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I saw the plunder of our oceans with my own eyes

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Four days, four cases of illegal fishing in Sierra Leone

It was just before lunchtime on the Esperanza when a dot appeared unexpectedly on our radar. The onboard team had been discussing the four kilograms of shark fins we had found on the Italian flagged ship the F/V Eighteen a few hours earlier. But this interruption seemed worth pursuing.

Normally a fishing vessel would have its Automatic Identification System (AIS) turned on, and we would be able to tell immediately what sort of boat it is. This boat did not. We would have to get closer to find out what it was and what it was doing.

As we approached, the silhouette of a small fishing vessel gradually entered our line of sight. As we got closer we saw its rusty sides and messy deck. We also spotted that it was obscuring the name of the boat with a piece of an old net, illegal under almost all fishing regulations.

The Cona, a piece of old fishing net hiding the boat name. 15 April, 2017

The boat’s first reaction to our approach was to try to escape. Realising, however, that this was clearly impossible, the crew accepted our request to board with Sierra Leone fishery authority officials.

As we readied to board the vessel, its crew started to clean up their boat. They began by removing the grimy net which covered the boat’s name. Four letters emerged from underneath – Cona. The Cona.

Our team back on the Esperanza’s bridge looked up the details. A Korean vessel – not so common in these areas. The captain was Chinese, the chief mate Korean and the rest of the staff local West Africans. Thankfully we had Chinese staff with us who could communicate with the captain.

Despite their clean up, the ship was in an appalling state. Nets, rubbish and dead fish were strewn over the rusty deck. We found out that the tiny, 21m long boat was home to at least 20 workers, living in incredibly cramped and unhygenic conditions.

The crew look on as an inspector measures the Cona’s net. 15 April, 2017

The inspection team requested to measure the boat’s nets. Under Sierra Leonean law, the mesh for the nets for this type of boat must measure at least 60mm, or else they will be catching fish they are not licensed to catch. The Cona’s nets measured just 53mm, significantly smaller.

It was a clear case of illegal fishing, and the inspectors from the Sierra Leone fishery authorities confiscated the captain and crew’s passports and ordered them back to port. The boat will face fines.

Two days later we came across two Chinese vessels, the Fu Hai Yu 1111 and the Fu Hai Yu 2222. We had been monitoring them all night and discovered that they were drifting in waters far deeper than they would be able to fish in.

We launched Daisy, the Esperanza’s ‘rib’ – one of the speedy inflatable boats – in the morning and began our approach to the vessel.

As soon as we boarded the 1111, the captain began acting suspiciously. He presented us with a brand new net – more suspicion-raising than proof of innocence. When the inspector saw it, he knew immediately that this net had never been used and began searching for the nets the vessel was actually using.

After some further searching we found two other nets, this time clearly well-used. One was hidden in a locked cabinet, the other hidden in the boat’s freezer room. Their mesh size was 51mm – another clear infraction.

Crew aboard the Fu Hai Yu 1111 pull out one of the hidden nets. 17 April, 2017

The freezer room of the 1111 also contained a mountain of 70 bags of shark carcasses, not illegal if caught as bycatch, but a horrifying reminder of the destruction industrial fishing leaves in its wake.

The 2222 were more honest with us, but we found similar results. In addition to the net size infringement, both vessels were lacking a proper logbook and both claimed that they had been offloading catch in Liberian waters, despite not having the correct license to do so on board.

The two boats were ordered back to port and will also face fines.

The Fu Hai Yu 2222, with the Esperanza in the background. 17 April, 2017

It wasn’t just Chinese and Korean vessels we found in the seas of Sierra Leone. There was also the Italian-flagged vessel which had four kilograms of shark fins onboard. Unfortunately this is not yet illegal in Sierra Leone – if it had been they too would have been sent straight back to port. This is, however, a clear violation of European Union (EU) fishing rules. Greenpeace will report these breaches to the relevant EU and Italian authorities.

Shark fins found on board the F/V Eighteen, an Italian-flagged boat. 15 April, 2017

It was the plight of our precious oceans that compelled me to join Greenpeace. Sadly, in the six years I have been working on this issue, many of the problems still exist.

I have seen fishing boats in flagrant disregard of the law. I have seen crew applaud their boat’s arrest, knowing the wrongs of their captain’s orders. And I have heard people on land across West Africa speak about their suffering.

It is time to act. We must get the message across that West African governments need to cooperate to manage these oceans, for the oceans and for the people.

Ahmed Diame, oceans campaigner with Greenpeace Africa


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