Freetown — Living in a country with a 70 percent youth unemployment rate, fishing along the long Atlantic Coast is one of the few options left for Sierra Leonian youth in terms of work. But pirate fishers and an uninterested government are threatening their livelihood.
Albert Johnson helps unload a net full of shimmering silver herring from his fishing boat, a 25-foot wooden canoe painted bright red, bobbing on the water in front of the rocky beach. He untangles the small fish from the net while market sellers crowd the shore, waiting to purchase the catch. "I've been working as a fisherman for a few years now. For us, it is the only means of livelihood," says Johnson, who lives in the fishing community of Goderich, a suburb of Sierra Leone's capital city, Freetown.
He says it is hard work, but making a living from fishing has been made even more difficult in recent years, because foreign trawlers have been terrorising these communities by poaching in the Inshore Exclusion Zone (IEZ), an area reserved for artisanal fishermen with small boats, like Johnson's.
Fishing gear destroyed
The pirate fishers would cut nets, occasionally ram boats, and frequently damage the marine environment. "When we'd go out to fish, we sometimes saw trawlers destroy fishing gear and run off. Their boats are bigger and faster [than ours]," says Johnson.
Although a recently released report by UK-based NGO Environmental Justice Foundation says that foreign poaching in the IEZ has dropped to zero, West Africa is still the region that is most affected by piracy fishing, losing more than a third of the total catch to foreign poachers.
In a country where youth unemployment is almost 70 percent, fishing along the long Atlantic Coast is one of the few options left for Sierra Leonian youth in terms of work. The population of Sierra Leone is growing, and with it, is a need for food, particularly protein-rich food like fish.
Fish represents 64 percent of the total animal protein consumed in the country, and an estimated 230,000 people are directly employed in the fishing industry. The long coastline, however, means it is hard to patrol and monitor fishing activity. The Sierra Leone navy has four small patrol boats, but none of them are currently in operation.
Patrol boat robbed
The government claims it has difficulties providing the resources necessary to efficiently monitor the fishing waters. At the beginning of October, the Isle of Man in the UK donated a patrol boat for monitoring fishing boat activity. But as it turned out at the launching, the boat had been robbed of its equipment including gauges, flat screens and life jackets.
This effectively means it is largely up to the fishing communities themselves to secure the livelihood for the younger generation. Al Haaji Sesay, who leads the union of small-scale fishermen in Sierra Leone, says that the fishermen need to be empowered to do so, since the government is not doing enough to protect them.
But fisherman Saidu Tacuru doesn't see it happen. "[The government] will never give us the authority to monitor [...] our territorial waters," he says. "They never say anything when damage has been done to us. It's our fate to remain silent and continue fishing." Like Tacuru, others in the Goderich fishing community also feel that the government has lost interest in the well-being of small-scale fishers, and is now only concerned with the more lucrative industrial fishing operations.