NOTE: This is a guest post from Andy Hickman, Campaigner at the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF).
For many of Sierra Leone’s nearly 6 million inhabitants, fish is critical to daily survival. In a country where over half of people are undernourished and a quarter of children under five are malnourished, fish constitutes 80 percent of animal protein consumed.
Fishing is a key source of employment and family income, with the artisanal sector in Sierra Leone employing 30,000 fishers and 200,000 ancillary workers, most of whom are women involved in the smoking and preparation of fish.
Nowhere is it more integral to community and to livelihoods than in the Sherbro River region in the south of the country, where the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) works. Here, coastal communities rely on fish as a primary source of food and to keep the local economy afloat.
Yet the inhabitants of this region face an unprecedented threat. Foreign-owned, industrial fishing vessels, catching fish for the billion dollar European and East Asian seafood markets, illegally enter their inshore waters and destructively bottom-trawl for shrimp and other internationally traded species.
As well as illegally entering Sierra Leone’s Inshore Exclusion Zone (IEZ), reserved solely for small-scale fishers, these ‘pirate’ fishing operators frequently use banned fishing gears, target protected species, and fish with unacceptably high levels of bycatch (the accidental capture of species including sharks, turtles, sea snakes and other endangered wildlife). Worthless to the commercial fishing boats, dead or dying fish and other animals are simply shovelled over the vessel’s side – an enormous, tragic waste of life.
The ‘pirate’ vessels frequently damage or destroy the nets of local fishers, who typically buy their fishing gears with microcredit loans from fish traders. When the nets are destroyed by the trawlers, many are forced into crippling debt and some choose to leave their families and the community because they cannot meet their repayments.
‘Pirate’ operators are estimated to cost Sierra Leone USD 29 million per year. But more often than not, their actions go unpunished. By covering their markings to hide their identities, changing their names and ‘flag hopping’ (changing their nationality), the vessels are able to avoid detection and sanctions.
A Global Record of fishing vessels would make these unscrupulous tactics far more difficult. We could keep track of a vessel’s name and flag changes as well as their histories – in particular any convictions they have for illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. The Global Record would also make it easier to target the real owners of ‘pirate’ vessels, whose identities are frequently hidden by shell-companies in ‘flag of convenience’ countries.
Seafood companies, retailers and restaurants would be able to check the vessels that supply their fish against the Global Record so as to ensure the fish they sell is from legal, reputable and sustainable sources. We, as consumers, could be more confident that the fish we eat has not been caught by the trawlers causing misery in developing coastal nations.
The Global Record would also allow greater protection for people working on board fishing vessels who have been subject to violence, forced labour, incarceration and other human rights abuses, by providing greater transparency as to the companies who own and operate fishing vessels.
Fisheries policymakers and scientists would have more information on the size and capacity each country’s fleet, therefore enabling them to set sustainable fishing quotas and devise more effective marine conservation strategies.
The international community has been talking about the need for a global record of fishing vessels for many years. With 80 per cent of commercial fish stocks either fully exploited or overexploited, and with some scientists warning that all commercially-traded wild fish could have gone by the year 2050, we cannot afford to wait any longer.
By signing this petition, you are telling the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation Committee on Fisheries that the development of a Global Record of fishing vessels is both necessary and urgent if we are to safeguard the livelihoods of coastal communities such as those in Sierra Leone, and the global marine environments upon which we all depend.
The Environmental Justice Foundation is a charity working to empower people who suffer most from environmental abuses to find peaceful ways of preventing them. EJF provides film and advocacy training to individuals and grassroots organisations, enabling them to document, expose and create long term solutions to environmental abuses. In Sierra Leone, EJF runs a community-based surveillance project, working with local fishing communities to identify and report on illegal trawler activity.
Photo Copyright EJF
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