Global Policy Forum

Pirate Fishing

In Sierra Leone, fish is a vital protein source for the local population as well as an important source of income. But European and Asian industrial fishing companies are exploiting Sierra Leone’s marine resources through illegal fishing, while corrupt local officials turn a blind eye to foreign trawlers’ activities. This Al Jazeera documentary denounces the actors involved in the lucrative fishing trade while looking at the negative consequences for the people of Sierra Leone.

By Juliana Ruhfus and Orlando Von Einsiedel

February 2, 2012

The precious marine resources of some of the world's poorest people are being targeted by industrial-scale pirate fishing operations, to feed the seafood hungry markets of Europe and Asia.

The problem is particularly acute in West African waters where fish is a vital - and often the only - protein source for millions of people.  

In a special two-part investigation, People & Power sets out to identify and expose some of those involved in the multi-million dollar trade and to look in particular at its consequences for the impoverished West African nation of Sierra Leone.

In part one of Pirate Fishing, reporter Juliana Ruhfus and producer Orlando von Einsiedel take to the seas off Sierra Leone with an NGO, the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), which has been trying to raise awareness about the issue.

In a dramatic opening sequence they manage to catch two South Korean trawlers in the act of fishing illegally inside a coastal exclusion zone. But contrary to international maritime regulations, the trawlers have covered up ship-board markings making it impossible to determine their names and ports of origin. The vessels refuse all their requests to stop and eventually make good their escape.

What follows is a remarkable piece of forensic journalism as the Al Jazeera team strives to track down and identify the vessels. Along the way they investigate disturbing allegations that the trade is flourishing because of rampant local corruption, in which officials are paid to turn a blind eye to the activities of foreign trawlers. With their time in Sierra Leone fast running out and the authorities seemingly reluctant to help, it looks as though the two vessels might evade justice.

But then the team gets a vital clue that cracks the mystery wide open.

In part two of Pirate Fishing, the identity of one of the trawlers is revealed and in a nail biting climax, the captain and crew are confronted with the evidence of their crimes.  

Taken together the two films are akin to a dramatic detective story, but the issue they address is deadly serious. 

Sierra Leone is one of the poorest countries in the world - currently ranked 180th out of 187 countries on the Human Development Index.

After coming out of a brutal civil war that lasted 11 years, the country has struggled to rebuild its devastated infrastructure. Its waters contain some of the richest fish stocks in the world and could, if sustainably developed and managed, one day provide the country with much-needed income.

Even as things stand, fishing currently represents 10 per cent of Sierra Leone’s GDP and is a crucial component in its food security (contributing 64 per cent of the total animal protein eaten in the country). But the pirate fishing activities of foreign trawlers are stripping these fishing grounds so quickly that unless the practice is stopped there will soon be nothing left to develop. And most important of all, local people will be deprived of a crucial food source - just to satisfy the appetites of seafood lovers in Europe and Asia.


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