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As catches fall, Sierra Leone’s artisanal fishers turn to destructive practices

Baby bonga shad (Ethmalosa fimbriata).

Baby bonga shad (Ethmalosa fimbriata). In Pepel, a channel-fishing hotspot, fishers target the area during the spawning season. Image by Josef Skrdlik for Mongabay.

  • Sierra Leone’s fish stocks have been under severe strain in recent years due to intensive industrial fishing and a growing population of artisanal fishers, with fishers consistently reporting falling catches.
  • This has triggered heightened competition for increasingly scarce yields.
  • To secure their livelihoods, artisanal fishers have turned to unsustainable fishing gear, such as undersize-mesh nets, and target fish breeding and nursery grounds, disrupting the fish reproductive cycle.
  • The crisis is fueled by the ready availability of illegal nets, weak law enforcement and widespread economic hardship.

PORT LOKO DISTRICT, Sierra Leone — At 5 a.m., as the horizon brightens and waves start to subside, more than a dozen wooden canoes along the shoreline between the settlements of Mahera Beach and Banda in northern Sierra Leone set off into the ocean.

Each canoe casts a net, one end tied to a pole on the beach, and traces a semicircle as it progresses into the water. Weights attached to the net fall to the ocean floor, trapping fish on the beach side.

Once the semicircle is complete, the net’s other end is dragged to shore. Two groups of four fishers then take hold of each end and begin pulling the net out of the water. After three hours of intense work, the fishers haul the net onto the beach. It contains a few crabs, shrimps and hundreds of thrashing baby fish.

This fishing method, called beach seining, is banned in Sierra Leone due to its lack of selectivity and tendency to bring in excessive catches of juvenile fish, which aggregate in shallow coastal waters before reaching maturity and migrating to the open sea. Yet it’s becoming increasingly popular among local fishers.

“You just cast the net and after some time, you have fish,” said Foday Kamara, a 26-year-old owner of one of the nets on the beach.

Beach seining is currently Foday Kamara's main source of income.
A Sierra Leonean fisher. Image by Josef Skrdlik for Mongabay.

Kamara, who’s been a fisher since his early teens, also owns a drift net to catch adult bonga shad (Ethmalosa fimbriata) offshore. But to get a decent catch, fishers say they must now spend longer hours at sea and more money on fuel than they did just five years ago. So for Kamara, beach seining is currently his main source of income. The practice is also appealing for its low capital intensity, as it doesn’t require an engine, only a small canoe, often built by the fishers themselves, and nets.

“I’m doing this job because of hardship, because having a job in this country isn’t easy, unless you go thief,” said Ibrahim Kamara, another of the beach seiners.

Quantifying the depletion of Sierra Leone’s fish stocks is complicated. No comprehensive fish stock assessment has been conducted since surveys undertaken in 2008-2011, which indicated that local fisheries were overexploited. But the country’s Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources confirmed fishers’ concerns about falling catches. “Fish abundance continues to drop,” said Lahai Seisay, the ministry’s monitoring and compliance director, referring to an internal noncomprehensive stock analysis done by ministry staff.

The industrial sector undoubtedly plays an important role in the crisis. According to a report by the Financial Transparency Coalition, a U.S.-based organization, 37 industrial vessels in Sierra Leone were implicated in illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing from 2010-2022 — the second-highest number globally. IUU incidents continued throughout 2023, despite authorities’ claims that the practice had been largely eliminated.

That said, artisanal fishing, which accounts for around 66% of the country’s official annual fish production, is also responsible. Alongside beach seining, diminishing harvests and economic hardship in fishing communities have also driven up destructive fishing in estuaries and coastal rivers and creeks, critical fish breeding and nursery grounds. In a practice known locally as channel fishing, fishers encircle patches of river or marine shallows with undersize-mesh nets, clearing them from top to bottom. “The small mesh size captures even the eggs,” said Thomas Turay, president of the Sierra Leone Artisanal Fishermen Union.

Mongabay also heard reports of recent dynamite fishing, where fishers throw explosives into the water, killing or damaging all aquatic life in the vicinity, in the town of Pepel on the Sierra Leone River. The town’s headman, Momoh Conteh, said this is done by poor people lacking the means to purchase fishing nets.

“The competition is high and the stocks are declining, so everyone looks for a method to get at least some catch,” said Wudie Koroma, the artisanal fishermen union’s spokesperson.

Women fish traders sit with beach seining catch dominated by baby lady fish and shrimps on Mahera Beach.
Women sort a beach-seining catch dominated by baby fish and shrimps on Mahera Beach. Image by Josef Skrdlik for Mongabay.
Beach seining
Beach seining on Mahera Beach. The practice is banned in Sierra Leone due to its lack of selectivity and tendency to bring in excessive catches of juvenile fish. Image by Josef Skrdlik for Mongabay.

“If they wanted to go strictly by the mesh-size regulation, they would go to sea and not find much in their nets,” said Salieu Sankoh, a marine biologist affiliated with Fourah Bay College in Freetown and the former director of the West Africa Regional Fisheries Program in Sierra Leone, a World Bank-funded initiative to improve fisheries management in the region.

Koroma estimated that up to 70% of artisanal fishers are currently involved in damaging fishing practices, with 20% doing beach seining and 50% doing channel fishing.

While the extent of damage from these fishing practices is difficult to quantify, Sankoh said they’re a significant factor behind the overfishing crisis. The main issue is the excessive juvenile catch, coupled with the destruction of fish eggs in breeding areas. “This results in recruitment overfishing, where fishers are catching fish that have not had the chance to spawn,” he said.

In Pepel, a channel-fishing hotspot, headman Conteh said fishers target the area during the spawning season. “We have lost over 16 species of fish in recent years. Bonga, silver fish, butter fish, snapper, barracuda — they don’t come here anymore,” he said.

Seisay described the situation as “lawlessness,” saying the artisanal sector now poses a bigger challenge than the industrial sector. “Between the two sectors, artisanal and industrial, the elephant in the room is the artisanal sector,” he said.

Pepel’s headman, Momoh Conteh
Momoh Conteh, headman of the town of Pepel, said dynamite fishing is practiced by poor people in the area who lack the means to purchase fishing nets. Image by Josef Skrdlik for Mongabay.

‘Fishermen always want small mesh’

The availability of unsustainable fishing gear is the main factor enabling destructive fishing. Beach seining and channel fishing would be less economically viable if fishers could only acquire standard-size meshes large enough to allow juvenile fish to escape, and less damaging when practiced.

Sierra Leonean law prohibits the use, possession on vessels, import, purchase and sale of certain fishing gear, including gill nets with a mesh less than 45 millimeters (1.77 inches) in stretched diagonal length for use in rivers; beach seine nets; and monofilament nets. Yet Mongabay saw prohibited gear in all 11 coastal communities visited in Sierra Leone.

Prohibited nets were on sale at five of the six fishing gear shops Mongabay visited in the capital, Freetown, and the town of Tombo. All five shop owners reported purchasing these nets in Guinea and transporting them to Sierra Leone through the main border crossing in Gbalamuya or by sea.

“There are many ways,” said a shop owner in Tombo who requested anonymity to avoid legal trouble, when asked how the importation is possible considering the ban.

Another Tombo shop owner implied his business would not be viable if he abided by the law, saying “Fishermen always want small mesh — with big mesh, you lose, you only catch big fish.”

A fisherman repairs a beach seining net on Mahera Beach.
A fisher repairs a beach seining net on Mahera Beach. Image by Josef Skrdlik for Mongabay.
Boats with channel fishing nets.
Boats with channel fishing nets. To practice channel fishing, fishers encircle patches of river or marine shallows with undersize-mesh nets, clearing them from top to bottom. Image by Josef Skrdlik for Mongabay.

Supplying poultry farms in Guinea

Destructive fishing is encouraged not only by declining stocks but also by economic factors linked to the local fish market.

In several communities, Mongabay met traders buying dried fish to sell as animal feed in Guinea. The fish in question was primarily baby fish, too small to sell well in the local market. Local women typically dry the fish on the beaches or roadsides, sometimes also peeling the skin and separating the head and tail. The dried fish is then bagged and transported to Guinea.

A trader in the community of Mama Beach on Freetown Peninsula told Mongabay that in Coyah, a suburb of the Guinean capital, Conakry, dried fish destined for local poultry farms sells for double what it does in Sierra Leonean markets. A kilogram of dried bodies goes for 30,000 Guinean francs ($3.50), or $1.60 per pound, while tails and heads fetch a tenth that amount. She said she leaves Mama Beach five or six times a year with a van loaded with between 2,400 and 3,200 kg (5,300-7,100 lbs) of dried fish. Border agents request a bribe of around 1,000 leones ($44) to allow the cargo through, the trader said.

Ministry officials and the artisanal fishermen union representatives confirmed to Mongabay that the scale of this trade for animal feed supply in Guinea is significant in coastal communities.

Fish laid out for drying by the side of a road.
Fish laid out for drying by the side of a road. Local women typically dry the fish on the beaches or roadsides, sometimes also peeling the skin and separating the head and tail. The dried fish is then bagged and transported to Guinea for use as poultry feed. Image by Josef Skrdlik for Mongabay.

‘Everybody fights to get more’

Sierra Leone has significant stocks of croakers (family Sciaenidae), a group of fish found primarily in estuaries and shallow coastal waters. The sweet-tasting fish is highly prized in Asian markets, and several local companies specialize in processing them for export, engaging directly in industrial fishing or buying from artisanal fishers.

Some of these, notably Red Sea Salone and Whitepole, were previously implicated in practicing industrial fishing in the inshore exclusion zone, an area along the shore reserved for artisanal fishing.

That said, as the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources has improved its satellite-based vessel monitoring system (VMS) to better track the location of vessels operating in local waters, the companies have increasingly focused on buying fish from local fishers.

At least four companies, including Brother, Korea Group, Sun Ho and Whitepole, compete to secure artisanal fishers’ croaker catch, sending buying agents to communities along the coast and incentivizing fishers by subsidizing net purchases.

“Everybody fights to get more,” said Abdul Kamara, manager of fish processing at Brother, which he said purchases regularly from more than 100 channel-fishing boats.

The price of gwangwan (Pseudotolithus elongatus), the most valuable croaker species, can be as much as 200 leones (around $9) per kg ($4/lb), five times more than fish normally sells for in the local market.

“When I catch gwangwan, I’m happy, the whole family is happy,” said Alusaine Bangura, a channel fisher from Brigitte.

This is a challenge, according to Koroma of the artisanal fishermen union. “The stocks will start depleting rapidly because these guys are extracting the fish in a bad way,” he said.

While recognizing these exports contribute to the ongoing crisis, Seisay, the ministry official, opposed limiting them. “Do you have something to give the fishermen as compensation? We would need to be able to give them alternative livelihoods,” he said.

Fish in a basket.
Croakers of various species. At least four companies compete to secure artisanal fishers’ croaker catch. Image by Josef Skrdlik for Mongabay.

‘Stopping them would … mean starvation’

While the illegal practices in the artisanal sector continue to inflict damage, any significant law enforcement action seems unlikely due to socioeconomic constraints and a lack of political will.

The first challenge concerns livelihoods. Fishers tend to live from hand to mouth and lack the resources to purchase new gear and transition to alternative fishing methods.

“Given the 70% of fishermen engaging in these acts, stopping them would automatically mean starvation,” Koroma said.

And with the fishing sector directly or indirectly employing roughly 800,000 Sierra Leoneans, almost 10% of the population, the government seems wary of implementing unpopular measures. “These high numbers are important for elections,” said Sankoh, the marine biologist.

In April, Sierra Leone implemented a closed season for the industrial sector, an attempt to let dwindling stocks replenish. This was to be followed by closing artisanal fishing in May, but the government backtracked at the last minute following political pressure.

A fisherman repairs a net
A man repairs a net in the village of Konakridee. Image by Josef Skrdlik for Mongabay.

According to Koroma, closing the artisanal sector won’t solve the primary cause of the problem. Instead, he suggested systematically changing all bad fishing nets, adding that $2 million to $3 million would be sufficient.

Even then, more regulation would be necessary to ensure the sustainability of artisanal fishing. “Somehow, we have no entry restrictions in the sector, so somebody can take a log, build a canoe and go fishing the next day,” Seisay said.

Yet Seisay expressed skepticism that limiting access to the sector and stricter law enforcement would be possible, given the economic conditions and political pressures.

While Mongabay was visiting the fishing community of Goderich on the Freetown Peninsula and speaking with the local fishing monitoring officer, Abbas Kargbo, a channel canoe, loaded with fish and prohibited nets, arrived at the shore.

“What can I do?” asked Kargbo. “This boat is feeding at least six families.”

Banner image: Baby bonga shad (Ethmalosa fimbriata), caught in Konakridee. Image by Josef Skrdlik for Mongabay.

Josef Skrdlik is a journalist interested in economic development and environmental issues, currently based in West Africa. He holds a master’s degree in development studies from the University of Cambridge.

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

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