The Liberian Coastguard, backed by the Bureau for National Fisheries and the US Coastguard, has made its first fishing vessel seizure following the dramatic chase of a Korean-flagged trawler fishing illegally within their waters.
The Liberian Coastguard (LCG) chased down and seized the trawler after it was caught fishing illegally in inshore areas reserved for local fishermen. The Seta 70, owned by a Korean multinational company which has offices in the Canary Islands and owns a luxury golf resort on the Spanish mainland, tried to avoid capture by steering erratically and turning off its lights during the night. A Liberian government fisheries observer on board, who was finally able to raise the alarm by making a call on his mobile phone whilst hidden in a toilet, was reportedly stopped from using communication equipment by the vessel’s captain and not given food for more than a week. The pursuit came to an end when Liberian authorities fired warning shots before boarding the vessel and bringing it to the country’s capital Monrovia.
Earlier this year, the Environmental Justice Foundation documented several vessels, including the Seta 70, fishing illegally in neighbouring Sierra Leone. The vessels were catching fish for the highly lucrative European and Asian seafood markets and their illegal activities included fishing in inshore areas, destroying local fishermen’s nets, concealing their markings and attacking a local fisherman. The crew of one vessel, the Marcia 707, included several 14 year old Senegalese boys working on board in unsafe and unsanitary conditions for months at a time.
Evidence collected by EJF on these vessels’ activities was provided to European authorities, leading to the seizure of an estimated £4 million worth of fish in the Spanish port of Las Palmas. This was the largest seizure since the EU introduced a new regulation to end illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing in January 2010.
However, earlier this month, the consignment of suspected illegally caught fish was released by Spanish authorities, following months of meetings between port authorities, fishing companies and fish processors. Korean fishing companies were reported to have threatened to leave the port of Las Palmas if controls on imports of fish from West Africa were not loosened. So far, Spanish authorities and the European Commission have not commented on the release of the illegal fish, which is now circulating within EU markets.
The LCG and Bureau for National Fisheries operation was supported by the US Coastguard and the World Bank-funded West Africa Regional Fisheries Program (WARFP), which provides financing to West African countries to support a sustainable increase in the contribution of fisheries resources to economic growth in the region, through strengthened governance, reduced illegal fishing and increased local value added to fisheries products.
The crew of the Seta 70 have been detained in Monrovia pending investigations of the vessel. Meanwhile, the Liberian government has requested that European authorities ensure that none of the illegal vessels catch is able to enter the European seafood market.
Steve Trent, Executive Director of EJF commented: “The Spanish government must urgently review its decision to allow the import of fish from the Seta 70 and other vessels that are stealing fish from some of the poorest people on the planet. Weak port controls in Las Palmas mean that European consumers are unwittingly fuelling pirate fishing, a practice that devastates coastal communities, compromises food security and destroys marine environments.”
It is estimated that up to 70 per cent of animal protein consumed in West Africa comes from fish and millions of people across the region rely on fishing for their livelihood. IUU fishing has been estimated to result in losses of $1 billion USD to countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.