Saturday, February 24, 2007

Sierra Leone navy shoot to catch Chinese fishermen

FREETOWN, Feb 23 (Reuters) - When Beijing donated a long-range patrol boat to Sierra Leone's navy, little did it realise the vessel's first catch would be Chinese fishermen poaching off the West African coast.

Navy officers fired their first shots in anger since the end of Sierra Leone's civil war to apprehend the Chinese trawler this week, sending rifle volleys across its bow after a high-speed ocean chase lasting an hour, a senior commander said.

"When they saw us coming they decided to weigh up their nets and flee, so we pursued them," the patrol boat's captain, Lieutenant Commander Sallieu Kanu, told Reuters late on Thursday. "That is a gross violation of international law."

Like other West African nations, the poverty-stricken former British colony is battling to safeguard its dwindling fish stocks, the cheapest source of protein for its 5 million people who are still recovering from the effects of a 1991-2002 war.

West Africa's shores are home to some of the world's largest concentrations of fish, crustaceans and molluscs, but its coastal communities are among the poorest, relying on antiquated fishing methods which are no match for industrial rivals.

Fleets of trawlers, many of them Chinese and Korean, spend weeks plying the seas off the Atlantic coast, taking advantage of lax policing to land catches of shrimp, barracuda, lobster, snapper and others worth up to $10,000 a day per boat.

Greenpeace says pirate fishing is worth between $4 billion and $9 billion a year and accounts for about 20 percent of the world's total catch. Illegal fishing strips about $1 billion worth of fish from sub-Saharan African waters alone each year.


The 35-metre Chinese trawler, named Lian Run 27, ignored repeated commands to stop when it was spotted with three other Chinese fishing vessels three miles from land, contravening an exclusion zone that extends five miles, Kanu said.

At this range boats take young and breeding fish out of the water, and rip through the nets of local fishermen, who ply the muddy waters in home-made canoes dug out of tree trunks. The captured vessel is now anchored off the coastal capital Freetown under armed guard, with its mixed Chinese and Sierra Leonean crew still aboard. A fine of up to $30,000 must be paid to the Ministry of Fisheries before the boat is released.

While foreign trawlers stand to profit from the high-stakes fishing racket, Sierra Leone's cash-strapped navy finds it hard to keep pirates at bay. The patrol boat donated by the Chinese is the only such long-range vessel it owns.

"We can't afford to go to sea throughout the month," Kanu said. "We consume 4,000 gallons of fuel a month to keep our boats on the sea. We need twice that and two more vessels to patrol the coast effectively."

He said the last few months had seen a dramatic increase in night-time sightings of trawlers. The first time he chased down a Korean vessel, he was offered a $10,000 bribe to turn a blind eye, he added.

Link to Reuters AlertNet - FEATURE-Sierra Leone navy shoot to catch Chinese fishermen