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In Sierra Leone, local fishers and foreign trawlers battle for their catch

Fishing in Sierra Leone

Fishermen unload their catch from the hold in their ship at Tamba Kula in Freetown. Image by Ashoka Mukpo/Mongabay.

  • At wharfs across the Freetown peninsula in Sierra Leone, local fishers say in recent years it’s become harder to get a good catch. They blame foreign trawlers for overexploiting the country’s fish stocks.
  • Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources says it has systems meant to curb illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, but enforcement remains a challenge.
  • In 2019, China signed a fisheries agreement with Sierra Leone that includes a promise to build a $55 million harbor, but some fishers say boats owned by its citizens are among the worst offenders.

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone — As dawn breaks, the fishing wharf at Tamba Kula in Freetown buzzes with the movement of early-morning commerce. Fishers just back from days spent far out at sea unload their catch from wooden boats, hauling snapper, barracuda and other fish out of icy compartments into cartons carried onto shore. There, women hand over wads of cash and fill plastic containers destined for Freetown’s bustling markets. Bleary-eyed fishermen cluster in packs under palm trees, smoking cigarettes and cracking jokes as Nigerian pop music blares from nearby speakers.

The scene is a familiar one along West Africa’s coast, where artisanal fishers like the ones at Tamba Kula provide millions of people with their daily nourishment. The ocean is the backbone of life in Sierra Leone, with fish accounting for around 80% of the country’s protein intake. Incomes generated from the sea build houses, are reinvested in businesses, and send the children of fishers and market traders to school.

But life is getting harder in places like Tamba Kula. Over the past few years, fish have become scarcer, and the rickety boats with names like “God No Greedy” are having to go farther out to sea for catches that just a few years ago could be found much closer to shore. Sometimes the crews come back near empty-handed. When that happens, the boat owners lose their upfront investment in fuel and the crews don’t get paid.

Many fishermen say foreign trawlers are to blame. Those boats, made from steel and fiberglass, use industrial equipment to catch hundreds of times more fish than the small wooden boats can. In a competition playing out on Sierra Leone’s seas, its artisanal fishing communities are losing.

“When they come with their nets and catch all these fish, we can’t get our catch,” said Saio Kamara, Tamba Kula’s youth association chairman. “And that means we are spending all our money to go to sea for nothing.”

Fish market in Sierra Leone
Barracuda and snapper on offer at a stall near Goderich wharf near Freetown. Fishers say they’ve had to go further out to sea for a good catch in recent years. Image by Ashoka Mukpo/Mongabay.

Red in oar and hook

Overfishing isn’t a new problem in West Africa, where industrial fishing boats from across the world harvest massive quantities of seafood for both local and foreign markets. Many use ecologically destructive practices like bottom trawling, where vessels drag huge nets across the ocean floor, indiscriminately scooping up anything too big to escape and churning up corals, rocks and sediment. In Ghana, for example, a report by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) last year found that fish populations are on the edge of collapse, with the total landing tonnage caught by artisanal fishers declining by more than a third between 1996 and 2016. In 2018 alone, artisanal landings dropped by 13.8% compared to the preceding five-year average.

Among Ghanaians who earn their daily bread in the fishing economy, more than 80% surveyed by EJF said they were earning less than they did five years ago. They also said it was much more common for them to encounter industrial trawlers while out at sea than in previous years.

Ghana isn’t alone in its struggles with overfishing. In Sierra Leone, accurate data on fish populations are hard to come by: a long-planned stock assessment has yet to be completed due to funding gaps. But in 2019, one of the researchers in charge of the study said its preliminary findings indicated the country’s fisheries were “approaching a critical level.”

“The money we generate is not actually enough to fund fish research,” said Sheku Sei, an assistant director at Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources. “We have to do surveys twice a year to count our fish stocks and know their abundance, but we haven’t been able to do that.”

Wooden artisanal fishing boats docked at Tombo
Wooden artisanal fishing boats docked at Tombo, on the Freetown peninsula in Sierra Leone. Image by Ashoka Mukpo/Mongabay.
Fishers fresh back from days spent far out at sea
Fishers fresh back from days spent far out at sea unload their catch from wooden fishing boats at the Tamba Kula wharf in Freetown. Image by Ashoka Mukpo/Mongabay.

In three communities along the Freetown peninsula, Sierra Leonean fishermen told Mongabay they were in a similar position to that of their counterparts in Ghana.

“Before, we experienced good catches, but now it’s come down,” said Aidu Williams, a fisherman for 40 years in Goderich wharf, down the coast from Tamba Kula. “Now we’re suffering because of the trawlers and the nets they use.”

Legally, industrial fishing vessels are banned from operating any closer than 5-6 nautical miles (9-11 kilometers) from shore, leaving what’s called the inshore exclusion zone to artisanal fishers. But those fishers say that in practice it’s common to see trawlers there anyway, particularly at night when they’re harder to spot. Their presence in the coastal zone is dangerous for the small wooden boats that artisanal fishers use, which can have their anchor lines damaged by the much bigger vessels or even be accidentally rammed and sunk.

“There are many conflicts,” Williams said. “They come disturb us. At night they cut their lights and break our anchors. Then problems come.”

While most of the foreign vessels operating in Sierra Leonean waters are licensed by the government, others either skirt or outright break the law. Some have lapsed paperwork, aren’t authorized at all, or use prohibited practices like fishing in off-limits areas or underreporting their catch. In 2018, President Julius Maada Bio said that illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing was costing Sierra Leone around $50 million per year.

“The IUU fishing, I have to be candid with you, is a problem for the country,” said Sei from the fisheries ministry. “It’s a challenge for the ministry, but we’re trying to reduce it to a minimum.”

Sei told Mongabay that in recent years the Sierra Leonean government has taken a series of steps to combat IUU fishing. To obtain a license, fishing vessels have to install GPS beacons that connect to the “automatic identification system” (AIS) or other satellite monitoring networks. That allows ministry officials to track the boats in real time: if they encroach into the exclusion zone, they can theoretically get hit with fines totaling more than $1.5 million. Sei said there are plans to use drones to catch offenders as well.

But AIS can be switched off, and other forms of IUU fishing are nearly impossible to track without surprise inspections at sea. Licensed boats often catch far more fish than they report, or they use banned nets with a small mesh size that also traps young fish and disrupts the breeding cycle.

The only patrol boat available to Sierra Leonean officials at the Goderich wharf, near Freetown.
The only patrol boat available to Sierra Leonean officials at the Goderich wharf, near Freetown. Image by Ashoka Mukpo/Mongabay.

Apprehending violators can be nearly impossible. Sierra Leone has a navy, but its operational capacity is low, and unless an offending boat docks at a Sierra Leonean port it can easily evade arrest. In Goderich, the only government vessel stationed at the wharf when Mongabay visited was a single-engine fiberglass dinghy with little chance of chasing down a fast-moving trawler kilometers offshore at night.

Environmental watchdogs like EJF and Sea Shepherd sometimes feed information on IUU fishing to the Sierra Leonean authorities or carry out joint operations with its navy. But trawlers engaging in illegal activities have adapted their tactics to evade detection.

“At the beginning it was easy for us to catch [them] because they were doing IUU in daylight with their [AIS] on, so even at our desk we could identify them and send on that information,” said Julien Daudu, program manager for West and Central Africa at EJF. “Now I think they understand they need to be a bit more careful, so they don’t use AIS anymore and do it at night.”

Wooden artisanal fishing boats docked at Tombo
Wooden artisanal fishing boats docked at Tombo, on the Freetown peninsula in Sierra Leone. Image by Ashoka Mukpo/Mongabay.

As of 2016, there were 156 foreign vessels licensed to fish in Sierra Leonean waters. The government says those boats bring value to the country by paying taxes and supplementing the artisanal catch, which accounts for around 65% of Sierra Leone’s total annual on-the-books fish production. Without the foreign fleets, fish demand would likely outstrip supply. But artisanal fishers say they’re on the wrong side of a power imbalance: in disputes over collisions or encroachment into prohibited fishing zones, it can be hard to get foreign boats to pay damages.

“They go through the government, and we don’t have the power to stop them,” said Saidu Kabia, deputy harbormaster of Tamba Kula. Kabia said he’s been trying to get compensation from a foreign trawler for nearly three years for damaging his boat in an accident that happened in the exclusion zone. He said he still doesn’t even know what nationality the boat’s owner is.

Statistically, the likeliest answer is the country that dominates Sierra Leone’s fishing industry: China. According to figures EJF shared with Mongabay, 73% of trawling licenses in the country as of 2020 were held by boats either flying a Chinese flag or owned by a Chinese company. Whether their outsized role in Sierra Leonean waters is welcome or not often depends on who you ask.

Saidu Kabia, deputy harbormaster of Tamba Kula in Freetown said his boat was damaged in an accident with a foreign trawler. Image by Ashoka Mukpo/Mongabay.

Friend and foe

In April, EJF released a report detailing the size and scope of China’s distant-water fishing fleet along with data on recorded instances of its involvement in IUU fishing. The fleet is by far the largest on Earth, with at least 2,700 vessels. Now mostly privately owned, it’s helped turn China into a global fishing superpower that’s responsible for 15% of the world’s total marine capture. A fifth of the Chinese catch is produced by these distant-water vessels, which operate in far-flung oceans across the world.

A big chunk of China’s distant-water fleet fishes in Africa. According to EJF, nearly 80% of China’s approved offshore fishing operations are located on the continent’s waters, and Sierra Leone is high on the list of favored destinations. Last year, the two countries signed a bilateral fisheries agreement that included controversial plans for an industrial harbor to be built on a pristine beach near Freetown known for ecotourism.

Part of China’s famed Belt and Road Initiative, supporters of the deal say the multimillion-dollar harbor will allow Sierra Leone to better regulate its fisheries and set up export links to the European Union and elsewhere. But it’s fed resentment and conspiracy theories among fishermen, many of whom have grown frustrated with China’s presence on the sea in recent years.

“They are ruining the sea with their trawlers,” Kabia said. “They catch all the fish but they don’t use all of them, and the ones they don’t want they throw out.”

But Sei of the fisheries ministry bristled at the notion that China plays a bigger role in IUU fishing than other countries.

“I will not want to subscribe to any blame game where somebody will single out a country like China, just because they are ready to give us money,” he told Mongabay in an interview in Freetown. “They have given a grant of $55 million — that is very magnanimous, and I can tell you as a private citizen that I’m very happy with that kind of grant.”

a Chinese trawler
The Liao Dan Yu 6618, a Chinese trawler arrested for illegal fishing in 2021 during a joint operation by Sea Shepherd and the Sierra Leonean Navy. Image by Alice Gregoire/Sea Shepherd.

Boats from the EU and other East Asian countries, he added, have also been caught fishing illegally in Sierra Leonean waters in recent years.

Since IUU fishing often goes undetected, it’s hard to tell with any specificity how much each country contributes to the problem. But China’s distant-water fleet is indisputably involved. EJF’s report said that among the fleet’s recorded IUU fishing incidents worldwide, Sierra Leone was the second-most common location in West Africa after Ghana.

This past March, a U.S. Navy ship working with Sierra Leonean authorities searched a Chinese trawler suspected of fishing illegally. The Chinese Embassy later denounced the boarding operation, saying it was an attempt to “drive a wedge in China-Sierra Leone cooperation.”

Some fishermen told Mongabay that during severe storms or when their boats had mechanical failures, the Chinese trawlers had helped them. But stories of outright conflict are common. In Tombo, a famed coastal fishing town at the southern tip of the Freetown peninsula, Joseph Musa said the anchor chain of the boat he was working on was damaged by a Chinese trawler fishing in the exclusion zone at night with its lights off. When his crew chased the vessel to demand payment for the damage, its captain came to the deck brandishing a handgun.

“I said that you are a foreigner and you don’t have any right to pull a pistol on me,” Musa said. “You damaged our chain and now you want to kill me? And the man said that the Salone [Sierra Leone] government was inside his pocket.”

Market women unload and sort through fish in Tombo, on the Freetown Peninsula in Sierra Leone.
Market women unload and sort through fish in Tombo, on the Freetown Peninsula in Sierra Leone. Image by Ashoka Mukpo/Mongabay.

What’s left, and what’s next?

Illegal fishing grabs headlines, but it’s unclear how long fish stocks in countries like Sierra Leone can sustain even fully licensed and legal fishing at its current level. Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources estimates that around 228,000 tons of fish are taken from the country’s waters every year. Without accurate data on how fast those fish are replenishing themselves, Sierra Leone could be heading toward a cliff.

To give fish stocks a chance at recovery, starting in 2019 the government placed a total ban on industrial fishing and exports during the month of April, when many species breed. But three years in to the new policy, it’s unclear how impactful it’s been. Some experts say that one month a year isn’t long enough to allow fish populations stressed by years of overexploitation to regenerate.

And climate change is likely to worsen the problem. One study released in January, co-authored by the fisheries ministry’s Sei, suggested that in some areas of the Sierra Leonean coast, warmer surface temperatures have already caused a reduction in the stock of small pelagic fish like snapper — a species crucial to local food security. In Tamba Kula, Kabia said shifts in the region’s climate are noticeable, with hotter weather pushing fish deeper below the surface, making them harder to find.

“This year, what I’m experiencing is the sun is too hot. And it makes the catch low, because when the sun heats the water the fish go down low to the cold water,” he said.

Freshly caught Barracuda headed to markets from Tombo
Freshly caught Barracuda headed to markets from Tombo, on the Freetown Peninsula in Sierra Leone. Image by Ashoka Mukpo/Mongabay.

As Sierra Leone’s government struggles to balance the economic benefits of allowing foreign vessels to operate in its waters with the risks of overfishing, climate change could be the factor that tip the scales toward disaster. In a nightmare scenario, the ocean that has fed Sierra Leoneans for generations could be unable to meet local demand, putting the country in the surreal position of needing to import fish from abroad.

For fishers in Tamba Kula, Goderich and Tombo, there’s little reason to think easier days are on the horizon.

“I think we’re going to see widespread collapse of small pelagic species in particular [in West Africa],” said Callum Nolan, senior oceans researcher at EJF. “And the issue with that is that it’s not only livelihoods, it’s also the main kind of protein that people eat.”

Banner image: Fishermen unload their catch from the hold in their ship at Tamba Kula in Freetown. Image by Ashoka Mukpo/Mongabay.

Emma Black contributed reporting to this story.

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