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April/May 2007
Pirates of the Seas
By Juliette Williams


We all know that the world’s fish stocks are disappearing…fast. According to the UN, 75 percent of global fish stocks are fully exploited, over-exploited or depleted, and a recent scientific paper in Science predicted that stocks could run out by 2048 as a result of over-fishing and other human factors. But just as governments and international organizations act to protect our oceans, it seems that unscrupulous fishing companies find new ways to continue plying their trade.

With high value species such as tuna selling for tens of thousands of dollars each, some of the world’s poorest nations and conflict zones are now being targeted by illegal fishing vessels eager to supply our taste for the exotic. By paying no heed to controls on fishing gear, using banned driftnets and destructive trawls, ignoring quotas and fishing in protected areas, pirate fishing vessels are destroying marine biodiversity including endangered whales and dolphins, sharks, rays, turtles and seabirds, wiping out fish populations and with this, our shared global natural heritage. Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) or “pirate” fishing is now considered to be one of the most serious threats to the achievement of sustainable fish stocks. Recent studies put the worldwide value of these illicit catches at up to nine billion dollars a year. A recent study of the shark fin trade in Hong Kong estimated that between 66 and 80 percent of global shark catches go unreported—catches estimated to be worth $292 to $476 million in shark fin value alone.

The problems of course are not only felt at sea. Pirate vessels have a direct impact upon coastal communities. The seas off West Africa are particularly susceptible to illegal fishing—these waters support one of the world’s most productive marine ecosystems. However, when countries lack the resources and funding to properly police their territorial waters—which extend 200 miles out to sea—IUU fishermen are quick to exploit the situation.

Vulnerable war-torn or post-conflict nations such as Sierra Leone, Angola, Liberia and Somalia have been specifically targeted by pirate operations. One recent estimate revealed that IUU fishing costs countries across Sub-Saharan Africa almost a billion dollars a year in lost revenues, equal to 19 percent of the fish’s value at landing. The West African state of Guinea-Conakry is losing over 34,000 tons of fish every year to illegal fishing, worth $110 million. And pirate fishing is a growing business across all the world’s oceans.

In Australia, the navy is arresting one illegal fishing vessel in its territorial waters every day of the year. Yet if the Australians with their modern equipment and resources can’t stop the pirates, what hope is there for Guinea-Conakry, which now has one of the highest rates of pirate fishing in the world? In 2006, the British nonprofit, Environmental Justice Foundation, together with Greenpeace International, undertook an investigation to expose the extent and impacts of illegal fishing activities in West African waters. During the five-week expedition, 104 foreign flagged vessels, from Korea, China, Italy, Liberia and Belize were documented operating in the waters of Guinea-Conakry and its neighbors. Nearly half were found to be engaged in or linked to illegal fishing activities, including operating without license, hiding identities, using trawl nets inside the 12 mile zone restricted to local fishermen, or illegally trans-shipping (moving food fish from the fishing vessel onto a container vessel at sea). EJF also documented the trawlers’ hauls of massive ‘bycatch’—the accidental capture of fish and other non-target animals. With little or no commercial value, these animals are simply shoveled back over the side of the vessel, dead or dying.

One vessel, the Binar 4, was documented illegally transferring catches from fishing vessels operating in Guinean waters, and was later spotted heading with its 200-ton cargo of stolen fish, to the notorious Spanish port of Las Palmas in the Canary Islands. High-value seafood like shrimp and tuna taken by pirate fishers are able to enter the marketplace via “ports of convenience,” such as Las Palmas, long known as a haven for pirate fishing vessels. From here, fish stolen from Africa can enter the European and American marketplace with no further inspection as to its origin and legality. Mixing legal and illegal fish catches in Las Palmas means that preventing illegal fish from ending up on the plates of European consumers is next to impossible. On this occasion, EJF and Greenpeace were able to give the Spanish authorities a tip-off, and when the Binar-4 docked in Las Palmas, the boat and its cargo were impounded. One success story, but sadly in Guinean waters, there are plenty more boats to take the place of the Binar-4.

Destructive Driftnets
It’s not just the poorest nations suffering from illegal fishing. On the other side of Africa lies the Mediterranean, that gleaming azure sea. But next time you take a trip across the Atlantic on your summer holiday, check out the fishing boats in some of those picturesque ports of Sicily and southern France and you may pause before swallowing that succulent mouthful of fresh tuna. Investigations over the past five years have revealed that far from being consigned to the history books, the devastation linked to driftnets continues. In the 1980s, the global use of driftnets cost the lives of millions of marine species including endangered whales, dolphins and turtles. Massive public protest led to a UN moratorium in 1993, and in Europe driftnets over 1.5 miles long were banned from use in the Mediterranean, a move reinforced by a total ban on the use of driftnets in targeting ten species, including tuna, swordfish and sharks. However, legal loopholes and weak enforcement have allowed illegal driftnets to continue being used by Italian, French, Moroccan, Turkish and Algerian fleets.

Current estimates suggest that 600 illegal driftnet vessels operate in the Mediterranean, using nets averaging over five miles in length. The largest net observed in Italy in 2004, for example, was reportedly 50 miles long, and comprised of many ‘legal’ nets being strung together—a simple legal loophole that has cost countless lives.

Thousands of cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises), turtles, sea birds and non-target fish species, including rays and sharks, die in illegal driftnets each year. A 2004 assessment submitted to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature stated that “the main known cause of sperm whale decline in the Mediterranean is bycatch in high seas swordfish driftnets.” An estimated 85 percent of animals caught are thrown back into the sea, dead or dying, resulting in a needless and massive wastage of marine life, at a time when unprecedented pressures from climate change, pollution and development are exerting their own toll.

There are steps in the right direction. The international community is waking up to the pirates and working to redress the balance. Through hi-tech surveillance and monitoring, closing legal loopholes, or working to eradicate the ports and flags of convenience that enable pirates to continue their deadly trade, there are opportunities to act, but these need to be seized now before the damage becomes irreversible.

Juliette Williams is Director of the Environmental Justice Foundation, a UK-based organization that campaigns to protect people and the planet. To learn more or read their series of reports on marine bycatch, visit



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