Liberia: Burkinabes, Ivorians Encroaching on Fisheries Sector

Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing-affect counties including Maryland Grand Kru, Sinoe, and River Cess County.

.... Maryland County fishermen sound alarmed 

A local fishing group in Maryland County, Atena Fishing Cooperative, has raised concerns over what they termed as a constant intrusion into their territorial waters by Ivorian-based fishermen. 

The group spokesman, Morris Gordo disclosed that the frequent violation of intruders, believed to be Burkinabes, Ivorian and Ghanian nationals, is not just dangerous for the Liberian fishing folks but also affects the local economy. 

"Those guys can do anything to us in the water and run away because they are always in good numbers. Moreover, the equipment they’re using we do not have,” Gordo said.  “We use one single fishing line with four or five fishing hooks attached but the Accra line, which sometimes takes about 1,000 fishing hooks, it's what they are using. This makes it difficult for us to pay taxes on time. This is a serious concern.”

However, Gordo noted that their struggles to survive in Liberia’s territorial waters as fishermen will be difficult if the coastguard fails to increase surveillance to ensure legal compliance and prevent aliens from illegally acquiring state resources.

“On several occasions, we have complained to NaFAA local staff based in the county, but nothing has been done to remedy the situation,” he said. “Two, three years back, NaFAA promised to deploy Coastguard officers in the county, but the only time we see Coastguard is when it is time for tax payment. Immediately after they finish collecting their taxes, they are taken back.” 

Atena's complaint is just a glaring example of Liberia’s struggle for years to battle foreign vessels plundering its coastline – as well as the crackdown on fisheries crime – which Interpol has linked with the trafficking of drugs and people, as well as fraud and tax evasion. But Liberia is not alone. The largely ungoverned waters of West Africa are plagued daily by big industrial vessels from wealthier nations that plunder hundreds of tonnes of fish at the expense of local fishermen.

One 2017 study estimates the cost of illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing (IUU) in just six west African countries at $2.3bn (£1.8bn) a year. Liberia, which lacks the financial and logistical resources to police its 370km coastline, depends on collaboration with Sea Shepherd, self-styled "eco-vigilantes," to combat million dollars illicit fishing operations on the country’s seashore.

The partnership in 2019, according to the Ministry of Defense, led to Liberia's coastguard quadrupling the number of arrests and recovering at least US$1 million in fines, while coastguard patrols doubled.

However, before the partnership, the country’s coastguard made only three arrests. One of the vessels, South Korea-flagged Nine Star, remains rusting in Monrovia’s port after its owners abandoned it, leaving US$1.5 million in unpaid fines, in 2013. The most recent arrest as a result of the partnership happened in April 2022, with the assistance of Sea Shepherd — leading to the Liberian Coast Guard arresting a trawler that was fishing inside a prohibited area reserved for artisanal fishermen. 

Sea Shepherd was invited to Liberia in 2017 to assist with the patrolling of the country’s sovereign coastal waters and help crack down on illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

The  self-styled "eco-vigilantes” patrolled Liberia’s coastline as a civilian offshore patrol vessel, with crew including  Liberian Coast Guard sailors with the authority to board, inspect and arrest ships violating Liberian law.

Gordo's complaint also comes a year after National Fisheries and Aquaculture Authority (NaFAA) in 2021,  along the country’s coastguard, arrested several illegal Ivorian fishermen fishing in Liberian waters without licenses or authorization.

Maryland, which is one of the four coastal counties of the southeast, is associated with a high level of illegal fishing activities involving Ivorian, Ghanaian and Togolese fishermen, reports say, due to the common border with Ivory Coast and inadequate security presence. The other affected counties include Grand Kru, Sinoe and River Cess  -- suffering from years of IUU fishing, which led to the loss of millions of United States dollars in revenue over the years.

IUU fishing is estimated to catch between 11 and 26 million tons of fish globally each year. This accounts for up to 40% of fish captured in West African waters, Liberia being no exception. 

And with limited resources, Liberia is also struggling to monitor, manage, and monitor trawling which targets fish that live close to the seabed such as shrimp, sole, and other groundfish — a practice that is prohibited within this inshore exclusion zone, but is yet being carried out by illegal fishermen — denying local subsistence, artisanal, and semi-artisanal fishermen much   catch.

Liberia’s local fishing sector employs more than 30,000 Liberians, according to Sea Shepherd.  The 2019 Fisheries and Aquaculture Management and Development Law compels unauthorized migrant fishermen to pay a fine of US$7,500. 

Meanwhile, the NaFAA Deputy Director-General, Mr. William Boeh, has promised the local fishermen that the government is making frantic efforts to curtail the situation. He added that the government was committed to seeking the welfare of fishermen across the nine coastal counties of Liberia in line with the Pro-poor Agenda for Prosperity and Development (PAPD).

He named the paddle-to-engine as well as the net exchange programs, amongst others, as notable initiatives that have been implemented by the Government, aimed at transforming the livelihoods of members of the fishing communities across Liberia.