African nations battle 'pirate' fishers for shrinking resources

Sierra Leone, like its neighbors, is turning to mercenaries to patrol waters.

Night falls suddenly in the Ships' Graveyard, a haven for pirate fishing boats about 90 miles off the coast of Sierra Leone.

But a light could be seen coming from the Long Way 007, a rusting Chinese trawler with holes in its body so big that an adult could crawl through.

Onboard were Xun Wen Guo and Zhen Tao, the last of a crew in late May that once numbered 14 men. They'd been adrift for more than a week on a ship with no radio, no engines, and little food. Their employers, a firm based in nearby Guinea that could not be contacted for comment, told them to keep the ship afloat long enough for it to be towed into port to be sold for scrap.

Neither man was clear when relief would arrive. And despite a precarious situation, a regular occurrence in poorly regulated African waters, neither man wanted to abandon the boat and risk losing two years of pay. The companies typically hold sailors' wages and passports on shore.

The men are part of a growing fleet of commercial fishermen combing the African coast for fish. The stakes are high: A trawlerload can sell for more than $400,000 – but human rights and environmental activists warn that the scramble for profits is encouraging exploitation of workers and endangering the environment.

These foreign commercial fishermen are often accused by activists and the governments of Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia of bullying local fishermen, depriving them of their livelihood, and depleting regional fish stocks. And because most west African countries can't afford coast guards, observers say it has spawned a worrying trend of mercenary justice.

"We used to catch lots of fish in the morning; now we must stay out all day to make enough to feed our families," says John Koroma, a local fisher. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that illegal fishing robs sub-Saharan Africa of more than $1.2 billion annually, in stolen fish, unpaid taxes, and lost work.

"As stricter quotas are imposed in Europe, companies are turning to poorly regulated African waters for fresh fish," says Sarah Duthie, a Greenpeace campaigner who was recently in west African waters. "Stocks are getting seriously depleted."

During a three-week trip in which Greenpeace tracked more than 100 vessels, she says, more than half were fishing illegally. A report issued by the World Wildlife Fund last month warned that several species, including tuna and orange roughy, were under severe threat.

Ms. Duthie says the practices of unlicensed fishing vessels are largely to blame. Often Chinese-owned, they trawl the ocean with huge, closely woven nets, catching everything from dolphins to sea horses. The catch is dumped on deck, where up to 70 percent is discarded. Poor quality fish is sent to a "factory ship," where it is canned and sold in African countries. Prime grouper or snapper is "transhipped," or put on more robust ships with freezers. Much of the catch is then whisked toward European markets.

"These fishing companies simply loot their way across the ocean," says Cobus Claassens, a former fisheries protection officer for Sierra Leone. "They don't transship in local ports [so] they don't pay tax on what they fish.... There's no onshore processing facilities. At the current rate, Sierra Leone will not have a fishing industry in the next 10 years."

Trawlers often run over local fishermen in canoes or cut their nets by mistake, he adds. A local fisherman may save for years to buy his own net.

With little or no budget for law enforcement, African governments are increasingly turning to armed freelancers. The Sierra Leonean government offers private clients 50 percent of fines worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

One former mercenary, who spoke on condition of anonymity and now describes himself as an "environmentalist," was hired to patrol Sierra Leone's five-mile exclusion zone. Boats who violate the zone, risking fines, often try to ram enforcement vessels or fire on them with automatic rifles, he says.

"We carried light machine guns, a more effective deterrent and more impressive [than automatic rifles]. For self-defense we did carry [rocket-propelled grenades]. These are quite capable of penetrating the side of a vessel and the engine," he says.

None of the trawlers in the Ships' Graveyard admit to breaking the law or being fired upon, but sailor Fan Xin Sheng, who sits onboard the broken-down Zhang Yuang, says that his contract expired a month ago. He had to stay while the fishing was good because his boss provided no transport to shore. "I just had to agree," he says.

Like Mr. Fan, Mr. Guo and Mr. Tao of the Long Way 007 also have no way to contact the outside world and no way off their ship.

Neither man has heard of the Chinese trawler that Guinean authorities say went down last year, taking 14 crew members with it, but the two hope that if anything goes drastically wrong, a nearby trawler will come to their aid. The International Labor Organization estimates that 24,000 fishermen die in accidents every year, most of them in developing countries. "We do light a fire to cook with and as a signal and sometimes people come to help," says Guo, scanning the horizon. "Sometimes they don't."

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