The Ocean

Picture of fishermen launching a canoe in Sierra Leone

Fishermen launch their boat in Sierra Leone in October 2008. The Environmental Justice Foundation is arming such locals with cell phones to monitor pirate fishing.

Photograph courtesy Environment Justice Foundation

Brian Clark Howard

National Geographic

This story is part of a special series on Ocean Innovations.

Although piracy off East Africa has garnered much international attention in recent years, it is the waters off West Africa that are seeing the highest rates of a different type of piracy: pirate fishing. According to the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), up to 37 percent of the catch harvested by fishermen off West Africa is illegal, unreported, or unregulated—in other words, the result of pirate fishing.

The toll of that pirate fishing is considerable, according to Steve Trent, the London-based executive director of EJF.

"When we first went to the region a few years ago the local fishermen were fearful of going out because of fear of violence [at the hands of pirate fishers]," said Trent. "They were also seeing their fish stocks declining, heading toward a potential collapse."

Trent explained that the impact on local communities was compounded due to a lack of other economic opportunities and because of the importance of seafood in the local diet. In Sierra Leone, 230,000 people work in fisheries, while seafood makes up 64 percent of the protein consumed.

Globally, pirate fishing results in losses of $10 billion to $23.5 billion a year, according to the EJF. Many nations, especially in West Africa, have difficulty combating the problem due to a lack of resources and the size of coastal areas.

Cell Phone Monitors

Over the past few years, the EJF has been arming West African fishermen to help them fight back against piracy in their waters. Only instead of guns, the foundation is handing out cell phones and GPS-enabled cameras. "These are locally appropriate technologies: they are simple, cheap, and durable," said Trent.

With support from National Geographic Ocean Initiative's Ocean Innovations grant program, the EJF trains the fishermen on how to use the cameras to protect their turf. When they are out in their boats—which are often as small as dugout canoes—and they see a fishing vessel that shouldn't be there, they snap a photo of the intruder's call sign, name, or unique markings. They collect the geospatial coordinates and then send all that data to the EJF.

The advocacy group can then dispatch one of its boats, which may document the alleged intruder further. Sometimes they will pick up local fisheries enforcement personnel, who may board the intruding vessel. The EJF also shares data with the European Union, which disperses it to member states. In turn, many of those governments will refuse to accept the pirated fish at their ports, or they may even seize it.

Trent said $6 million worth of pirated fish was recently detained in a Spanish port as a result of the group's work. A cargo ship was also recently fined $200,000 for taking on an illegal catch.

"A guy in a dugout canoe with a paddle and a small net can take a photo of an illegal vessel that came from somewhere far, say South Korea, and that can promote an action within 24 hours that stops the fish from entering the marketplace," said Trent.

Overall, Trent said the efforts have paid off. Piracy has plummeted in the areas where the program has been active. "Fishermen feel safe to go out again, and they are seeing larger catches and larger individual fish," he said.

"These people understand the sea in their locality better than anyone else and these tools give them power over their destiny, they give them a way to act that is peaceful yet influential," said Trent.

Managing Risks and Next Steps

Trent acknowledged that the strategy is not without some risk. A few participants have been attacked, although he said he wasn't sure if it was because of their monitoring activities or because they were "at the wrong place at the wrong time."

"There are risks but they are manageable, and this allows us to mitigate threat of really horrible violence," said Trent.

The EJF has also been training fishermen to take photos of other threats to their environment and to document biodiversity and success stories. They are also encouraged to record data on their catches, such as precise species, sizes, and locations, in a kind of citizen science effort that both educates the communities on land and helps researchers.

The foundation is working with central government and local leaders to establish marine protected areas in the region and to develop more comprehensive fisheries plans. The process takes time, Trent said. The group is also working on expanding the monitoring program beyond Sierra Leone to Liberia, Ghana, and the Ivory Coast.

"What we have done is show that you can have a large impact in a reasonably short period of time for a reasonably small amount of dollars," said Trent. "Keep it simple, don't impose technology that is inappropriate, and embed yourself in the community." He added that all of the EJF's staff in West Africa is made up of local people.

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