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Sierra Leone: Artisanal fishing at risk

Summary & Comment: It is a contentious issue whether developing countries should continue to bear the cost of environmental conservation that benefits everyone, and not just the conserver. But can the government of Sierra Leone not forego money from industrial trawlers to serve thousands of jobless artisanal fishermen and promote sustainable fishing? JM

Author: Ibrahim Jaffa Condeh and Kevin Hill Date Written: 23 July 2008
Primary Category: Western Region Document Origin: Concord Times, Freetown
Secondary Category: Ecology Source URL: http://www.concordtimessl.com/
Key Words: Sierra Leone, ecology, artisanal fishing, industrial fishing, conservation

African Charter Article #21: All peoples shall freely dispose of their wealth and natural resources for their exclusive interest, eliminating all forms of foreign economic exploitation. (Click for full text...)



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Artisanal fishing at risk

The small village of Tombo on the Freetown peninsula is a centre of artisanal fishing in Sierra Leone, but its future and the future of all local fishermen in the country might be at risk. Between 500 and 600 fishermen use the Tombo Harbour to go to sea everyday. These men provide fish for markets in the local area, in Freetown and beyond, as well as a source of food for their families. This industry creates a source of income, and a source of food, enough to support the whole community. According to fisherman Ibrahim Sorie, lower fish yields and an increase in fuel prices is making it more difficult for fishermen to make a living. Despite consuming between 25 & 30 litres of fuel per trip out to sea, "we can still make a profit", but the margin between profit and loss is getting increasingly small.

There is perhaps a bigger challenge to survival for local fishermen than the global rise in commodity prices. Industrial trawlers are encroaching on their fishing grounds, depleting fish stocks and making work more difficult for local fishermen by forcing them further out to sea. Master fisherman, Pa Amadu 'Seaport' Kamara, began fishing in 1942 and still goes to sea today. He has seen the effects of over fishing first hand. "There are not the same number of fish today as there was then. Trawlers catch everything, throw away the small fish, keep the larger ones, and destroy the fish stocks for the country."

Sierra Leone relies on artisanal fishing to provide the largest single and cheapest source of animal protein to its people. It provides perhaps the most important single source of food, employment and revenue for the government, at about 10% of the gross domestic product of the country. According to the FAO, the food and agricultural organization of the United Nations, artisanal fishing employs 30,000 full time and 200,000 part time workers, and contributes just under US$75 million to the economy. The country's need to ensure sustainable food security and jobs provided by artisanal fishing is now coming into conflict with the government's desire for increased revenues from industrial scale fishing vessels who ply the waters for the export market.

For Abdul Mahmoud Koroma, head of the Sierra Leone Artisanal Fisheries Union in Tombo, the government is not doing enough to enforce current regulations that protect artisanal fishermen. The Inshore Exclusion Zone (IEZ) was designed as a no-go area for industrial ships, but "industrial fishing vessels are entering this zone after-hours. Government inspectors onboard vessels are not working in the interests of the country." The vessels "hide their identification marks, covering them with tarpaulins. When they run into the artisanal fishermen, they run away," said Mr. Koroma. "If they don't maintain the IEZ it will destroy artisanal fishing in Sierra Leone, if they maintain it, it will be OK."

Mohamed Sheriff Director of Fisheries in Sierra Leone said that the Inshore Exclusion Zone is being protected, but acknowledges there have been some illegal fishing practices. "There have been times when (artisanal) nets have been cut, these things happen. The IEZ are coordinates from North to South along Sierra Leone's coast, we know where the (commercial) vessels are at any time of day." According to the Director, Navy surveillance ships patrol the waters and are effective in maintaining the IEZ. If a ship is caught fishing in the protected area they are slapped with a US$30,000 fine. Government observers onboard fishing vessels do not have the right to stop a vessel from entering the IEZ, but are instead to report their findings to the Ministry of Fishing and Marine Resources. "In the past one or two months, we have had no reports of vessels entering the IEZ. We had about one or two (reports) a month before that," said Mr. Sheriff.

Recent negotiations with the EU that would add 100 additional industrial trawlers to Sierra Leone's waters has artisanal fisherman wondering if government will be able to protect the area demarcated for small-scale fishing from an increased number of ships. If additional trawlers are added to Sierra Leone's waters, warns Mr. Koroma, it could mean "total destruction to artisan fishing folks. If they respect the rules and regulations it would be OK. If they don't, if they continue to break the rules, the fish will not be there. The (government) observers are not honest." 'Seaport' Kamara agrees.

"Fishing is collapsing in this country. Politicking has overcome the fishing industry. People can use influence to disturb fishing practices. The trawlers that exist now are too much. The trawlers do not obey fishing boundaries." Another challenge for artisanal fishing is the local fishermen's own lack of understanding of the rules and regulations that exist to protect them as well as the country's fish stocks. Mr. Koroma said that some local fishermen contribute to the depletion of those stocks by engaging in channel fishing. In an effort to increase their catch, some young fishermen are going into known breeding grounds, catching spawning and very young fish. "Catch the mother and the baby and all will go," he said.

Fishing, like many other trades, is a profession often passed down from father to son, and lessons can start at a very early age. Schooling, which costs money, is neglected in favour of the labour required to contribute to the daily survival of the family. Poor fishing practices can be understood as both ignorance of the lifecycle of the fish stocks as well as a reaction to the increasingly difficult financial times. As fishing means survival for families in Tombo, when the catch is small, the whole community suffers. Mohamed Kargbo, the chairman of the local court Barrie, is concerned that young children are engaging themselves in this industry. Young boys see fishing as a lucrative career so many abandon their education in favour of work. Many parents in Tombo cannot afford school fees, compounding the problem.

Artisanal fishing can also be a dangerous profession and accidents do happen. Outboard motors fail, high wind and large waves cause boats to capsize, men can be thrown overboard or get caught in the fishing nets. These risks are even greater for children at sea. Tombo harbourmaster, Samuel A. Bangura, said that most children in Tombo engage in fishing and most of these do not go to school. "I try to beat the pikin (with a cane) to force them to go to school, but they must make a living. If they get lost at sea, if they fall down, they can die."

Fisherman Lamin Turay, 16, has been fishing for the past four years. "My father sent me to school but since he died things have turned out hard. Since the death of him, I saw myself as a fisherman." Fishing is a way he can make a living, despite the potential for accidents at sea. According to Lamin, "Any day is a good day for fishing." Sheku S. Kamara, 12, has been fishing for one year. He works to draw in the heavy lead-weighted nets, tie the fish and bail the water out of the boat. For him working as a fisherman is "not fine, because I cannot get an education to get a job like teacher or president. I don't want to fish for the rest of my life."

Master fisherman 'Seaport' Kamara knows that unless action is taken to protect artisanal fishing today, his community and his profession are in danger. If the youth of today do not receive an education, they will not be able to survive if fishing cannot provide them with a living. "If government doesn't put effort into (artisanal) fishing today, the youth will suffer. The future will be hard for Tombo."

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