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ECONOMY-SIERRA LEONE: Fishing Sector Reaps Profits – But at a Cost

Lansana Fofana

FREETOWN, Sep 7 2004 (IPS) - It’s another case of natural resources proving to be a mixed blessing. While Sierra Leone’s government gratefully accepts revenues generated by the country’s fishing industry, illegal trawling by foreign vessels is providing cause for concern.

“We’ve been able to generate close to four billion leones (about 1.6 million dollars) for this year alone compared to about two billion leones (just over 800,000 dollars) in 2002. This is remarkable, and would help shore up our ailing economy,” says Okere Adams, minister for fisheries and marine resources. The profits stem partly from fishing licenses and royalties.

For much of the 1990s, Sierra Leone was gripped by a civil war fought largely over control of the country’s rich diamond deposits. While the war was declared over in January 2002, years of conflict have left the economy in tatters.

“As well as being rich in the demersal (fish living on or near the ocean bottom) and pelagic (fish living at various depths) species, this country is home to shellfish varieties like shrimps and lobsters,” Adams told IPS. “We are now having many industrial fishing fleets flocking in to obtain licenses here.”

The demersal category includes snappers, and the pelagic tuna and herring. Sierra Leone records higher shrimp production than many other states in the region: an estimated 200,000 metric tonnes annually.

Fisheries analyst Mohammed Sesay adds that Sierra Leone’s octopus and squid are also sought after. “These are highly-priced commodities on the international market,” he said in an interview with IPS.

During the 1980s and early 1990s, Russian trawlers figured largely amongst the foreign vessels that fished in Sierra Leonean waters. However, the collapse of the Soviet Union led to a decline in the number of Russian ships off Sierra Leone, prompting a drop in fishing revenues – particularly from pelagic catches.

“Fish production figures declined significantly because these resources were not targeted after the departure of the Soviets. We now rely mainly on demersal resources,” Sesay notes.

However, Europe has its eye on Sierra Leone’s tuna populations. France now has 11 vessels licensed to fish in the West African country’s waters – and Spain eight. Greece has also shown an interest in the sector – mirroring the extent to which European waters have become dangerously over-fished.

Similary, Asian countries are staking their claim. With a total of 25 vessels, China currently has the largest commercial fleet off Sierra Leone, while South Korean firms have dispatched 12 vessels. These ships trawl for shrimp, oysters and lobsters.

But, Sierra Leone’s fisheries windfall has brought with it a host of problems.

Authorities have been struggling to cope with poaching and over-fishing by foreign vessels, as the country lacks the boats and personnel to mount effective sea patrols. Poaching occurs mainly in the outer limits of the waters designated as exclusive to Sierra Leone.

At present, the navy possesses only one vessel – the Alimami Rassin – which is often used to conduct surveillance operations that target foreign trawlers. However, the Rassin is not equipped to travel in waters that are more than 50 metres deep.

“What we require is a stronger and well-equipped vessel to cover the whole area of our territorial waters,” Adams says.

In a bid to discourage poaching, the government levies fines of up to 200,000 dollars on fishing vessels that operate illegally in Sierra Leonean waters. Both the vessels and their catches may also be impounded, and captains of the trawlers imprisoned.

To date, these measures have met with limited success. Crew members are said to bribe officials when apprehended at sea, a claim which fishing ministry officials refuse to comment on.

Authorities have also turned to a sub-regional fishing commission which comprises seven countries, including Guinea, Mauritania and Senegal, in a bid to cut down on illegal catches. These countries conduct joint surveillance operations through a co-ordination centre based in the Gambian capital, Banjul – a project partly funded by the European Union.

The commission also tries to enhance regional fishing management by creating the channels for member states to exchange information, and by organising workshops and research initiatives. In addition, it encourages responsible fishing methods.

In addition, Adams says that the United States has promised to assist Sierra Leone’s marine surveillance efforts by providing an extra patrol boat come 2005.

But, it’s not only ocean fisheries that are receiving attention from officials in Freetown. Government is also trying to set up on-shore fish farms, in a bid to ensure sustainable production on the part of the fishing sector.

A Vietnamese delegation led by Hanoi’s deputy director of fisheries, Huk Dien, recently visited Sierra Leone to discuss fisheries co-operation. Vietnamese officials have pledged to assist the country with the training of fisheries personnel – and the creation of fresh-water fish farms.

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