On the Trail of Pirates

by Maureen Bonner

April 3, 2006

March 27, 2006 

We have been off the Guinean coast for the last ten days. We have tried to remain relatively undercover – documenting illegal fishing in the waters of some of the poorest countries in the world. For the last few days we have also had authorities from Guinea on board. They are from the Fishing Authority and the Navy. We are working with them to board and arrest these pirate vessels before they can launder any more of their illegal cargo through Europe’s ports.

So far, we’ve recorded 67 foreign-flagged vessels within Guinea Conakry’s 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Of these, 19 are not authorized to fish at all. Another 22 have known to have been involved in illegal fishing at some point in the past. We couldn’t identify nine of them – their names were hidden, or they covered them as we approached. Eight vessels, also unidentified, were spotted inside the Guinean 12-mile zone – waters reserved for local "artisanal" fishermen, most of whom still use small canoes called pirogues.

In the shadowy world of pirate fishing, illegal catches are transferred to "reefers" (refrigerated ships), which then deliver the fish onto the dinner plates of Europe, via the port of Las Palmas in the Canary Islands.

Fish consumption has been rising in Europe and elsewhere, but there’s actually been a decline in West Africa – the only region in the world where this is happening. In the struggle to compete with illegal industrial trawlers, local fishermen are losing their livelihoods – and in some cases, their lives. Others are forced farther out to sea – we’ve seen them working more than 100km from the coast, bobbing around in small boats, at the mercy of the elements. The Guinean authorities have virtually no capacity to combat fish pirates, even when they come within a couple of miles of the shore.

Up to now, there’s been lots of talk from governments – including and especially the EU – about tackling the problem. If they were actually bothered about stopping pirate fishing, we wouldn’t need to be here, helping out the Guinean authorities. With all their talk about encouraging aid to Africa, it’s ironic, hypocritical and downright ridiculous that local sources of food and income are being pillaged for European fish markets.

Amazingly it is estimated that fish stolen from sub-Saharan Africa totals 1 billion US dollars each year! Potentially this income could pass up from local fisherman all the way to federal governments if were not for these pirates – can you imagine the impact that could have for this region?


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