a need for the ‘international community to live up to its responsibilities.' However, he has also said that the Sierra Leone government is introducing new policies in response to the issue. These include an increase in fines, an improvement in welfare conditions for artisans, construction of fishing harbours and docks, loans to improve the status of the fishermen, and Maritime Training School to ensure better skilled fishers. Additionally, the EJF have called for each fishing vessel to have a unique number to avoid the opportunity for ships to change their names and flags to make themselves unidentifiable.

Since the accusations that arose in the documentary claiming the Sierra Leone Navy works with the fishing pirates, the Navy has begun looking into the allegations, while fines have begun driving other vessels away. Despite there being significant progress, the EJF are urging people everywhere to take action by writing to the EU, Spanish and South Korean authorities and spreading the word about this illegal trade that needs to be brought to an end immediately.

Further information:

Pirate Fishing can be viewed here.


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