Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Local Fishermen Struggle to Survive Amidst Foreign Trawlers

Meriam Samu travels more than 30km every morning to buy the fresh catch of the day from local fishermen in the western part of the capital, Freetown. But these days there are fewer and fewer fish for her to choose from.

"I have been doing this business for several years. Before we had stable prices for fish at Leones 3,000 [US$1.00] per 5kg carton, but now the retail prices are between Leones 5,000 [$1.75] to Leones 15,000 [$5.00]," said Samu, 43.

As a result, it is more difficult for her earn money at the busy Kroo Town Road market as the mackerel, snapper and other fish are becoming more difficult for the average Sierra Leonean to afford. Samu, like the fishermen themselves, blames foreign trawlers for the depletion of Sierra Leone's fish stocks.

"We cannot rely on the fishing vessels because they do not go to sea every day, but the fishermen do and I am afraid that when the canoe men decide to stop fishing how will our people eat fish? Sierra Leoneans should not be crying because of high fish prices because fish should be in abundance here," she said.

Fish generally have been a cheap and easily available source of protein for Sierra Leoneans, who are amongst the poorest people in the world. Recovering from a decade-long civil war, livelihoods are difficult to sustain and joblessness is rampant. About 70 percent of the country's 5.3 million people live below the poverty line and 26 percent are considered extremely poor, according to the United Nations.

"What we're seeing is local fishing communities repeatedly telling us their ability to catch fish is declining, the size of their catch is declining and the size of the fish is declining," said Steven Trent, executive director of the London-based Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), an independent pressure group for environmental security and human rights.

Depleted resource

About 80,000 make their living through fishing in Sierra Leone, according to the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources. The country loses an estimated $29 million annually to illegal and unregulated fishing, and its neighbours Guinea and Liberia lose about $110 million and $10 million respectively, according to EJF.

Musa Sankoh, a fisherman for the past decade, said trawlers have especially been a problem since 2006. As a result, he said, many fishermen fear entering the high seas to cast their nets, which are their only means of livelihood, so they stay closer to shore where there are fewer fish.

"Now things are becoming very difficult for us fisherman at sea where the foreign trawlers normally cut our nets with impunity and this is slowing down our efforts to supply more fish for the locals," said Sankoh.

Each canoe barely generates $33 per day, compared to up to $66 in previous years, he said. The Kingtom wharf in Freetown shows the evidence of discouragement. On any given day dozens of abandoned canoes rest idle on the beach - the fishermen have sought a living elsewhere.

Samuel Lewallie, sitting in the canoe he made 10 years ago, continues to fish but his diminishing earnings are feeding his anger toward the government.

"We are paying license fees to the government the same as the trawlers, but the government seems to favour those industrial people more than us," he said. "We are Sierra Leoneans and this is our home, foreign merchants cannot have more rights than us."

Rudolph Murray, an agent for a Chinese trawler operating off Sierra Leone, says the fishermen's complaints hold little weight.

"They are just afraid because we have the capacity to grab more fish than them," he said. "This is competitive business."

Securing the future

The government has granted fishing rights to Egyptian, Chinese and Russian trawlers, according to the Fisheries Ministry. Winston Gbondo, the assistant director for fisheries, denied that foreign vessels received preferential treatment. He said the government had set up an "insured exclusive zone" for local fishermen and that trawlers entering the area would be fined $30,000.

"The trawlers have their own operating zone, but the problems we have had is the surveillance of the sea to ensure that trawlers do not encroach into this zone," he said. "The ministry does not have the logistical capacity to carry out the surveillance. We have given this function to the navy."

Despite these efforts enforcement is problematic, Trent said, in part because in countries where wages are poor corruption can thwart efforts to implement laws.

The problem here, as with many developing states, you have extreme resource constraints," said Trent of EJF. "It's very difficult to monitor, to control and enforce the law. It is almost impossible for countries like Sierra Leone to deal with this without concerted efforts internationally."

He said EJF backed efforts to abolish flags and ports of convenience so it is easier to track vessels. The organisation also supports improving control and surveillance assistance to developing countries and putting more of the burden on markets where the pirated fish is consumed, such as in the European Union. If measures are not taken, he said, fish stocks could collapse.

[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]

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