Unmasking Pirates and Putting them Under Arrest

Feature story - March 28, 2006
They steal fish from the poorest nations of the world to profit from selling to the rich in Europe and North America. They're pirate fishermen and Greenpeace made them walk the political plank today.

Off the coast of West Africa, we have unmasked a trail of pirate fishing and stolen food leading directly from Africa into Europe and beyond. In partnership with the Environmental Justice Foundation, we have discovered 61 pirate vessels that are stealing food from a poor country that is losing millions of dollars a year in stolen fish.

From onboard our ship, the Esperanza, we have documented these foreign-flagged vessels in the waters of West Africa. Nineteen of the ships we documented had been involved in illegal fishing activities in the past, and 21 couldn't be identified because their names were hidden.

Two Guinean enforcement officials, with powers of arrest, have now joined the Esperanza, which will continue to carry out surveillance operations in the region.

Five unidentified vessels were spotted in waters inside the Guinean 12 mile zone - waters reserved for local fishermen. Local fishermen just can't compete with these pirate ships. They've been forced, often in unstable canoes, to fish further and further from shore. Collisions are not uncommon. Legitimate local fishermen have died while the pirates continue to fish further inshore.

We have also witnessed an illegal transfer of fish from two vessels to a large refrigerated vessel, or reefer (Guinea outlawed such transhipments last year). Transhipping is one of the major ways in which pirate fishing fleets hide their catches and launder them through Europe.


West Africa is the only region in the world where fish consumption is falling. According to an estimate from the the UK Department for International Development, cash and food starved nations like Guinea are losing $100 million each year in stolen fish.

Internationally, pirate fishing is worth billions of dollars a year - 20 percent of the total fish catch. It's estimated that just in sub-Saharan Africa it nets $1billion annually, while in the waters of the Southern Ocean, up to 50 percent of the valuable Patagonian Toothfish (which you may know as Chilean Seabass on restaraunt menus) may come from illegal activities. In the Baltic Sea, 40 percent of the cod caught in 2002 - 2003 is thought to have been illegal.

Despite the fact that pirate fishing is devastating to ocean life and the livelihood of some of the world's poorest people, not enough is being done to stop it.

Our oceans campaigner onboard, Sarah Duthie, said the solution has to come from governments taking action by closing ports to pirate fishing vessels and making sure companies are prosecuted.