Liberia: International Restrictions, EU's Proximity Put Chinese Fishing Vessels License Quest in Limbo

Monrovia — To license or not to license? That's the question the Liberian government through the National Fisheries and Aquaculture Authority (NAAFA), have been grappling with since six Chinese-flagged trawlers docked on Liberia's waters at the Bong Mines fishing Pier on Bushrod Island, a few weeks ago.

At issue?

Granting licenses to the Chinese vessels put Liberia at risk with several international organizations.

Firstly, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)'s Port States Measures Agreement, forbids member countries from issuing licenses without prior authorization from the vessels' flag state.

Fishing without a license comes with a fine of up to US$1,000 under Liberian Fisheries Regulations although illegal fishing has been going on for quite some time due to the lack of monitoring and policing.

Secondly, the European Union has the biggest fish market in the world and in terms of proximity its closer to Africa than Asia and America which makes the cost of doing business in Africa lower for international fleets operating in Africa than their competitors.

Moreover, EU is the largest importer of fish and fish products worldwide. In 2018, EU imported the value 60.6 billion United States dollars' worth of fish followed by the United States with 22.6 billion and China, 20.2 billion. Going against expressed concerns could mount significant losses on the fishing industry, putting Liberia at risk of losing even their private industrial tuna vessel because their fish product from Liberia will be banned from the EU market if levied a red card, thus making the sector unattractive for business.

For several days now, NAAFA has been under fire from protestors from the Liberian Seamen Union. Aggrieve members stormed the NaFAA headquarters on July 30 and 31, 2020, demanding the licensing of the six Chinese Super trawlers in an attempt to provide them job opportunities. The angry seamen denied NaFAA's staff of entering their offices Friday July 31, 2020, alleging that the authorities of NaFAA have decided to deny the six vessels operations on Liberian waters; this, they said would take them from their current state of joblessness and restore their families' livelihoods.

Liberia in a Bind

Mrs. Emma Metieh Glassco, Director General of NaFAA, providing some technical details why the government of Liberia has not licensed the six controversial Chinese fishing vessels currently at the Bong Mines fishing Pier on Bushrod Island, said there are several technical issues associated with licensing those fishing vessels as such all of those technical issues will have to be addressed adequately before their registration and subsequent license to fish in Liberian water can be issued.

Firstly, Glassco explains: "The six gigantic vessels that came to Liberia have larger fishing capacities and such vessels have never come to Liberia to fish and worse their authorization from the flag state which is the Peoples Republic of China has expired." she says "now china as a flag state needed to issue those vessels authorization to enable the vessels fish beyond China's Economic Exclusion Zone (EEZ) or in distance water".

Secondly, Liberia through NaFAA" has not received any authorization from the flag state, except a transit document from Mozambique to Liberia, however, that expired since June 26, 2020".

Madam Glassco noted that under that circumstances, "Liberia cannot issue licenses to those vessels when the flag state has not authorized the vessels to operate on distance waters, it will be a breach of international protocols." The NaFAA Boss Lady indicated that now that Liberia is a member of United Nations Port State Measures Agreement to deter and eliminate Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported fishing, it also stance to be red carded as a non-compliance country if these giant trawlers which we have not seen before are licensed without proper due diligence.

In May 2017, the European Commission cautioned Liberia over its lack of effort regarding the fight against illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

Over the past two years, the Weah administration and the EU have been working behind the scenes in hopes of removing the yellow card. The country and the EU, on December 12, 2015, entered into a Sustainable Fisheries Partnership Agreement (SFPA) and established the principles, rules and procedures governing the conditions under which Union vessels may engage in fishing activities in the Liberian fishing zone, economic, financial, technical and scientific cooperation in the fisheries sector with a view to promoting sustainable fishing in the Liberian fishing zone and the development of the Liberian fisheries sector.

The two parties also agreed to cooperate on the management, control and surveillance measures in the Liberian fishing zone with a view to ensuring that the rules and conditions are complied with and that the measures for the conservation of fish stocks and management of fishing activities are effective, in particular, the fight against illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing partnership between operators and aimed at developing economic activities in the fisheries sector and related activities, in the common interest.

Now, just as the government was quietly expressing hope that it is making headways toward having the Yellow Card lifted, the issue with the Chinese vessels emerged.

The government is hoping that once the yellow card is lifted it would boost Liberia fishing and maritime economy and attract substantial investments in the fisheries sector as the EU market is the closest and biggest to Africa.

The Yellow Card Fears

With Liberia currently a yellow card and at risk of getting red, the Weah administration is said to be pulling all stops in having the yellow card lifted.

This is why, authorities say, licensing of these six Super Trawlers could put Liberia in a lot of trouble. Any license granted now should be in line with the United Nation Fish Stock Agreement, meaning licensing of additional vessels have to be based on the availability of resources. Liberia has secured funding to conduct a comprehensive stock assessment that may allow the country to license additional trawlers or even reducing the current licensed vessels.

According to Lloyds database, which provides information to the maritime world and tracks vessel movements, there are 35 refrigerated cargo reefers flagged in Liberia. While Liberia stated that only those reefers in the transshipment program are allowed to be involved in fisheries-related operations, we have evidence of reefers outside such program involved in fishing and/or fishing related activities. NaFAA also said it would contact LiMA to enquire how the vessels outside the transshipment program are monitored.

Currently, Glassco assets, most of the vessels operating in Liberian waters are not entering the European Union ports due to the current yellow card issue, an action that is directly affecting the fisheries and Maritime Authorities and having enormous negative effects on the Liberian economy.

The government has completed a pre-licensing inspection but is yet to license the new vessels, since the expiration of the permits from China allowing the vessels to fish in Liberian waters expired on March 31.

As the saga lingers, it appears the ongoing EU restrictions and the proximity to Liberia compared to faraway China is said to be complicating matters for the Chinese. For NaFAA, issuing the vessel licenses might result to a red card from the EU which could hamper the chances of operating the entire national fisheries entity and later end the aspirations of the local seamen.

Even more troubling for the Chinese vessels, Liberia cannot go contrary to the Chapter 10 of the 2019 Fisheries and Aquaculture Management and Development Law and any international Laws or protocols because it risks red card from EU and this will also harper the market repelling international vessels from operating in Liberian waters.

As NaFAA continues mediation with members of the Seamen Union to reach a clear understanding, these unresolved technical procedures and adherence to international protocols, standing in the way of the licensing quest could linger for quite some time.

For now, the issue of licensing is being compounded by the fact that Liberia is on the verge of beginning work to develop a fisheries management plan. Thus, compiling the right information on the status of the stocks is key before any license can be granted and to ensure any fishing activity conducted would be sustainable.

More importantly, licensing the six Chinese supertrawlers, which are capable of catching 12,000 tonnes of fish a year, about twice Liberia's sustainable catch of key species which local fishermen depend on for their livelihoods, could hurt the industry for locals in Liberia.

Recently, the Liberia Artisanal Fishermen's Association urged the Weah administration to consider the livelihoods and food security of coastal communities and reject the request for fishing licenses.

In a joint statement, released in partnership with the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), the group asserted that the Liberian fisheries legislation only requires that these enormous vessels do not "threaten the sustainability of a fishery resource" in order to get licensed by the National Fisheries and Aquaculture Authority.

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