The arrival in Liberia of six Chinese supertrawlers with the potential to catch over 12,000 tonnes of fish a year – nearly twice the nation’s sustainable catch of key fish populations – has sparked outrage among small-scale canoe fishers. The Liberia Artisanal Fishermen Association and the Grand Cape Mount County and Montserrado County Community Management Associations released a joint statement calling on the government to consider the livelihoods and food security of coastal communities and reject the request for fishing licenses.
On 15 June, six supertrawlers arrived in Monrovia – Hao Yuan Yu 860, 861, 862, 863, 865 and 866 – all recently constructed in China. After attempting to undertake fishing operations in Mozambique, they headed for Liberia. Each supertrawler may be capable of catching at least 2,000 tonnes of fish per year of key, bottom-dwelling species that are important to local fishermen. This is 4,000 times the catch of a local Kru canoe, which each employ up to four Liberians and catch an average of 500 kg a year.
The country’s maximum sustainable catch of these key species – including by local fishermen – is only 7,136 tonnes a year, according to fisheries scientists. The Chinese vessels alone could, therefore, have the capacity to catch almost twice as much as the total national sustainable catch, potentially decimating vital fish stocks in just a few years. This could have serious implications for livelihoods and food security, especially in light of the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, which threaten to plunge millions of the world’s poorest into famine.
Liberian fisheries legislation requires that only vessels that do not “threaten the sustainability of a fishery resource” are licensed by National Fisheries and Aquaculture Authority.
The arrival of these trawlers is a part of a major influx of foreign industrial vessels across West Africa. In Senegal, 52 vessels applied for licenses, which would have put an enormous strain on local marine resources. In a victory for local fishers and sustainable fishing, these were rejected by the government on World Oceans Day. In Ghana, three new trawlers from China still await a decision from the government, and local canoe fishers have stated their serious concerns.
Jerry N. Blamo, the President of the Liberia Artisanal Fishermen Association, said, “We sincerely hope that the government will respect Liberian law and protect the interests of local coastal communities and our shared marine environment. Our waters support local jobs and provide good quality food, but granting these massive supertrawlers fishing licenses would destroy that.”
Charles Simpson, the President of the Grand Cape Mount County Community Management Association, said, “Over the last decade, we have worked extremely hard to stop illegal fishing and overfishing. We slowly see more fish for local fishermen to catch and women to process. These supertrawlers would unfairly compete for the same fish as local fishermen and reverse all of that progress. We are calling on the government to safeguard Liberian coastal communities by refusing fishing licenses for these vessels.”
P. Nyantee Sleh, the President of the Montserrado County and Bomi County Community Management Associations, said, “Small-scale fishing is an important source of jobs for people here in Monrovia and across the country. In earlier decades, local fishermen could not earn a livelihood because of rampant overfishing, but in recent years things have improved. These supertrawlers would be a big step backwards, harming jobs and future food security.”
The Liberian groups were joined by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), an international non-governmental organisation that works in Liberia and other West African countries to combat illegal fishing and promote the sustainable management of marine resources.
The Executive Director of EJF, Steve Trent, said, “Liberia has taken enormous steps forward in managing its fisheries, and the National Fishing and Aquaculture Authority (NaFAA) has played a positive role combatting illegal and unsustainable fishing. Fisheries management involves hard choices. We hope that NaFAA continues to prioritise small-scale fishermen so that they can continue to provide jobs and food security and work together to preserve the marine environment for many future generations of Liberians.”
Significant proportions of Liberia’s population live with poverty and food insecurity, with 31.9% classified as undernourished and 50% of the population living on less than US$2 a day.
Illegal and overfishing is threatening Liberia’s food security – 80% of Liberia’s population is dependent upon fish for essential dietary protein. Some coastal counties, where the project’s target groups are based, suffer from higher levels of poverty and food insecurity, such as Margibi (Marshall), Grand Cess and Robertsport, where over 25% of households are food insecure (compared to 16% nationally).
Fisheries contribute about 10% to the country’s gross domestic product. The sector provides full- or part-time employment for 37,000 people. Small-scale fisheries provide employment for 33,000 people, 60% of whom are women.
The Maximum Sustainable Yield of demersal (bottom-dwelling) species was estimated to be 7,136 tonnes per year as reported in the “Retrospective and Ex-ante evaluation study of the Protocol to the Agreement on Sustainable Fisheries Partnership between the European Union and the Republic of Liberia”. See page 30 on: https://op.europa.eu/en/publication-detail/-/publication/f407575c-6d7e-11ea-b735-01aa75ed71a1/language-en/format-PDF/source-12291531