Author: Emma Bryce
Early in December 2012, a South Korean vessel called the Premier entered the Indian Ocean to fish. In West Africa, authorities knew that the boat had been fishing illegally in Liberian waters before it made its way to Africa’s other coast. That raised the ire of East African countries, which weren’t keen to welcome a lawbreaker into their seas. Kenya, Tanzania, Mauritius, the Comoros, Mozambique, and the Seychelles rapidly mobilized against the vessel, shutting it out of their ports and refusing to grant it a fishing license.
“All of a sudden, the Premier was surrounded by countries that were saying no to everything,” recalls Benedict Kiilu, a Kenyan principal fisheries officer who was part of the team that tracked the vessel at the time. In 2013, unable to land its catch, the disgraced ship was finally driven out of the region. Ultimately, it was forced to pay US$2 million to Liberia for plundering its fish.
The beating heart of this crime-busting, resource-conserving effort was FISH-i Africa, a network of countries committed to sharing fisheries intelligence that was established in 2012 by the not-for-profit Stop Illegal Fishing. Composed of the six countries that drove out the Premier, along with Madagascar and Somalia, FISH-i Africa seeks to form a united front against illegal — or “pirate” — fishing.
“It’s eight like-minded countries working together to share information and stand shoulder to shoulder where illegal fishing is concerned,” says Tony Long, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Ending Illegal Fishing Project, which provides technical support to aid FISH-i’s efforts.
Because illegal fishing is unregulated — meaning catch is concealed and almost impossible to trace — it has become a major driver of overfishing. By flouting the rules designed to protect certain habitats and species, it can also undermine vulnerable ecosystems and threaten marine species. But, where attempts to fight it were once hampered by bureaucracy and snail’s-pace information sharing between countries, now they’re happening in real-time on FISH-i’s digital communications platform. Here, member countries exchange vessel license lists, news about suspect activities and details obtained during port inspections to build up a record of the vessels entering their waters.
FISH-i also closely tracks vessels’ activities on the high seas using satellite data and shares that information via the platform. This helps authorities flag vessels that may be fishing in off-limits areas, or those that betray unusual travel patterns that suggest they’re transferring fish illegally between boats.
Ideally, these investigations can reveal whether vessels have appropriate licenses, where they’ve been fishing and perhaps if they have a criminal record. Countries that wise up to illegal fishers’ transgressions then have grounds to shut their ports to these vessels so they can’t sell their catch or even to force them to pay fines, as in the case of the Premier.
“It’s a real financial loss to the [vessel’s] owner, which means illegal fishing isn’t profitable anymore. That’s really what we want to achieve,” says Per Erik Bergh, managing director ofNFDS Africa, a consultancy that works to combat illegal fishing in Africa and provides support to FISH-i.
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