Sierra Leone tackles overfishing but gets small fry

About 100 visiting trawlers have fishing permits. More than half of them are Chinese boats, beyond the reach of inspection teams.
Chinese fishermen in a wooden carved boat are seen at the port in Freetown’s Murray Town suburb on April 8, 2019 with the only Joint Maritime Committee (JMC) offshore patrol boat, donated by the World Bank, in the background. (Photo by Saidu BAH / AFP)

With a single deep-sea patrol boat, Sierra Leone was hard put to stop vessels looting its waters despite a month-long ban on industrial fishing.

Dozens of large foreign trawlers are licensed to fish in Sierra Leonean waters and the aim of the ban, which expired Tuesday, was to help replenish species damaged by overfishing.

But those arrested were local people charged with using illegal nets or trying to export fish.

“We have one offshore patrol vessel, two operational inflatable boats, and five inshore patrol craft,” said Abdul Karim Dumbaya, operations chief for the west African country’s Joint Maritime Commission (JMC) linking eight government agencies.

About 100 visiting trawlers have fishing permits. More than half of them are Chinese boats, beyond the reach of inspection teams.

“If we had more than one offshore patrol vessel, then we would have the flexibility of tasking one vessel down south, and the other one up north, and one even in standby. But now we are talking about just one offshore patrol vessel. One. That is a challenge in itself,” Dumbaya said.

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However, the JMC has introduced daily patrols, making a big difference from one outing per week.

During the ban, JMC agents apprehended three artisanal fishermen using illegal nets in Tombo, a fishing village east of the capital Freetown. 

They picked up three others at Bonthe in the southwest, “trying to sell fish to exporters”, Dumbaya said. 

The ban exclusively covered industrial fishing but all fish exports have been forbidden while in place.

It also obliged industrial fishing firms to store fish of different species in cold rooms to prevent shortages and price increases.

Fish accounts for 80 percent of the animal protein intake in the diet of Sierra Leoneans, according to official statistics. The fisheries sector employs 500,000 people, mainly working on traditional boats, out of a population of 7.5 million.

It represents between 12 and 15 percent of gross domestic product.

But the fish caught by locals are becoming ever more rare and ever smaller, according to Andrew Baio, a lecturer at the Institute of Marine Biology and Oceanography. 

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“There is evidence that the stocks are getting depleted and the situation is getting worse and worse,” Baio said, basing his assessment “on the size and quantities of the fish per unit of effort”.

Local fishing families blame the trawlers offshore for wreaking havoc on fish supplies in Atlantic waters and believe the month-long ban has been far too short.

“These trawlers don’t give us a chance. They bankrupted my business. They destroyed my properties,” said Manfereh Suma, a fisherwoman at the Goderich market in Freetown. “I’m left with nothing. Zero.”

Senior harbour master Momoh Bangura, a fisherman for 50 years, says the depletion of fish stocks has reached critical levels.

“When the trawlers began arriving in large numbers in this country in 1980, the quantity of fish began dropping,” he said.

He spoke of zones where fish used to be abundant, but today “there is nothing left”. “Where we fish now, only God can help us, because there are so many rocks,” he added.

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Deputy Commander Philip Juana, a naval officer, reported that the April ban had served as a “test” that could be followed by more, longer measures.

“We need more capacity for our presence to be felt at sea,” he concluded.

Paul Jackson, a fisherman for more than 25 years, said the doors of the ministry of fisheries were shut to him when he tried to denounce Chinese trawlers defying the ban.

China is a big investor in the country.

Ian Ralby, a maritime expert with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, said the lack of means to monitor maritime activity went hand in hand with corruption and weak fines.

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