Plundering and pilfering Sierra Leone’s marine and fish resources is a perennially chronic infection that this tiny West African nation has left untreated for many years. As the albatross weighs down the neck of this poor, recovering nation, beset with formidable challenges, it is however heroically fighting for success and to integrate with the rest of the world community of democratic and prosperous nations.
Historically, foreign vessels have exploited and stolen Sierra Leone’s very lucrative marine resources with impunity, aided and abetted by a cohort of greedy and corrupt nationals. In a democracy where poverty and systemic corruption are prevalent, Government has a fierce fight in its belly, trying to cuff these wanton predators. Additionally there are stubborn ailments still depriving this naturally endowed nation of much needed funds necessary for financing a laundry list of necessary priorities.
Presently, things are beginning to look up, under the leadership of Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma, a former businessman, gifted, and with the head and heart for the job. Many believe he has the right aptitude and attitude for the job, and is positioned to take the nation to a coveted altitude. The President appointed a dynamic patriot, Dr. Alex Soccoh Kabia in December 2010 to take over the driver’s seat at the Marine Resources and Fisheries Ministry. He previously served in the Health and Social Welfare Ministries. President Koroma expects him to become the game changer and innovator. Dr. Kabia was very generous and gracious, in a conversation with me from Freetown, on Easter Monday, 9th April, 2012, a national holiday in Sierra Leone. He was unapologetic, speaking to me about the measures he had created, as well as measuring progress at his Ministry, and the daunting challenges in his path; a fight he is not afraid of. Dr. Kabia is a reputable Medical Doctor of Internal Medicine from Atlanta, Georgia, specializing in Nephrology, who has acquired several years of successful practice under his belt.
He took a giant risk, abandoning his private practice with a leap of faith, and returning home to make selfless and valuable contributions to his homeland. He also serves as consultant in his discipline to the Ministry of Health which is desperately facing a dearth of skilled and professional manpower, a risk other professional Sierra Leoneans are neither too passionate about, nor eager to take. Dr. Kabia’s return is in response to the President’s clarion appeal to all Sierra Leoneans, especially experts and technocrats with the necessary skills, irrespective of their political persuasions, to return home as team players and help in rebuilding a nation battered by war and divisive and diabolic attitudes, and tainted with cancerous corruption. In fact, the Minister is not a member of the ruling All Peoples Congress (APC). He belongs to a new political party, the Peoples Movement for Democratic Change (PMDC) that helped propel Ernest Koroma to the pinnacle of power in September 2007. The positive things presently happening in Sierra Leone could drown this malaise of melancholy of a decade long war, whose ghost refuses to remain in the graveyard.
Dr. Kabia said that his Ministry is intensifying aggressive crackdowns on international vessels violating the nation’s territorial waters. Recently, a French vessel flagged Tuna Purse Sterenn is the latest vessel to face sanctions under Sierra Leonean law on illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. The FV Sterenn (IMO 9225548) failed to communicate its entry into the nation’s territorial waters and failed to provide the catch reports, resulting in the initial fine of $51,000. The Ministry also confiscated the entire catch of 320 tonnes of tuna, valued at $ 650,000. The tuna is made up of a mixture of yellow fin, skip-jack, and big eye, according to information provided by the Ministry. The Minister told me that one million five hundred and thirty thousand nine hundred and seventy Dollars ($ 1,530, 970) has been collected from illegal industrial vessels in fines and fees from last year alone, and the proceeds already paid into Government’s coffers. Government secured a World Bank loan of fifty two million Dollars ($ 52 m) to put in place the dynamics and structures for the West African Regional Project, from which the country gets twenty five million Dollars ($ 25 m) as its share from the project. West African nations constituting the project are Senegal, Guinea, Mauritania, Guinea Bissau, Sierra Leone and Gambia. Fishing contributes some 10-13% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and last year alone, brought in thirteen billion seven hundred million Leones Le 13.7B), the highest ever collected by the Ministry.
The FV Sterenn was nabbed by a Sierra Leonean boarding team of the US Simpson as part of a United States Navy African Maritime Law Enforcement Partnership (AMLEP) mission commissioned to Sierra Leone. Illegal fishing costs the nation about thirty million ($30 M) yearly in lost revenue and rural economic activities that thwart the vulnerable West African fishermen, who depend primarily on fishing as a cheap source of protein in their diet, and their only source of livelihood. The arrest of the French vessel brings the count to eight IUU vessels identified by the Ministry since November 2011, he explains. IUU fishing is on the decline due to the aggressive measures and current structures instituted in this slowly recovering nation.
“It is crucial that we protect our valuable marine resources for them to continue to be a source of livelihood, food security and revenue for Government,” Dr. Kabia said.
On the arrest of the French fishing vessel in Freetown, he revealed that a fine of seven hundred and three thousand nine hundred and seventy Dollars (US$703,970) was also levied because “the vessel failed to communicate its entry into the country, submit catch report and display the call sign.”
Government is also pursuing four vessels for IUU activity-the Marcia 777, Kum Myeong 702, the Five Star and the Ocean 3 for subsequent offences after their initial fines. They are flagged to South Korea and fled Sierra Leone after being documented operating illegally by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF). Their flag State, South Korea, and their likely destination, Guinea, have both been contacted to make an arrest and return the vessels to Sierra Leone. Besides these enforcement measures, tightening the rules governing the use of Vessel Monitoring Systems by licensed vessels and reforming its fisheries observer programme are in the works.
The Executive Director of Environmental Justice Foundation, Mr. Steve Trent, said: “This is a potentially transformative moment in fisheries enforcement in West Africa. We congratulate Sierra Leone on the series of arrests it has made and the subsequent reduction in IUU fishing in the country’s waters. We are also proud of the contribution that EJF’s local staff and a new surveillance vessel have made on the crackdown. This is just the first step, however. Vessels that have been caught in Sierra Leone are moving to neighbouring countries to carry on their illegal activities. We need a regional response to this threat, with increased transparency across the global seafood market so that retailers and consumers can avoid pirate fish.”
Finally, the Minister had firm and pointed words at the end of our conversation, stressing that business as usual is no longer tolerated in his Ministry. He maintained that the nation is striving hard to instil a new mental attitude to change the direction and destiny of the nation, very thirsty and desperate for a new era of success and prosperity for all, especially the most disadvantaged and vulnerable.
“We are working to ensure that every fishing vessel within our waters operates in compliance with our laws. It is crucial that we protect our valuable marine resources that provide a source of livelihood, food security and government revenue. We are so grateful to the French Government for their cooperation in carrying out the responsible duties of a flag state as we are reaching out to partners in the region and beyond to coordinate our efforts to arrest IUU fishing. We are sending a clear message to poachers and would-be poachers that illegal fishing is no longer tolerated in the maritime waters of Sierra Leone,” Dr. Kabia concluded.