A fishermqn tries to mend a fishing net on the beach in the Jamestown district, central Accra, on July 14, 2017. Jamestown, one of poorest fishing neighbourhood and a popular tourist site in Old Accra is home to historical monuments, landmark heritage and remnants of the country’s colonial past. / AFP PHOTO / PIUS UTOMI EKPEI

European commercial trawlers are encroaching on west African fishing grounds, challenging governments to improve their natural-resource governance

George Francis, 63, is a rugged fisherman and harbour master of Lumley Wharf in Freetown, the hilly capital of Sierra Leone. He’s been in the fishing business since the mid-60s, since shortly after his country gained independence from the UK. He has seen better days, in the distant past. Nowadays, life is hard and two of his daughters live in Nigeria from where they regularly send him money.

He says his misery began some 20 years ago when big industrial trawlers started prowling the shores of his seaside community. Outgunned by bigger boats, George is unable to catch enough fish for himself. He generally goes for small fish like herring, but on the day these reporters spoke to him, he had caught just three small ones. His fellow fishermen were not so lucky. Several admitted to catching one or even none.

It was 10 past six in the evening. “These trawlers are supposed to fish about 200 miles (approximately 322 km) away from the shore,” Francis laments. “But they come into the coast at night and the government is aware of these incursions.”
Out of frustration, he once wrote to the Anti-Corruption Commission of Sierra Leone (ACC-SL) to report the illegal activities of these fishing vessels, but he was told that only the maritime authority could handle his case. “The maritime authority can’t do anything,” he says regretfully, “because when they get hold of these trawlers they don’t bring them in. Only $5,000 to $10,000 [in bribes] will solve the problem.”

Sierra Leone is one of the west African countries that have not signed a Fishing Partnership Agreement (FPA) with the European Union (EU). But this may not be the case in the near future: Europe has its eyes on the rich fishing grounds of this tiny ECOWAS nation. A delegation was in Freetown in late April 2017 to explore this possibility. Other countries that have signed the FPA in the region include Senegal, São Tomé and Príncipe, Cape Verde, Guinea Bissau, Liberia, Côte d’Ivoire and Mauritania.

“We’re in contact with coastal states possibly interested in setting up (or re-launching) an (agreement) with the EU, namely Ghana, Tanzania, Kenya and Mozambique,” says Aikaterini Apostola, press officer for health and food safety at the European Commission. “However, most discussions are still at a very preliminary stage and it cannot be deduced at present whether they will succeed or not.”
An FPA (also sometimes referred to as SFPA or in full, Sustainable Fishing Partnership Agreement) is essentially a document that allows European vessels to operate in

a partner country (usually in the developing world) in exchange for revenue. In short, a fish-for-cash barter. These deals, although beneficial in some instances, are not without their disadvantages given the imbalance of power between the parties involved.

First, the EU is the largest economic bloc in the world, with a GDP that eclipses that of the USA. Its bureaucracy, centred on Brussels, is a well-oiled machine that can take on any foreign concern or international jurisdiction on just about any matter. Even when Britain finally exits the union, it will still be one of the most powerful groupings of countries in the world. Only a few regional blocs can successfully challenge the clout of the EU. This partly explains why all small African states lack the bargaining power to obtain better deals during FPA negotiations with Brussels. In the case of São Tomé and Príncipe, an island nation in the Gulf of Guinea, the current protocol of the FP covers a four-year period from 2014 to 2018, and it allows 34 fishing vessels, mostly from Spain, France and Portugal to catch tuna, a saltwater fish that is commonly bought off supermarket shelves.

In August 2016, midway into the current protocol, a surveillance patrol by São Tomé and Príncipe maritime authorities, together with campaigners from Sea Shepherd ― an international marine conservation organisation working to fight illegal, unreported and undocumented (IUU) fishing across the planet ― intercepted the Alemar Primero, a Spanish-flagged vessel that had been actively fishing sharks. Peter Hammarstedt, a Swedish-born conservationist with Sea Shepherd, marshalled that particular operation, codenamed Albacore I. The Bob Barker, a civilian offshore patrol vessel, was deployed for the operation in São Tomé and Príncipe. The whole mission lasted two weeks.

On inspection, the Spanish vessel had 87 tons of shark meat on board, processed and frozen. According to Joao Pessoa, director of the fisheries department of São Tomé and Príncipe, the Alemar Primero had been licensed to fish for tuna. So they lodged a complaint with the EU’s maritime affairs and fisheries department, DG MARE.

“We were dumbfounded, since we thought this boat was fishing tuna, not sharks,” Pessoa said. “The agreement is supposed to encompass ‘similar species’, but we assumed they would be in the tuna family. Not so, according to the EU that told us the agreement includes sharks, referring us to annex 1 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea  of 1982.”

But Pavel Klinckhamers of Greenpeace disagrees with the EU’s stance. And so does Hammarstedt. “Sharks and rays are cartilaginous fish and are quite distinct from bony fish like tuna,” Klinckhamers confirms in an email. “Sharks are certainly not tuna. But you see that under tuna agreements, for example ICCAT (International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas), that regulate tuna catches in the region, there are specific guidelines on catching sharks as there are for tuna fishing.” Klinckhamers is the international project leader for Greenpeace oceans campaigns in west Africa. Earlier in the year, he had inspected dozens of fishing vessels for infractions ranging from the use of nets with mesh size that are wide off the mark and improper documentation for the possession of shark fins.

Hammarstedt provides a more nuanced perspective on the ambiguous language of the agreement. “The EU is correct in saying that several species of sharks, including those (found) on the Alemar Primero, are covered as annexed species, but to then have a European vessel take just sharks feels disingenuous; that was the feeling that São Toméan authorities got. If in negotiations with (Brussels) you talk about tuna, and you, as the representative of a developing country, sign a tuna agreement, then even though you accept that some other species will be caught, you still leave the negotiations with the feeling that most of the catch will be tuna.”

Despite having a longer coastline than Africa – although it is the smaller of the two continents – Europe has fully met its fishing quotas. In fact, the EU fishing fleet’s overcapacity is about two and half times what it can sustainably catch in Europe’s fishing grounds. Hence the urgent need for its vessels to go further afield to meet home demand for cheaper and healthier sources of animal protein. But meeting one’s food needs should not be confused with targeting protected species, as the case of the Spanish vessel in São Tomé and Príncipe reveals.

Apart from the 87 tons of shark meat discovered aboard the Alemar Primero, more than three tons of shark fins were also found by the fisheries inspectors. Since 2003, EU-flagged vessels have been prohibited by council regulation from carrying shark fins that have been detached from the body of the animal (The regulation was last revised in 2013.) Each year, over 70-million sharks are caught globally, of which a sizeable portion are finned, to satisfy the palates of Chinese eaters who relish shark-fin soup.

The US congress is also considering legislation that bans the shark-fin trade. The EU says “the practice of removing shark fins and discarding the remainder of the carcass at sea represents a serious threat to the conservation of these species and to the sustainability of fisheries.” Nonetheless, rising demand for shark fins, mainly from mainland China, is growing. Shark fins are premium goods, similar to caviar in western cuisine. What is more, their unreasonably high prices – shark fins can fetch up to $650 a kilogram – mean greedy merchants will stop at nothing to supply affluent consumers. Hence the promulgation of stringent finning controls. But then, legislation isn’t always backed up with enforcement, and the Spanish-flagged Alemar Primero has since returned to sailing and fishing in African waters.

In April 2017, during its “Hope in West Africa” tour, Greenpeace in the company of Sierra Leonean fisheries officials boarded the FV Eighteen ― an Italian-flagged vessel licensed to fish for tuna, yet four kilograms of shark fins were found hidden on its deck. The captain, David de la Fuente, a Spaniard, was promptly instructed by the inspectors to seal the shark fins in a bag, which would be used as evidence, and proceed to port. Since it is not yet illegal under the current Sierra Leone law to have shark fins on board, the vessel could not be seized. This legal loophole might have allowed the FV Eighteen to leave the Port of Freetown unpunished.

But Gaspare Asaro, the Italian owner of the company, refused to accept any blame for the incident. Instead, he pointed accusing fingers at the African crew, who he claimed have since been fired. As should be expected, it was the African hires who bore the brunt of the outcomes of the poor oversight of the European captain. Back in Freetown, the reporters spoke with widows and parents who had lost their adult children because they had had to go further out to sea as a result of the actions of industrial trawlers. George Francis, the fisherman from Lumley, had experienced gross abuse from these fishing vessels. He said they cut his nets in the open sea, leaving him without a source of income for months.

“We fished about five tons of smooth-hounds (a species of shark) over that expedition lasting 30 to 40 days,” Asaro says in a telephone interview. “Some of the fish caught [was] consumed by the sailors on board. They cooked the fish for themselves, and then left that bag of fins openly on the deck.”

He went on: “The (sealed) bag was removed from the boat and brought to Senegal for sample analysis. The shark fins were not seized, but we, for our own sake, took this bag and analysed it. We are completely transparent. Those who are less transparent are the Spaniards, who exploit fishing more aggressively.”

While Asaro claims his company is innocent, he denounces the EU’s fisheries policies. Alluding to Brussels’ unfair treatment of boats from Italy, he says funding from the European community has gone mostly to some select countries including Spain, the flag state of the Alemar Primero.

But the EU says it thoroughly explained what the “tuna and similar species” of the agreement meant to São Tomé and Príncipe fisheries authorities during the last joint committee meeting that took place in October 2016. Queries about what actions Brussels had taken in the Alemar Primero finning incident were carefully deflected.

Both Pessoa and Klinckhammers described the EU’s response as “bizarre” but they also conceded that African authorities needed to take more responsibility for their fishing grounds. In the case of Pessoa, he admitted that although São Tomé and Príncipe is a member of ICCAT, the resolutions forbidding the finning of sharks had not been ratified by his country’s government. Sierra Leone, too, has recently made laws that ban shark finning, but they are yet to come into force.

During the open-day events organised by Greenpeace at the end of their campaigns in Sierra Leone, Charles Roger, the deputy minister of fisheries, was keener about the work of NGOs fighting IUU fishing in his country than developing the capacity of Sierra Leone to do so by itself. But organisations such as Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd would rather that African governments rise up to the challenge of natural-resources governance.

“It’s mainly for the authorities to follow up cases of IUU fishing in their jurisdictions,” Klinckhammers says. “If you look at Sierra Leone, it gets around $7 million from selling licences and with $3.5 million you can do a lot of work in fisheries management … yet you see the government looking at the World Bank and the EU to make it happen for them.

“One of the strengths of our campaigns around the coast of Africa,” he adds, “is that we’re really providing just the transportation service to get law enforcement agents out where they need to be to board and inspect these ships. Getting a response from European countries falls under the responsibility of São Tomé and Príncipe as well as Gabon.”

The global community is beginning to understand the significance of fish for food security, especially in Africa, where conflict is an everyday experience for millions of people. In June 2017, the UN convened an ocean conference in New York City, where President Ali Bongo Ondimba of Gabon announced 20 marine protected areas covering 26% of Gabon’s waters. The announcement was widely cheered as the way forward.

Aaron MacNeil, an associate professor of biology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada believes, however, there is no single solution to the problems associated with IUU fishing around the world. MacNeil is also with Global FinPrint, a team of international scientists conducting a worldwide census of sharks and rays.

“Marine reserves work in some places but not in others,” he noted via Skype. “International agreements such as CITES are a welcome development, but still, poverty and culture can stand in the way of progress. The pressure for sustainability is on the EU because west Africans can’t police their waters.”

For many years, marine environmentalists have been calling for a common management of fish stocks between countries in the region. One possible management regime even incorporates Morocco alongside Mauritania and Senegal, two west African countries with significant fish stocks. The main reason given for these calls is the migratory nature of species between the countries involved.

Yet, despite the lip service being paid to this idea, these three countries have yet to take action, possibly out of a reluctance to diminish allowable catches, which will invariably impact on revenue generated from fishing licences. The shark fin irregularities of Alemar Primero were certainly reported to DG MARE, but very little is known about the action taken on the case. After several weeks of seeking Brussels’ official response about action taken against the Alemar Primero’s horrible finning record in Africa, an email came that avoided the issue of the shark fins.

Similarly, enquiries were made to Spain’s ministry of agriculture and fisheries, food and environment, but the corresponding officials used an evasive counter-argument to explain why the offending vessel was not punished.

“In the archives of the General Secretariat of Fisheries, [the] Alemar Primero ship was the subject of an act of infringement and promptly sanctioned by the authorities of São Tomé and Príncipe,” the Spanish spokespeople responded, months after the first request for comments. “Since it cannot be punished twice for the same offence, under the legal principle of non bis in idem, Spanish authorities have failed to start, as required by the legal principles that govern our legislation, an infringement procedure. At present, the said vessel is exercising absolute normal fishing in the waters of São Tomé and Príncipe.”

However, Pessoa said in a follow-up telephone call from São Tomé and Príncipe that the penalty meted out to the Spanish boat was for other offences and not for shark finning, since the act itself was not yet an offence in his country. Thus, the Spanish authorities were “lying” about why they wouldn’t follow through on legislation that specifically bans finning within and outside EU borders.

Madrid should have imposed a heavy fine as punishment for the fishing infringements committed by the Alemar Primero in São Tomé and Príncipe. But then, it seems calling these offences “infringements” trivialises their gravity. Ideally, they should be designated as violence against animals, the same way trophy hunting for rhino horns and elephant tusks is frowned upon.

“One of the major problems with fisheries offences is that they are often treated as administrative offences, as opposed to crime,” says Hammarstedt. “(But) criminal activity must be seen as an economic activity that will continue as long as it is profitable and the risk or consequences of getting caught are less than the benefit of breaking the law. In my opinion, they should be fined substantially, the cargo should have been seized and auctioned in São Tomé, the captain should have his licence revoked, the vessel should have its fishing licence removed and they should be disqualified from receiving further EU subsidies. The latter point is particularly important.”

Meanwhile, an Italian prosecutor has begun an investigation into Asaro’s shark-fin incident, but it’s too early to know if the case will go to trial in a Sicilian court. Although the prosecutor declined to comment on the case, a statement from the Italian coast guard said: “Regarding your request for information received on August 21 in connection with the inspection on the FV Eighteen fishing trawler, we can confirm that the Centro Controllo Area Pesca (Control Centre of the Fishing Areas) of Palermo has begun an investigative activity, which is still ongoing, and therefore covered by the ‘confidentiality of investigations’, which at this stage forbids us from providing details of the case.”

Having exhausted all legal channels to resolve the challenges he faces, George Francis ― the old fisherman from Lumley — thinks, perhaps, violence is the only option left to get the attention of the authorities. “There’ll be war in Sierra Leone again,” he says “and it will start with the fishermen. We don’t wish for it, but if it has to happen, it will happen.”

Reprinted with permission from the International Center for Investigative Reporting

Kolawole Talabi is an independent journalist who covers the environment, science, culture and development from his native country, Nigeria. He has written original pieces for Al Jazeera English, Earth Journalism Network, Mongabay.com and SciDev.Net. In 2015, he received the special award of the Haller Prize for development journalism. He holds a degree in human geography.

Arthur Debruyne is a Belgian journalist. He has published stories in MO*, De Tijd, De Morgen, De Standaard and De Groene Amsterdammer, among other publications, mostly about human rights and migration. He studied Spanish and French literature and journalism in Brussels and Barcelona.