In August last year, a group of frustrated fishermen from Sierra Leone took the law into their own hands when they tangled with a Chinese trawler off the West African coast.
'Local fishermen chased and boarded the Chinese vessel having repeatedly come under attack by illegal fishing trawlers which destroyed their nets,' Sierra Leone's navy chief Commodore Sallieu Kanu told Radio Democracy in Freetown. 'Once they boarded, they were allegedly offered a bribe by the Chinese crew, which they refused. They called on the navy and our boats sprang into action and brought the vessel and the crew ashore.'
As extraordinary as it sounds at first, this was not an isolated incident, nor is it unique to Sierra Leone. Humans consume 50% more fish today than we did 50 years ago, according to the World Wildlife Fund. As global demand for fish rises, more and more foreign fishing vessels are descending on the waters of West Africa, which are relatively abundant in marine life.
This is causing tensions with local fishermen and governments who worry that this abundance is under threat. And as fish stocks decrease, so populations that rely on fish for food and livelihoods come under threat.
Off the coast of Sierra Leone, trawlers from China are the main problem. In January this year Chinese Ambassador to Sierra Leone Wu Peng said the legal Chinese fleet in the region consisted of 68 vessels, amounting to around 75% of the country's industrial fishing capacity.
Peng argues that there is a clear economic benefit to this major Chinese presence: not only does it contribute around $10 million annually in licensing and export fees, but it also helps to stabilise the price of fish in Sierra Leonean markets by ensuring a steady supply.
The Chinese government has also taken some steps to address the problem of overfishing. 'Since 2016, the country has cancelled subsidies worth €90 million ($111.6 million) for 264 vessels caught undertaking illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, according to non-profit Greenpeace. Three of the 78 companies that owned these vessels had their distant water fishing licenses revoked, while 15 company owners and captains were blacklisted,' Quartz Africa reports.
Local fishermen have a very different perspective. They complain that Chinese trawlers use illegal and destructive fishing methods that have decimated fish stocks, making it difficult for artisanal fishers to make a living.
One such method is 'pair trawling', where a giant net is strung between two trawlers, indiscriminately hauling in everything in between. 'Industrial fishing boats from China and Korea are destroying our nets and also depleting the fish stock,' says Alpha Sheku Kamara, chairman of the Sierra Leone National Fishermen Consortium.
Douglas Berger, a researcher from Tufts University, explains why pair trawling is such a damaging practice. 'Pair trawling is incredibly damaging to marine ecosystems. It is associated with fish stock depletion and high levels of bycatch, i.e. when vast numbers of non-target fish and other species become accidentally caught in nets.
'The Sierra Leonean authorities, with only a single patrol vessel, are ill-equipped to enforce the law against pair trawling. The country desperately needs the revenue legal trawl fishing could bring but lacks the capacity to enforce the regulations needed to keep it sustainable.'
In response to these concerns, the government took the unprecedented step of banning all industrial fishing in the month of April to give fish stocks a chance to recover. During this time, only artisanal fishers were allowed to work in Sierra Leonean waters.
'It was a very positive move as it shone a light on Sierra Leone's maritime law enforcement capabilities and what assistance they would require, and how it should partner with neighbours to ensure no such fishing occurs,' says Timothy Walker, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies.
Enforcement of the ban was complicated by the fact that Sierra Leone has only one operational patrol vessel, although the government had said it would devote more resources to monitoring its waters during April.
Most interesting to watch was the reaction of the industrial fishing fleets during the ban, who were all 'out of operation' a government representative told Deutsche Welle. 'The primary value of the ban was that it allowed us to observe whether fleets would attempt to circumvent the ban and the tactics they might use to do so. These would be replicated elsewhere and so this provides a good opportunity to learn lessons for more effective maritime security,' says Walker.
The ban was welcomed by environmental groups. 'We applaud the ban but the long answer is for legal, equitable and sustainable fishing industry management to be introduced. We are working towards helping Sierra Leone with surveillance boats and a regulatory framework for sustainable fishing methods,' says Steve Trent, executive director of the Environmental Justice Foundation.
But Sierra Leone cannot address this issue single-handedly, stresses Walker. This is a regional issue - and requires a regional solution. 'Industrial fishing fleets can roam the world's oceans and have the ability to loot and pillage vulnerable areas if acting illegally. It's a big cause for concern that African waters are so vulnerable to dangerous fishing practices many use, because policing and deterring are capabilities that few possess.'
Thinking in the long term, he says, a 'concerted set of actions, anchored by multilateral and regional interests and principles, is likely to prove most effective in combating illegal and harmful fishing. Common vulnerabilities and risks require common solutions and agreements.'
Simon Allison, ISS Consultant