Liberia: Calls for Safety at Sea for Fishermen

Kumba Bamah at her residence in West point Kru-beach

.... Families of fishermen who died at sea are calling for the enforcement of lifejackets and other safety measures to prevent further casualties

Jerry and Kumba Bamah were married in 1996 amid much joy and affection. They both had goals and aspirations, but when he chose to work as a fisherman, a job she detested, their lofty aspirations cooled down.

No longer did Jerry spend time with his family. He died suddenly two months ago, leaving his wife Kumba to care for their six children. He was constantly at sea gathering fish.

“He left beside me by 2:00am to go fishing and on their way back, the Canoe capsized and hit his neck. Around 6:am we took him to the clinic but we lost him on our way to the clinic,” Kumba narrated. 

Kumba and her kids are not the only family of fishermen who lost their relatives  at sea. According to D.  Nimely Fannieh, the Kru-beach chief in West Point, this year has been catastrophic for fishermen under his watch. 

“We were hit badly this year from July to August. We lost about ten people,” he said. “Some fishermen's canoes were damaged due to storms at sea.”

Eighty percent of Liberia’s population is dependent on fish for essential dietary protein, according to the Environmental Justice Foundation, and the sector provides full or part-time employment for 33,000 people. They are essential for Liberia’s economy -- offering a source of protein for the population, including the poor and vulnerable living along the country’s 570 km coastline.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), around 20% of animal protein consumed in Liberia comes from fish.  Liberia is however among countries with poor fishing laws and regulations since the country’s bloody civil war ended nearly 20 years ago. 

Most fishermen do not wear protective gear such as lifejackets to enable them to float or swim in the event of a boating accident, to prevent drowning.

“We have been left with nothing,” says Kumba, who now struggles to feed and take care of her six children. This year, for me to even send my children to school was hard. The only thing is, the children are ‘old students’ so the school asked me to register them while I look for their fees.” [Old’ i.e. returning students’ benefit from reduced tuition compared to new students at most schools in Liberia.]” 

In Liberia, many fishermen do not have equipment and modern technology for their jobs. They use nets, hooks, thread and nails, putting their own lives at risk. 

“It’s a risky job. I always told him to buy a life jacket, but he never listened to me,” said Teta Doe, whose father, also a fisherman, also died by drowning. His body was never recovered. “I warned my father severally to abandon his fishing job and find another one but he refused and saw how he died.”

 Doe believes that if her father had on a lifejacket he probably would not have died, leaving them without a breadwinner and a head of home. “I have little brothers and sisters who are out of school because I cannot afford to send them to school.” 

In a release few months ago, the National Fisheries and Aquaculture Authority (NaFAA) announced that it would require the installation of a monitoring device known as the Automatic Identification System (AIS Class B) on every canoe fishing in Liberia waters for the purpose of effective tracking in time of emergency. 

“We’re going to start our safety program for our local fishermen and we will start it by July. We’ll have a transponder on all canoes. It’s a monitoring device. It will help reduce casualty at sea. Once a canoe is in distress, we’ll get a signal and the Coast Guard will move in right away,” said Director-General Emma Metieh Glassco.

The AIS is an automated, autonomous tracking system that is extensively used in the maritime world for the exchange of navigational information between AIS-equipped terminals. It is capable of sending information such as identification, position, course, speed, and more, to other ships and to shore.

Back at Kru Beach, Fannieh disclosed that some time ago, Caritas distributed lifejackets on fewer fishermen. “Of over a thousand fishermen, only one hundred got life jackets, but they never used their heads. Some of them misused it, they never put it in the proper place, some sold their own to other people,” he added. 

According to him, most of them do not have large canoes to control the water, in case the high tides overwhelm their canoes and result in capsizing and sometimes injury or death. 

“Sometimes I can tell them, when the rain is heavy, that no canoe should go on the sea, but they can defy me,” Fannieh said. When a fisherman dies, he says, they usually go around to collect funds to sympathize with the bereaved family. 

“Anybody can go on the sea once you know how to fish and own a canoe. Only less than 20 fishermen have life jackets, said Abraham Bropleh, who lost his uncle at sea a few years ago. “There is no restriction on who goes on sea. People who do not have proper knowledge on fishing, once they can afford a canoe, they will venture on the sea.”

“We want the government to force all fishermen to wear life jackets anytime they go on the sea, '' said Michael Tweah, a victim, who lost his uncle. 

John McCarthy, who lost his 27-year old son at sea in West point Kru-beach

John McCarthy, who lost his 27-year old son at sea, said it is painful, and the boy's death has affected his family in no small way. 

Lewis Konoe, NaFAA public relations officer, said President George Weah has brought in several pieces of life jackets along with motorized engines that will be distributed to fishing cooperatives across the country. 

“This government has given its attention to the fishing sector of this country and is committed to improving the lives of fishermen,” he said. 

According to him, there are several laws and regulations on fishing activities including the use of rubber nets, but due to unavailability of the proper nets, fishermen are forced to use the rubber nets. 

“We are talking with business people to open marine stores and shops for our fishermen. To bring in fishing materials and equipment for them to buy,” Konoe said. 

He added that NaFAA is in communication with the Liberia Revenue Authority (LRA) and the National Port Authority (NPA) to reduce taxes on fishing materials that would be imported. 

According to him, some of the fishermen who died at sea travel far off and may run out of gas or fuel while coming back, which leads to their death.

“We’ve received reports at times of fishermen drowning. Some got stranded, some got missing on sea and we immediately informed the coastguard to do a search and we are yet to get a report from them.”

About the Automatic Identification System (AIS Class B) that NaFAA promised to install on canoes for safety for fishermen, Konoe said the project is funded by the World Bank. “We have done the bidding process and the distribution will soon begin. We are concerned about the safety of fishermen and will do everything to ensure that their safety matters.”