Sea Shepherd Global has requested the US Department of State to investigate the entire Atlantic Shrimpers Fleet, calling the arrest of the Star Shrimper XXV an 'ominous red flag' that calls the entire sustainable-certification program into question.
Since February (2017), under the name Operation Sola Stella, Sea Shepherd has been assisting the government of Liberia to tackle illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.
The Sea Shepherd vessel Bob Barker was deployed as a civilian offshore patrol vessel operating in Liberian waters, under the direction of the Liberian Ministry of National Defense.
Prior to the arrival of the Bob Barker in Liberia, fishermen from Harper, a Liberian town on the border with Cote d'Ivoire, complained of daily incursions by foreign industrial fishing vessels running over artisanal nets and plundering fish from a 6-nautical mile inshore exclusion zone (IEZ) reserved for traditional fishermen.
Approximately 33,000 Liberians depend on small-scale artisanal fisheries for their livelihood. The local fishermen of Harper pled for assistance from the resourced-stretched Liberian Coast Guard.
Days after the deployment of the Bob Barker, on 13th March, the Liberian Coast Guard launched lightning-style raids from the Sea Shepherd vessel, making their first arrests in waters that had not been patrolled for decades.
A target in sight
By the time the vessel that would later be identified as the Star Shrimper XXV was detected on the radar of the Bob Barker entering Liberian waters from Cote d'Ivoire, Operation Sola Stella had already netted three arrests.
A Liberian Coast Guard boarding team quickly mobilized on board the Bob Barker and proceeded to the slow-moving target by small boat, where the vessel was discovered actively fishing with its trawling gear in the water.
The nets of the Star Shrimper XXV dragged through Liberian waters, less than 6-nautical miles from the coast, when the Nigerian captain sighted the Sea Shepherd small boat and tried to make a run back for Ivorian waters. The Liberian Coast Guard scrambled aboard and took control of the bridge.
The captain was ordered to stop the vessel and to bring his trawling gear back aboard. As the net came out of the water, the illegally-caught shrimp and fish was released back into the sea.
With the net finally on deck, it was clear that there was no turtle excluder device (TED) attached to the trawl net. TEDs are grates attached to the mouths of shrimp trawl nets that keep sea turtles and other marine life out of the nets.
The Liberian Coast Guard arrested the vessel and ordered it to proceed to the port of Monrovia. Three Liberian Coast Guard sailors remained on board as it made the passage to the Liberian capital.
A 'Friend of the Sea'
The Star Shrimper XXV is part of a massive fleet of 70 fishing vessels owned by Atlantic Shrimpers Ltd that is certified by the US Department of State to export shrimp to the United States because of the use of measures to reduce by-catch including turtles.
Known as the 'Section 609' certification process, this program extends TED requirements to vessels of nations importing shrimp to the United States. Given that the United States is the world's largest single importer of shrimp, the Section 609 program serves as a critical tool in the protection of sea turtles (and other marine life) around the world.
The fleet is currently certified under 'Friend of the Sea' criteria for sustainable fishing of Black Tiger Prawns, however the guidelines require vessels to comply with legal requirements including valid fishing permits.
On board the Star Shrimper XXV, some of shrimp was discovered already boxed up and ready for shipment - labelled for import to Greece. Shrimp from the Star Shrimper XXV is exported worldwide by Primstar B.V., a company in The Netherlands, which in turn is owned by Dutch fishing giant Cornelis Vrolijk.
The European connection
Cornelis Vrolijk is a name well-known to British fishermen because the flagship supertrawler that bears the company name catches 23% percent of the fish in British waters. The fishing vessel Corelis Vrolijk has a long history of fishing in West Africa.
Two years ago, the British Royal Navy's Fisheries Protection Squadron caught a sister ship, or more accurately sister-supertrawler, to the fishing vessel Cornelis Vrolijk, with an incredible 632,000 kilograms of mackerel on board that had been caught in a protected area off Cornwall. The vessel was fined in the British courts.
Upon news of the arrest of the Star Shrimper XXV, Director of Atlantic Shrimpers Limited Stewart Harper told Follow the Money, "Yes, the message is correct, we regret the situation very much. It seems that one of our captains, a Ghanaian (sic), has gone beyond the pale. I can add that this goes against every company instruction."
This is however not the first time that the company has had problems with illegal fishing, having been previously arrested in Cameroon, which Harper also confirmed, "Yes, this is the second problem we have with illegal fishing", he told Follow the Money.
Justice for the small-scale fishers of Harper, Liberia
Operation Sola Stella continued for another two months after the arrest of the Star Shrimper XXV. During that time, not a single incursion occurred from the border of Cote d'Ivoire. Word had spread among dubious fishing operators that Liberian waters were under control.
All in all, Operation Sola Stella led to the arrest of four vessels involved in IUU fishing, as well as a refrigerated cargo vessel for identity fraud and IUU fishing. The refrigerated cargo vessel was arrested for transmitting a false identity to the Liberian port authorities where it was planning to offload 460 tons of undocumented fish cargo.
After spending 26 days in custody in Monrovia, the Star Shrimper XXV was released from detention at the Liberian Coast Guard base upon payment of a substantial fine for fishing without a license. It passed the town of Harper on the long road back to Nigeria, but its fishing gear remained secured to the deck.
Sea Shepherd Global has just formally requested the US Department of State to investigate the entire Atlantic Shrimpers Fleet, calling the arrest of the Star Shrimper XXV an "ominous red flag" that calls the entire sustainable-certification program into question.
Meanwhile, the Bob Barker continues to patrol waters off West Africa on the hunt for illegal fishing vessels, as the crew pore over their radars looking for the next Star Shrimper.
Peter Hammarstedt is the Director of Campaigns for Sea Shepherd Global (www.seashepherdglobal.org) and heads the IUU Task Force for Africa. He can be followed on Facebook @captainbobbarker