WEST POINT, Liberia — Early one morning in this buzzing seaside township, a canoe fisherman marched up from the shore, soaking wet and wincing under the weight balanced on his head: a shimmering, six-foot swordfish. The fisherman was beaming with pride: A fish of this size can fetch around $50 in West Point, about a third of his income on a good week.
Soon a prize catch like this could become a rarity for West Point’s canoe fishermen.
In recent weeks, Chinese fishing trawlers have returned to Monrovia’s shores, sources in Liberia’s fishing community told VICE News. The vessels are the first of a dozen or more Chinese vessels awaiting the go-ahead from Liberia’s government to fish here under recently relaxed commercial fishing regulations. The boats are being drawn back as part of a larger effort to entice foreign industry to Liberia’s resource-rich inner shores. The government, helmed for the past 12 years by Nobel laureate President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, says it will bring in new money and growth to a country hampered by corruption and the 2014 Ebola crisis.
But Sirleaf’s sudden acquiescence to industrial trawlers long known for shirking rules is a major step backward for a key local economy that employs an estimated 33,000 people, local fishermen and conservation experts told VICE News. Since its expansion in 2010, Liberia’s artisanal fishing zone (designated for canoe and small-boat fishermen who serve the local community) was among the largest and most successful in the region, replenishing depleted fish stocks and improving catch after years of indiscriminate fishing, says Environmental Justice Foundation CEO Steve Trent.
“Removing it threatens the very survival of these fisheries,” Trent told VICE News.
As Liberians head to the polls to elect their first president since Sirleaf steered the country out of multiple crises, the country’s artisanal fishermen have called the Nobel laureate’s invitation to foreign industrial fishing a “death blow” to the environment, their way of life, and the latest example of Liberia’s rich natural resources being stripped and sold.
“The oil is all gone. The forests are all gone. The mines are all gone. What else can we sell? The fisheries,” said Patrick Sayon, a veteran Liberian fisherman who works for the U.K.’s Environmental Justice Foundation. “Our fisheries are healthier than anywhere in the region. Sierra Leone is damaged. Ivory Coast is damaged. Everything’s gone in Ghana. Now they all want to come here.”
Fishermen like Sayon are right to be suspicious. Sirleaf’s executive order cuts Liberia’s Inshore Exclusive Zone in half, from six nautical miles to three, and it has one clear beneficiary: China.The world’s biggest fish customer is an ever-growing force in Liberia, and across West Africa, where its brand of business-focused development has brought roads, schools, and brand-new buildings with them, influence that rivals the West. But China also brings with it massive, government-subsidized boats that have shown no hesitation in breaking fishing laws — an ugly history that people in West Point have little reason to believe will change.
China’s enormous fishing fleet
Across West Africa, fierce international competition has exacerbated a culture of endemic bribery, skirted regulations, and illegal fishing that has left much of the region stripped of fish stocks, and has resulted in violent clashes among fishermen. In April, four illegal boats were discovered in as many days in Sierra Leone, including a Chinese vessel with 70 bags of shark carcasses on board. In June, Senegal detained seven industrial Chinese trawlers for illegal fishing. And while China is hardly unique in its exploits on West Africa’s shores, its distant-water fleet and preference for bottom-trawling nets has made it perhaps the most notorious offender.
Liberia’s maritime chief Dr. Jamie Kollie, who supports the order, recalled Chinese boats looting Liberia’s waters during its 14-year civil war, when “nobody was paying attention,” he told VICE News. More recently, a 2015 Greenpeace investigation found hundreds of Chinese vessels across West Africa had turned off required monitoring devices; fished without licenses, often in prohibited areas; used illegal nets; and regularly underreported their catch. During the 2014 Ebola crisis, 12 Chinese vessels were reported illegally fishing off the coast of Guinea. Several fishermen and Liberian Coast Guard staff in Monrovia told VICE News that they observed the same trend in Liberia.
China’s enormous fishing fleet is the largest in the world, and it has found a valuable destination in African waters. Seventy-five percent of its 3,000-vessel fleet’s catch comes from African waters — 3.1 million tons per year. Of that, 2.9 million tons is caught in West Africa — dwarfing the 1 million tons per year catch in Asia, where overfishing has already left fisheries barren.
By the time Liberia’s six-nautical-mile artisanal fishing zone was marked off in 2010 to combat illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing, artisanal catch had plummeted: “There were no fish. Everything was with the Chinese,” says Sayon. But after the zone was implemented, fish size and volume doubled from 2009-2014, according to estimates from Liberia’s Bureau of National Fisheries.
Sirleaf’s order has triggered bitter memories of life before Liberia’s prime inshore waters were protected. Violent clashes routinely broke out between giant industrial vessels and hand-hollowed canoes vying for the same fish — in particular shrimp and the yellow croaker, a delicacy here in Liberia and in China, where it has all but disappeared. Overfishing has seen croaker stocks in West Africa fall 30-60 percent in 10 years.
At a meeting in West Point in June, members of the Liberian Artisanal Fishermens Association passed around photos of a man who’d returned to shore with bloody head wounds, after confronting a trawler crew who ran into his net, damaging it. Others recalled being hosed down with hot water by industrial crews sharing their waters. They have vowed to boycott this month’s presidential election if the government does not reinstate the artisanal fishing zone to its original size.
But Dawda Saine, secretary of African Confederation of Artisanal Fisheries Professional Organizations, a 23-country alliance of artisanal fishing communities, is skeptical that political statements would make an impact. He’s seen it again and again, he says: “Sometimes governments don’t care.”
Kollie disagrees. Allowing foreign access to valuable inshore products like lobster will “help the country by making commercial fisheries viable,” he says. Despite their long-held role in Liberia’s domestic economy, artisanal fishermen are feeding only a sliver of the population. Stocks have recovered, but Liberia still imports 50,000 metric tons of frozen fish per year, according to government estimates.
As the boats arrive, Liberia’s fishermen are on edge, and have vowed to remain vigilant in guarding their corner of the economy.
If they don’t, says Sayon, “there will be nothing left for our children.”
But the veteran fisherman has hope. When he first started fishing, Sayon says, “people didn’t believe I was a fisherman because I could read and write.” In recent years, he’s witnessed a change. More educated than ever, and sometimes empowered by camera phones to report illegal fishing, “fishermen won’t tolerate being pulled by the nose anymore.”
“Fishermen will be reporting everything that happens at sea.”
Annalies Winny is a freelance journalist focusing on criminal justice and public policy.