Sierra Leone lifts short-lived ban on fish exports, leaving people puzzled whether the move has made any difference
Despite an abundance of fish in Sierra Leone’s waters, ordinary people are finding out that this part of their daily food is now increasingly becoming scarce due to “artificial shortages” created by foreign vessels fishing off the country’s shores.
Hannah Koroma, a housewife aged 34 from Goderich neighborhood in the capital Freetown, said the situation was becoming dire with each passing day. “Good fish is now very scarce. Because good fish in the market is like buying diamonds,” she said.
Fishing for big business
Fishing is a major business in Sierra Leone. The country has plenty of natural resources and its productive coastal waters are an invaluable source of food and employment for its people. A 2015 publication of the West Africa Regional Fisheries Project of the Ministry of Fisheries said the fisheries sector provides employment to an estimated 100,000 persons directly, and, indirectly to about 500,000 people.
According to Nexus Commonwealth network, a business watchdog in commonwealth countries, the value of fishery exports in Sierra Leone stands at $11 million. In its report for 2016, the Food Agriculture Organization estimated fish production from Sierra Leone marine at about 83,000 tons.
Industrial fishery is significantly export oriented, and fishing fleets are composed mainly of shrimps, barracuda and finfish trawlers. But most of the exports are illegally done by foreign boats.
According to experts, the local industry faces a serious disaster as foreign boats, mostly from Europe and Asia, continue to fish illegally along the Sierra Leone waters. In June this year, a report from the London-based think tank, Overseas Development Institute (ODI), said overfishing by foreign vessels was driving many species towards extinction and destroying the livelihoods of fishing communities in countries such as Ghana, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Senegal and Mauritania.
Corruption and few resources for monitoring fishing meant foreign trawlers often venture into areas near the coast which are reserved for local fishermen, the ODI report said, which end up exhausting local stocks, often illegally, to the point of forcing local fishermen to go further out to sea to find fish, hugely increasing their costs.
This impact has been felt heavily in Sierra Leone, a poor country which is only just emerging from a devastating Ebola outbreak that grounded its economy for over two years.
Reversal of export ban
The government of Sierra Leone recently lifted a ban on the export of fish, just 19 days after it was imposed, leaving the local fishing industry wondering how the short-lived measure — proclaimed to have been made for their benefit — made any difference.
On Sept. 10, the deputy minister of fisheries and marine resources, Charles S. Rogers, told the media that all modalities had been put in place to combat the shortage of fish in the local market.
“Every year, there is an artificial shortage of fish in Sierra Leone, but this time round we have made sure that doesn’t happen as we have banned all export of fish to allow fish to flow in the local markets,” Rogers told the local publication Awoko newspaper.
“The fish is produced in our waters and the people of Sierra Leone should have the first option. Until we are satisfied then we can export to other countries,” the minister had said.
But just 19 days later, the director-general of the Sierra Leone Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources, Alhajie Cole, told Anadolu Agency that the ban was no longer in place. “The fish ban has just been lifted. It was a temporary ban to salvage the fishing industry in the country, to allow the locals to have access to our fish. This has been fixed,” Cole said.
Ban reversal opposed
Some fishermen in Sierra Leone were not even aware that the ban had been lifted and expressed anger at the fisheries’ authorities.
Saidu Koroma, a 40-year-old fisherman who lives in Tombo — a fishing community outside Freetown — said nobody told him about the lifting of the ban.
“You are the first [person] to tell me that the ban has been lifted and it’s not good news to me,” Koroma said.
He explained that the illegal boats operated allegedly by foreign companies have attacked him in the past and the lifting of the ban would only harm people like him.
“I have been attacked by foreign boats in the night several times. I have to flee for my life. The other night, my fishing net was destroyed by a very powerful trawler, which forced me to return home without a single catch,” he said.
“Lifting the ban means all our good fish is going back to our neighboring countries [such as Guinea, Liberia and Ivory Coast]. The fishing companies always want U.S. dollars for their fish and their catch is always exported. Why can’t we have the right to our good fish” he added.
Saly Cole, a 45-year-old chairwoman of the One Pole Fish Women Association — a group of fishmongers in the West of Freetown — had hoped the ban would have boosted local businesses because fish exports meant people get to buy fish only after the most valuable ones had been exported.
About the fisheries’ director’s claim that the export issue linked to illegal fishing had been solved, she said: “How can you a fishing export problem, which has existed for decades, get solved in less than a month? This tells you they are not seeking our interests.”
She added: “I am a single mother who takes care of my family by selling good fish. But that will only work when artisanal fishermen have a good catch.
“Now that this ban has been lifted, I and my colleagues will definitely be affected.”
Strong regulation needed
A marine watchdog, Green Scenery Sierra Leone, highlighted the need for strong regulations to control illegal fishing and a need to protect more the interests of artisanal fishermen in the country.
The watchdog’s Director Joseph Rahal said the country could have addressed a lot of unemployment issues if the fishing industry had been well managed.
“I am not sure [how] in just few days all the issues have been solved to remove the ban,” Rahal said.
Meanwhile, fishermen in the south Bonthe Island lament that their catch was not like it was some years before.
Momodu Lasayo, aged 50, said: “In the past, we don’t even sail above five nautical miles, but we used to catch a lot of various kinds of fish. But now we have to even risk it close to the Atlantic before we can catch few.”
Lasayo put the blame for the decline squarely on industrial boats. He warned the survival of the people would be in danger if the government took no measures to regulate the industry.