Scourge Of The Seas: Pirate Fishermen Plunder The World’s Fish Supply

By: David Smith

Pirate vessels pose a severe threat to poor coastal fishing communities around the world, threatening ecosystems and committing human rights abuses. But elements of the global fishing industry are finding the means to fight back with the support of charitable organisations.

The global fishing industry is plagued by pirates. They may not as romantic as the peg-legged ones in Treasure Island, nor do they carry parrots on their shoulders, but they are still pirates – posing a deadly threat to the oceans’ stressed and delicate ecosystems, as well as the livelihoods of poor fishing communities. Most of the vessel owners exploit their unregulated crews by imposing slave-like working conditions. The nastiest pirates are involved in human trafficking, narcotics and even murder.

The problem is on a colossal scale, but largely unreported. Pirate fishing, which is more precisely described as IUU (illegal, unreported and unregulated) fishing, accounts for lost revenue to the legitimate fishing industry of up to US$23.5 billion per year. In Africa, the losses are around US$1 billion, which is a huge sum to poor communities reliant on the fishing revenues and source of protein.

But the fishing industry in Africa is fighting back. Using basic technology, a group of 23 poor fishing communities in Sierra Leone recently managed to drive away pirate trawlers from the protected waters close to shore. The fishermen secretly filmed 10 international pirate trawlers and sent 252 reports to the authorities. As a result more than US$1.5 million in revenue from fines has been paid to the Sierra Leone Government.

The initiative for the Sierra Leone project came from the London-based Environment Justice Foundation (EJF), which is fighting to eliminate pirate fishing in West Africa. EJF’s ‘Save the Sea’ campaign tackles pirate fishing by providing poor local communities and governments with resources to combat the problem.

“If these communities don’t have fish they go hungry and possibly even starve,” said Steve Trent, executive director of EJF. “In Sierra Leone (for instance), fish represents nearly two-thirds of animal protein.”

EJF’s methods in Sierra Leone are highly cost-effective. The whole project costs just US$200,000 per year, but it has already caused a 90 percent decline in pirate fishing in the near shore 10-mile zone over a two-year period. The key strategy is to enlist the aid of the local fishing communities in policing their borders. The fishermen are given basic camera equipment, or smart phones, and instructed to take pictures in secret from their dug-out canoes.

“Once the evidence is there, the EJF can intercept boats,” said Trent. “We take law enforcement agencies with us to document everything and make boardings, arrests and seizures.”

“We think our methods will have a massive impact in West Africa in the next three to five years as we are expanding to neighbouring countries such as Liberia and Ghana,” he added.

According to Trent, trans-boundary communication between African nations is essential. Otherwise if the pirate boats are spotted in Sierra Leone waters, they simply steal over to the nearby Liberian border. Without communication networks between the countries, the criminals escape justice.

“It comes down to very basic things like ensuring the person in Liberia responsible for enforcement knows who to call in Sierra Leone,” said Trent. “We’re there to coordinate the project which is vital because the links are often not in place. Most of our methods are inexpensive, but they work. A lot of money has been wasted on aid and development, where simple collaboration can be more effective.”

Pirate Fishermen: Overfishing & Exploiting Lives

The ramifications of pirate fishing for the oceans’ ecosystems are vast. The pirates’ illegal, but highly efficient, methods dramatically deplete stocks and makes it harder for marine biologists to monitor the various species of fish. This is vital work because of the unprecedented demands we are putting on the oceans. The world’s population is rising all the time, yet 80 percent of fish stocks are either over-fished, or fished to the limit of their capacity.

“We can’t carry on taking more from the sea without experiencing serious collapses in whole populations of fish, in whole ecosystems even,” said Trent. “Pirate fishing exacerbates the problem of overfishing of 37 percent of the world’s fish stocks. They use illegal gear, such as monofilament nets, that have a very small mesh gauge and scoop up everything in their path. Then, the pirates throw around 70 percent of the fish over the side of the boat, which is crazy in our resource-scarce world.”

In their efforts to maximize profits, many of the IUU fishing vessel owners also viciously abuse their crew. Working conditions in the fishing industry are already tough for fishermen – it is one of the most dangerous occupations in the world – but for unregulated fishermen, the likelihood of exploitation is far greater. The Environmental Justice Foundation has documented vicious human rights violations fromchild labour to human trafficking.

“There’s a danger that focusing on organised crime detracts from the other serious issues about sustainability, conservation and economics…But the fact is we have detailed evidence on films of pirate vessels involved in human trafficking, the arms trade, narcotics and even murder. We are investigating this now and will be publishing a report later this year,” Trent said.

ECF has already documented the terrible working conditions found onboard pirate ships. Crew were lured on to the boats with promises of good pay, but were often never even paid. In 2010 for instance, EJF staff found Senegalese staff as young as 14 aboard the Marcia 707, a South Korean-flagged canoe-support vessel, in Sierra Leone waters. When EJF officers boarded the ship they found a makeshift structure used to house up to 200 people, including the child fishers, in cramped and unsanitary conditions. The young boys told the officers about how they had been picked up by the South Korean vessel in Senegal and were forced to work on the boat for three months at a time.

The living conditions aboard the Korean-flagged Apsari 3 were even worse. The 36-crew, originating from Korea, China, Vietnam, Indonesia and Sierra Leone, described how they were flown from their native countries to the port of Las Palmas in the Canary Islands to meet the vessel. Contracts were set for two years with no chance of a visit home. One crew member had never even seen his 18-month-old child. For sleeping quarters, eight men shared a small area of the hold with four bunks made from planks and cardboard. They took it in turns to sleep there. Four crew members slept in a windowless space leading directly into the fish hold while the other four worked their long shift.

Crew members from Sierra Leone on board the Apsari 3 had no contracts, and were paid in boxes of frozen discarded “trash” fish which they would then have to sell locally. Although they were aware that the vessel they were working on was depleting local fish stocks and destroying other fishers’ livelihoods, these men felt they had little choice but to take the employment.

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The Fight Against Pirate Fishing

The EJF is not the only charitable body fighting pirate fishing in Africa. The US-based Pew Charitable Trusts, one of the world’s richest not-for-profit funds, shares many of the same goals and remedies. Like EJF, Pew believes in fostering international collaboration to fight the pirates.

At the end of 2012, Pew agreed to provide technical support for the collaborative Fish-i Africa pilot project, in tandem with the Stop Illegal Fishing working group and the five coastal States of Comoros, Kenya, Mozambique, Seychelles and Tanzania. The project pools the expertise of national enforcement agencies, regional bodies and international experts to battle illegal fishing.

John Briley, Communications Officer for Pew’s Global Campaign to End Overfishing, said: “To me this project feels like a major shift in the fight against pirate fishing. We’ve seen a level of collaboration between African governments that we would not have seen 10 years ago and it’s working really well. The five south east African nations are sharing information and sharing resources. A lot of information has already led to vessels being turned away from port, or denied permission to offload fish.

It’s a great example of governments putting their foot down and saying we can’t tolerate this any more. It’s about natural resources, national sovereignty, local economies and people. The developing world needs a lot more arrangements like Fish-I Africa.”

Another successful scheme to fight pirates took place in the Barents Sea, where pirate fishermen were stealing 100,000 tonnes of cod a year. The joint efforts of Norwegian and Russian authorities managed to eliminate the problem altogether in 2010.

“Satellite tracking and monitoring of boats coming into fisheries showed they’d been 100 percent successful,” said Briley. “But the Norwegian authorities have a lot of financial resources not available to the poorer African nations, who need more guidance. I’m not certain some of the methods used in the Barents Sea are scalable,” he noted.

Both Pew and EJF support a range of simple measures to frustrate the pirates. The most important move would be to make it a legal stipulation for large fishing vessels to have a unique vessel identifier (UVI), which is a number given by the International Maritime Organization (IMO). These numbers are already required for all commercial shipping vessels, but fishing vessels have been exempted.

“Every cell phone has a registration number so you can trace it. Likewise, cars have number plates as well as vehicle identification numbers stamped on their engine boxes. But large fishing vessels don’t have to have them,” said Briley.

“The pirates can change their names easily just by registering some paper work. It’s also easy for them to change their flag of registration, so a lot of vessels engage in questionable activity and then when the heat is on from the authorities they change their identity. They are not held accountable through the UVIs.”

Although there has been some resistance to the move in fishing communities, it would actually be simple and cheap to implement.

“It’s not onerous for the industry at all and it would make a big difference,” said EJF’s Trent. “I think we are close to getting the support we need to see this implemented in the next couple of years,” he believed.

The Second measure Pew would like to see is international ratification of the UN Port State Measures Agreement, which creates an obligation on governments to refuse port access to vessels suspected of being involved in IUU fishing.

“Around the world there have been a big number of ports of convenience where vessels know they can sell fish. Either they don’t have the enforcement capacity to deal with it, or they don’t have the manpower, or training,” said Briley. “The Port State Measures Agreement empowers them. All foreign flagged vessels would have to call in advance if they are coming into port, which they don’t have to do now.  So if the authorities are suspicious they can submit the boat to inspection. This would close down the avenues to pirate-caught fish, and make it much more expensive for those trying to flout international laws.”

Finally, another third measure would be to establish an electronic global register of IUU fishing vessels Рlike an international watch list. This “one-stop” information shop would enable authorities to make informed decisions about whether to allow them in to port.

Trent would like to see vessels with high-value fish take on vessel monitoring systems so they can be tracked. “Fishing on the high seas is more problematic. We cannot enlist the help of fishermen near the shores in tracking the vessels,” he said.

On a global scale, EJF are also pushing to build transparency into seafood supply chains and have traceability of all products.

“Sainsbury’s supermarket can tell you what boat the fish is caught on, the skipper and the location. If we do that for the whole of the EU we’d wheedle out a huge amount of pirate fish.”

The EU is the world’s largest market for fish with 26 percent of world exports so full traceability would have a massive global impact. As long as they can operate under cover of darkness, the pirates escape capture.”

Related: Plenty of Fishes in the Sea? Think Again.

During a trip with the U.S. ambassador to Sierra Leone to the far south of the country, Trent further witnessed the human effects of their campaign against pirate fishermen.

“Again and again and again people on the beaches were telling us ‘this is amazing, our fish are coming back and we’re getting bigger and bigger catches since we got rid of the pirate trawlers’. They said the individual fish sizes were also growing which means the populations are recovering,” he said.

By David Smith,