Africa Rising: Sierra Leone, Liberia set up high-tech solutions to illegal fishing

Sierra Leone and Liberia are setting up ways to help small-time fishermen monitor and report the illegal foreign commercial fishing that costs each country tens of millions of dollars each year.

Illegal fishing has long plagued the waters off the coast of West Africa, where law enforcement is weak and fish stocks are relatively plentiful. But now governments in Sierra Leone and Liberia are stepping up their efforts to combat the practice. And for help they’re turning to some of the very people who are most affected by it: the artisanal fishermen who live along the coast.

Illegal fishing comes in many varieties, from trawling in the in-shore exclusion zone, to using forbidden fishing equipment, to deliberately destroying the nets of local fishermen. Whatever form it takes, illegal fishing is robbing these countries of a vital natural resource, and governments and communities alike are feeling the impact.

“[Illegal fishing] is estimated to be costing us around $30 million annually,” says Soccoh Kabia, Sierra Leone’s minister of fisheries and marine resources. “Certainly if we don’t do anything about it, it will get worse.”

The government of Sierra Leone is in the midst of overhauling its fisheries legislation to boost enforcement and improve its management of the sector; a new fisheries act should be on the books before the end of the year. Much of the legislation will focus on changes in the upper levels of government, but communities have a crucial role to play as well.

Here in Sierra Leone, the Environmental Justice Foundation, an advocacy group headquartered in Britain, is working with two dozen communities along the country’s southwestern coast to help local fishermen learn how to identify – and report – vessels that may be breaking the law right there in their backyard.

“Someone from one of the communities will see a trawler fishing illegally or will see that their nets have been damaged or destroyed, and they will call our community coordinator,” explains Andy Hickman, an EJF campaigner. The EJF coordinator takes a boat to document the precise location and name of the vessels, using GPS and geo-tagged photography.

“We formulate [that information] into a briefing, and we send that to the Sierra Leonean government … with the intention that the government can take action against the vessels,” Mr. Hickman says.

Sierra Leone has recently introduced a high-tech vessel monitoring system, or VMS, says Mr. Kabia, the fisheries minister. Once that system becomes fully operational, EJF’s community surveillance should be able to feed into it.

Similar work is underway in Liberia, where a World Bank-supported project has recently handed out smartphones to four communities along the coast. Snapping geo-tagged pictures with their new devices, the artisanal fishermen are able to send images in real time to government authorities, who can then dispatch vessels immediately or use the information to build a body of evidence against a particular ship.

Although governments here don’t always have the capacity to respond swiftly to such calls, there are signs that enforcement is getting better.

In July, for the first time ever, Liberia’s coast guard chased down and seized a vessel that had been fishing illegally in the waters off its coast. Owned by a Korean company called Inter-Burgo, the boat had been operating in in-shore areas, which are reserved for local fishermen. The government fined the company and suspended the vessel’s fishing license for six months.

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