Billions of (US) dollars. That’s how much the anti-poaching group Sea Shepherd says West Africa loses to illegal fishing each year. The region also accounts for nearly 40% of all of the world’s poached fish.
It’s a big business, with industrial fishing vessels that often slip into national waters for tuna, swordfish and sharks. A new campaign by Sea Shepherd is helping to monitor Senegal’s 700 kilometer long coast to stop the illegal activity.
The program is dubbed “Operation Sunu Gaal” – a local Senegalese term meaning “my canoe.” Except that Sea Shepherd ’s contribution is a ship, with personnel trained to help catch poachers. It joins two or three other vessels provided by Senegal.
Lamya Essemlali, the head of the campaign, says, "What we are doing is documenting illegal vessels and reporting to the navy, and the next stage is to have the officials who are on board with us to board those vessels and check further to see if they are complying with the law."
Some crews use nets, tarpaulins or other equipment to obscure the name of their ships. Recently,poaching vessels have been flying the Senegalese flag. Others do have the proper credentials, but still may be breaking international and Senegalese law.
Once Sea Shepherd crew and government officials board a trawler, they check for proper fishing licenses, gear, the species being fished, and the quota.
The increased monitoring has been having an effect:
"We have a good network of informants that can help us target the illegal fishing vessels," says Essemlali. Now, they are more careful because the word is out that Senegal is trying to stop illegal fishing. They used to illegally fish in the light of day, now they are more cautious. They stand behind the border and come at night and run back across the border when they feel they are being followed. One Russian vessel escaped us this way last month. "
And that was not the only recent run-in with Russian trawlers. In January, Dakar brought one in suspected of fishing without a license. Fisheries Minister Haidar El Ali said it was the third time the boat had been fined.
Essemlali says the ship itself was a difficult catch.
"The [government] had to bring in military forces [armed commandos] to force them to follow them -- because the Russians were armed and did not want to give up."
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization says fisheries and related industries account for up to a quarter of all employment in West Africa.
Other figures show there are hundreds of thousands of fish-related jobs in Senegal, Sierra Leone and Guinea. Fishing also contributes more than 30% of export revenues in Mauritius and Senegal.
Essemlali says the campaign also aims to raise public awareness among consumers in industrialized countries. She says they should understand the food on their plates comes from a region that depends on the legal export of fish for revenue and to feed its people. Health experts estimate that fish provides over two-thirds of the animal protein consumed in West Africa.
European Union regulations have made it easier to verify the origin of the catch and allow vessels and un-cooperative countries to be blacklisted. Reports say three such countries, including Guinea, could face sanctions. Eight other countries, including South Korea and Ghana, have been asked to address alleged problems or face trade sanctions against their seafood exports to the EU.
Essemlali says Sea Shepherd's cooperative agreement with Senegal is a model for working with other governments which lack the resources to monitor their coastline. She expects to soon announce other bi-lateral agreements in West Africa to help crack down on poachers.