One night in early April, Musa Jammeh was out fishing off the Gambia’s Atlantic coast when he discovered a trawler had destroyed his nets while fishing illegally.
Jammeh tried to get close enough in his wooden canoe to take the vessel’s registration number, so he could report the incident to the fisheries department and apply for compensation, but he and his crew were attacked and driven away.
“We saw a big ship coming towards us. They pumped hot water on us so that we didn’t get closer to them. You could hear dogs barking from the ship which was scary. I was really sad because I lost my net to people who do not care about us, our fish and our lives,” he tells China Dialogue.
Jammeh and his crew of 15 youths are unable to work until the nets are replaced: “They are all jobless now. My family is suffering so badly. We have no justice and we never expect justice.”
The incident occurred a few months after a patrol campaign by the NGO Sea Shepherd Global, in collaboration with the Gambian government. It highlighted the complex challenges the country faces in combatting illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing.
What are the trawlers doing?
The Gambia’s coastline is plagued by industrial trawlers that breach regulations to fish inside a nine-nautical-mile-wide area reserved for artisanal fishers. The trawlers are taking vast amounts of sardinella and other small pelagic species that provide a crucial source of protein.
“The Gambia has had a bigger problem with incursions into restricted areas than other countries we have worked with,” says Peter Hammarstedt, Sea Shepherd director of campaigns. “It’s ecologically important to deter illegal fishing close to the shore. It’s where fish are spawning and where the biodiversity is, which is critical to artisanal fishers.”
As China Dialogue reported last November, the Gambia’s food security is under threat from the over-exploitation of small pelagic fish driven by the rapid growth in fishmeal processing in the sub-region. There are more than 50 factories operating along the coasts of Mauritania and Senegal, including three in the Gambia that are owned by Chinese companies.
“Fishmeal is one of the main drivers for IUU fishing in Gambia,” says Dr Dyhia Belhabib, principal investigator, fisheries, at Ecotrust Canada. “Just one trawler can have a significant negative impact on fish stocks, but the monitoring is not there.”
Like many countries in the region, the Gambia has little capacity to know what is happening on its waters. “We have a 200-mile exclusive economic zone, but the patrol vessels we have currently do not have the capacity to do the surveillance operations. They only go out for 60 miles, so they cannot protect our water,” explains James Gomez, minister for fisheries and water resources.
“Gambia faces quite a challenge as its waters are surrounded by three major coastal fishing states – Mauritania, Senegal and Guinea Bissau – where there’s extensive fishing activity going on. Vessels go from one state to the other and they can potentially just fish in Gambia [without permission],” says Duncan Copeland, executive director of fisheries intelligence organisation Trygg Mat Tracking.
To compound its difficulties, a lot of the trawlers fishing in the Gambia are licensed in neighbouring Senegal, returning to ports in that country’s capital, Dakar, which has become a major hub for fishmeal processing. “You have an issue with the fisheries department and other agencies [in the Gambia] not necessarily always being familiar with how these vessels are operating,” adds Copeland.
Enter Sea Shepherd
In an effort to regain control of its waters, the Gambian government last year requested Sea Shepherd’s help in carrying out patrol operations, following its recent direct-action campaigns in Gabon, Liberia and Tanzania.
Operation Gambian Coastal Defense began in August 2019, working with sailors from the Gambia’s navy and with law-enforcement agents from the fisheries department, who have been going out on patrols on Sea Shepherd vessels including the Sam Simon.
“We provide transportation to the scene of the crime. Our vessels also act as training platforms for fisheries inspectors. They go through the quantities and the amounts of different species being taken and that data all goes back to the ministry,” Hammarstedt explains.
Over six months, the joint patrols have yielded 16 arrests of vessels suspected of IUU fishing activities. The majority of the offences involved industrial trawlers coming inside the nine-mile-wide special management area, while others were for unlawful mesh size and finning offences.
“The good number of arrests shows you the level of compliance [beforehand] was not high,” says Charlie Kilgour, director of analysis at NGO Global Fishing Watch. “This is why the capacity lent by Sea Shepherd is really important, because without them those patrols wouldn’t be happening to that level. It wouldn’t work without the support of the authorities… While Sea Shepherd are there, they will have an impact,” he adds.
The campaign has succeeded in drastically reducing incursions into the protected area during the patrols, says Hammarstedt.
“What we have seen in Gambia and all the countries we have worked in is that the beginning of an operation will net some arrests and a huge deterrent takes place while the patrols are there, and for some time after the patrols have stopped, the vessels aren’t coming into the nine-nautical-mile zone. This allows the fish populations to start recovering,” he says.
Using remote surveillance and fisheries intelligence to track activity can change IUU fishing behaviours, says Peter Horn, director of the Ending Illegal Fishing Project at Pew Charitable Trusts.
“Distant-water fleets think they can act with impunity. In Gambia, they switch off their Automatic Identification Systems (AIS) at night, but Sea Shepherd uses radar systems to see where the fishing activity is. You’ve got to have a certain level of persistence,” he says.
Belhabib agrees that Sea Shepherd has a deterrent effect. “When Sea Shepherd was in Gambia, illegal fishing really dropped, but you could see from AIS signals that the vessels came back soon after,” she says.
“As with any criminal sweeps, IUU activity tends to slowly resume once the patrol vessel leaves the area,” Hammarstedt acknowledges. “That is why we have long-term partnerships and why we come and go to retain an element of surprise,” he adds.
Sea Shepherd’s last operation in the Gambia was in January. It is planning to continue the campaign, but operations are on hold due to coronavirus pandemic lockdowns. In the meantime, the Gambian navy has been patrolling and made several arrests of vessels charged with IUU offences, including at least two that had already been arrested during the joint operations.
However, as Jammeh’s experience in April highlights, the challenge remains to keep up the momentum of Sea Shepherd’s interventions. Fisheries commentators say much hinges on the political will to continue enforcement.
“If the bad fishing practice is ended by Sea Shepherd’s intervention then my job won’t be destroyed, but I think we still have a lot to do to combat IUU fishing,” reflects Jammeh.
The deeper problem
“While Sea Shepherd can help in the short term, it’s not sustainable for countries to rely on expensive western NGOs to police their waters. They need to build in the architecture and systems of governance so they can do that for themselves,” says Steve Trent, executive director of the Environmental Justice Foundation, which has also been working with fishing communities afflicted by IUU fishing in west Africa.
“Enforcement patrols can sometimes be a PR exercise for governments,” he adds.
This is the view of many activists who have spent recent years fruitlessly campaigning for the government to close the fishmeal factories that they blame for the rise in IUU fishing in the Gambia.
The three fishmeal factories along the Gambia’s southwest coast are currently flouting national lockdown rules by continuing to operate, despite strong opposition from local groups.
“Things haven’t changed. Up until now at around 9pm you see the trawlers coming in and the artisanal nets are damaged. Usually the fishermen lose their nets and there is no compensation,” says Dawda Saine, of the Confederation of African Artisanal Fishing in Gambia.
Activists point to a lack of transparency in enforcement procedures. “Usually, the fisheries ministry settles out of court. I have never seen these fines published. There is no communication on how much the fines are for and whether they are for first or second offences,” says Saine.
The system is open to corruption, agrees Stephen Akester, fisheries management adviser to the World Bank’s West Africa regional fisheries programme. “If an IUU incident is reported, you don’t know what will happen to the report, what it’s worth for an official not to report it. All the foreign fishing companies have national agents who have access to the administrations that, for a price, will tell them what’s going on,” he adds.
There is a reluctance to raise the issue of corruption at a local and government level
“There is a reluctance to raise the issue of corruption at a local and government level that erodes the potential of any enforcement programme,” argues Trent.
Many Gambians are suspicious that the political will to enforce legislation is compromised by the government’s umbilical relationship with China, which has become a major funder since the country’s transition from dictatorship to democracy in January 2017. The Gambia is now part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative to build infrastructure and stimulate trade. The agreement promises a US$33 million development grant, which includes investment in fisheries and agriculture.
“This is one of the underlying challenges of the Belt and Road Initiative. The reality is countries such as Gambia are hugely indebted. This makes the realpolitik of robustly enforcing the legislation difficult,” says Horn.
The majority of industrial trawlers operating in the Gambia are Chinese-owned, but it is commonplace for operators to register them as Gambian fishing companies by forming joint ventures with a local partner, says Saine.
“Quite a lot of the trawlers operating in the region are so-called ‘flag of convenience’ vessels, which reduces the oversight,” agrees Kilgour, who provided training on fisheries surveillance with Trygg Mat Tracking in Gambia last year.
What is a flag of convenience?
The flag of a country a ship is registered under to avoid regulation and scrutiny
“It’s definitely challenging with governments, like Gambia, where you have large Chinese investment, such as the fishmeal plants and Chinese vessels. Getting high-level government to follow through on these illegal activities has been identified as difficult,” adds Kilgour.
However, the fact that the government did sign off on the Sea Shepherd activities is a “very positive sign,” he suggests. “I think there’s definitely hope that there’s political will [to tackle IUU fishing]”.
Fisheries minister James Gomez confirmed that the total revenue collected from fines of the 16 arrested trawlers amounted to 10 million dalasi (US$194,363). “Out of that 10 million, 30% went to the Gambian navy to strengthen their operation and protect our waters, the rest goes to a government account,” he says, adding that the government is hoping to soon acquire its own remote surveillance system, as part of a European Union-funded initiative.
“In the six months we have been working in Gambia we have seen critical revenue generated for the government, so we hope to see a continuation of patrols,” says Hammarstedt.
“Gambia’s nine-nautical-mile zone is a marine protected area, but we need to make sure the legislation isn’t a paper tiger, it needs to be backed up with enforcement,” he adds.
Fishmeal and West Africa
If the Gambian government is serious about tackling IUU fishing, it needs closer dialogue with Senegal, advises Duncan Copeland. “Dakar is becoming a Chinese centre of operations for fishmeal. They should also be aware that other actors are getting involved. Turkey is becoming a player and they have a big aquaculture industry,” he adds.
“The region is facing an invasion of distant-water fleets from China and also Turkey,” says Dr Ibrahima Cisse, senior oceans campaigns manager at Greenpeace Africa, based in Dakar.
There are encouraging signs from Senegal, however, after the minister of fisheries, Alioune Ndoye, agreed to ditch plans to approve 52 new licences to industrial fishing companies, mostly from China. Some of the vessels had previously been implicated in IUU fishing practices. The decision followed weeks of national protests by a coalition of NGOs, including Greenpeace, and civil society organisations representing women fish processors and artisanal fishers.
Sally Yozell, director of the environmental security programme at the Stimson Center in the US, says that governments in the region need to heed citizens’ concerns over food insecurity or face unrest.
“A lot of artisanal fishers are getting fed up that governments are prioritising foreign fleets. Some governments are worried about instability and have a growing awareness that they need to be more sensitive to these issues. It’s important to address these issues from a regional perspective,” she says.
Fishmeal doesn’t make enough money without subsidies. Subsidies enable illegal fishing in Gambia
But, so far, a regional response to tackling IUU fishing has not been forthcoming. “The fishmeal industry is creating competition between countries,” says Cisse. “Without harmonised regulation in the sub-region, it’s very difficult to end this practice.”
One major development that could make a difference would be the ending of harmful global fishing subsidies – public money which makes it cheaper for boats to fish longer and farther.
“Fishmeal doesn’t make enough money without subsidies. Subsidies enable IUU fishing in Gambia [and other countries],” says Belhabib.
The Global Ocean Commission has estimated that 60% of all fisheries subsidies directly encourage “unsustainable, destructive and even illegal fishing practices”.
China’s distant-water fleets currently receive the largest share of global fishing subsidies. “China’s subsidies are a big problem,” agrees Sally Yozell. “They provide fuel and fleets. If you took away these subsidies, they wouldn’t be economically feasible. Ending these harmful subsidies is really key.”
Hopes were pinned on a World Trade Organization ministerial meeting scheduled for June to finally reach a UN target to end harmful fishing subsidies in 2020, after decades of negotiations. But disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic makes it unlikely the WTO will reach an agreement this year.
Some commentators are concerned that with the current crisis, China could roll back on engagement with subsidies negotiations. “With the pandemic, not only have they lost momentum, but they may have redefined their priorities in terms of investment. This is scary to me because it may mean dropping the ball on ending harmful subsidies,” says Belhabib.
Additional reporting by Mustapha Manneh