When commercial fishers fish illegally they can seriously reduce the fishing success of adjacent coastal communities, creating greater poverty in the process. When illegal fishing occurs at the level of national fleets, both national economies and global fish stocks suffer. Yet it persists.
The impact can be immense. The famous attacks on tankers and other passing craft off the Somalia coast over the past decade was at least in part a response to foreign fleets fishing illegally in Somalia waters, taking all the fish, and forcing retaliation. Criminal piracy as a response to fishing piracy, also criminal.
Now the productive West Coast of Africa – the Guinea Current Large Marine Ecosystem – is the target of most current pirate fishing: almost 40% of its fish are caught illegally. It is a vulnerable region – lots of fish, weak governance and fragile post-war economies, susceptible to corruption and plagued by inadequate regulations and insufficient monitoring. Like Somalia.
Cheating by the illegal ships, mostly trawlers, comes in many forms. International firms use single licenses to cover multiple vessels, employ small mesh nets, launder the fish, and bribe local enforcement officials. Vessels cover their names and markings. Corporations register ships to flags of convenience, eg Panama and Korea, who get paid and don’t care. The fish from West Africa often turn up in European markets, and though the EU now has a blacklist of companies and countries, it has been largely ineffective.
China is a major player fishing the West African Guinea Current, and no doubt doesn’t want to be accused of piracy. But China has now been charged with under-reporting its global catch by an order of magnitude: instead of an average of of 368,000 tons/yr from 2000-2011, analysts estimate the reality to be 4.6 million tons/yr. Most of that, 2.9 million tons/yr, is from West Africa. This is cheating on a massive, global scale.
China has an ocean going fleet of 900, the world’s largest, operating in the EEZs of 93 coastal nations. Currently 345 ships fish in West Africa, and of these 256 are bottom trawlers. Fairly secret contracts exist between Chinese companies and African nations, and Chinese vessels also sometimes operate under local flags. The coastal fishermen report that the Chines trawlers violate near-shore no-fishing zones, crippling artisanal fisheries. They accuse them of looting their fish and acting like bullies.
But isn’t this the age of ever greater surveillance? Though most of us may hate it, it may still has its uses. Supported by London’s Environmental Justice Foundation, 23 communities on the coast of Sierra Leone have cooperated to report the pirate trawlers, recording their GPS coordinates, filming them, identifying them, and sending the information to EU and African ports.
The pirate trawlers have mostly left Sierra Leone, but where have they gone? Maybe just along the coast. The problem of cheating is unresolved, but surveillance by communities is at least a start.
More initiatives like that on the Sierra Leone coast are essential, and possible. Continued pressure on Panama and Korea to cease renting out their flags will eventually work. Every ship registered in the EU is now tracked by the VMS Satellite Monitoring System, providing an hourly report of of location and speed. Though this may keep those ships honest, vessels exporting fish to EU under other flags can avoid the monitoring.
This too can be fixed. Global ports can agree to do business only with monitored ships, and to blacklist pirate vessels. Monitoring every move of every vessel should not be any more difficult than monitoring the individual surfing and purchasing habits of internet users or the movements of every smart phone user, or using existing meta-data mining techniques to analyse our telephone use.
Electronic surveillance by empowered coastal communities along with vessel tracking and enforced blacklisting of cheating vessels and countries is a powerful combination. Cheating may well be an essential feature of human culture, but given the fragility of global fish stocks and coastal fishing communities, eliminating cheating in fisheries seems like a pretty good use for the technologies now abusing us all in so many other ways.