The arrival last month of six Chinese-flagged trawlers caused alarm in Monrovia, the capital of the West African nation of Liberia, over their potential to affect local fisheries and communities.
The size and fishing capacity of the so-called supertrawlers is of a scale previously unknown in Liberia, with a greater level of sophistication than the current fleet of industrial vessels that target demersal fish such as snapper and grouper, species that local fishermen in wooden canoes depend on for their livelihoods.
The new 50-metre-long vessels, the Hao Yan Yu 860, 861, 862, 863, 865 and 866, were built in China in 2018 and are owned by Shenzhen Hao Hang Pelagic Fishery. This private company, which appears on the licence applications, is in turn 100% owned by Shenzhen Binhai Mingzhu Industrial.
Although Liberian authorities have completed a pre-licensing inspection, they have not yet licensed the new vessels, since the required permits from China to allow them to fish in Liberian waters appear to have expired on 31 March.
Under the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)’s Port States Measures Agreement, Liberia is forbidden from issuing licences without prior authorisation from the vessels’ flag state, according to Emma Metieh-Glassco, director general of Liberia’s National Fisheries and Aquaculture Authority (NaFAA).
What is the Port State Measures Agreement?
A UN treaty requiring countries to close their ports to illegal fishing vessels, and to share real-time information to make that possible.
Six Chinese bottom trawlers, owned by Dalian Int. Coop Pelagic Fishing Co. Ltd, are already licensed to fish in Liberian waters. Although Liberia’s industrial demersal fleet is significantly smaller than those of other West African countries, including neighbouring Sierra Leone, environmental and community groups are nevertheless concerned that the additional vessels will place a strain on fish populations and threaten the livelihoods of Liberia’s artisanal fishing communities.
Compared to many of its neighbours, Liberia has been a shining example of sustainable fisheries management in the past decade. A six-nautical-mile exclusion zone for industrial vessels introduced in 2010 is designed to protect the inshore artisanal fishing industry, which supports the livelihood of some 33,000 people.
“The supertrawlers will compete with the artisanal fishermen,” said John Adams, secretary-general of a community management association in the fishing town of Robertsport. “We recovered our species 10 years ago and we need to protect our stocks.”
However, the government of President George Weah, who came to power in January 2018, is keen to attract new foreign investment amid a worsening economic situation which is hampering its ability to deliver on its “pro-poor” agenda.
We are not a conservationist country, we are more interested in sustainable use.
“We are not a conservationist country,” said Glassco. “We are more interested in sustainable use,” adding that a forthcoming policy will seek to increase the number of trawlers permitted to operate.
New legislation has reduced the industrial exclusion zone from six nautical miles to four for certain vessels, such as shrimpers, as well as changing the definition of a “semi-industrial” vessel, which in theory permits larger boats into areas previously reserved for artisanal fleets. The change would not however permit the six newly arrived trawlers to fish within six miles of the shore.
Nevertheless, Adams is concerned that the trawlers might “slink into the six-nautical-mile zone at night and disturb our fishermen.”
Even operating outside the zone carries risks for local fishing communities. The new vessels “may scoop up juvenile fish that would be needed by coastal communities,” said Steve Trent, executive director of the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), which recently launched a project designed to support community management of Liberia’s fisheries and reduce instances of illegal fishing.
Glassco stated that, once Chinese authorisation had been received, the National Fisheries and Aquaculture Authority (NaFAA) planned to issue a “trial licence for one or two vessels” for an initial two to three months “for demersal trawling only” to ascertain their catch rates.
“We are not going to license six gigantic vessels without a record of catch rates, so it’s not wise to give all six licences at once,” she said.
Data and corresponding analysis on Liberia’s fish populations is lacking, but an assessment completed in 2011 suggested 6,000 metric tons per year for demersal fish would be a sustainable level for industrial fishing.
According to Austin Saye Wehye, director of research and statistics at NaFAA, the six existing Chinese trawlers caught between 4,000 and 5,000 metric tons of fish in 2019.
Speaking to China Dialogue Ocean in May 2019, Saye Wehye said: “We don’t have a great knowledge of stocks so are not keen to attract additional industrial fishing. We are trying to be cautious and make sure our stocks are sustainably managed.”
Saye Wehye is since reported to have been suspended by NaFAA for his involvement in a questionable report that recommended the licensing of the vessels.
The artisanal sector – already hampered by a lack of infrastructure and cold supply chain to market – suffered a further blow earlier this year when NaFAA increased licence fees for artisanal fishing vessels by up to 1,000%, prompting boats to remain in port for almost two months prior to negotiations.
Liberia’s fisheries law mandates NaFAA to manage the sector “based on the best scientific evidence available to maintain or restore stocks at levels capable of producing sustainable yield,” and prohibits the licensing of fishing plans that exceed sustainable levels.
“If Liberia has reached its maximum sustainable yield, there is no way we will license any vessel,” maintained Glassco.
Licensing the new vessels would be “running a major risk,” said Trent. “Why would anyone want to send a valuable product and food away from the country at this time?
“If the maximum sustainable yield is wrongly calculated, which is a probability, stocks will collapse.”