As a new Netflix documentary puts illegal fishing under the spotlight, Britt Collins reveals the devastating impact China – and the EU’s – supertrawlers are having on Africa’s coast.

While West Africa has been pre-occupied with the pandemic, its waters have been secretly plundered by Chinese trawlers.

Though Chinese and European supertrawlers have been moving untracked in the continent’s seas for decades, taking advantage of the weak government enforcement, encroachment has intensified over the past few years, exhausting wild fish stocks, polluting the continent’s waters and seriously threatening food insecurity for poor coastal communities.

‘Africa’s waters have become a free-for-all,’ said Ali Tabrizi, the British filmmaker whose hit Netflix documentary Seaspiracy uncovered shocking revelations about the multi-billion-dollar seafood industry.

‘West Africa is home to one of the last strongholds to life in our oceans, teeming with rare marine wildlife, a refuge for mating and feeding. These massive trawlers are like floating slaughterhouses.

China, in particular, is invading the waters of other countries without detection and stealing the fish.’ 

‘Since the WHO declared Covid-19 as a pandemic, we've assisted our government partners around the continent of Africa to arrest 17 vessels for illegal fishing, three in Benin, two in Gabon, six in the Gambia and six in Sierra Leone,’ said Captain Peter Hammarstedt, the director of campaigns at Sea Shepherd, a global marine conservation charity.

‘Of those vessels, all but one were either flagged to the People’s Republic of China or had beneficial ownership [there].’

The plundering of the African coastline is just the continuation of centuries of exploitation of the continent’s natural resources.

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Subsidised Chinese and European Union (EU) fishing fleets are cornering one of the most pristine, wildlife-rich seas, wiping out countless fish species and killing thousands of dolphins and whales as bycatch.

About 200 of Europe’s taxpayer-funded fleets are currently prowling its shores, via the EU’s opaque ‘Sustainable Fishing Partnership’ agreements – denounced by politicians as little more than license to steal from some of the most impoverished communities on earth.

The EU, alongside Japan and China, is one of the world’s top three fishing subsidisers.

These massive government incentives given to an industry keep prices artificially low that means local business can’t compete. 

Without subsidies, these distant-water fleets wouldn’t be economically viable. 

Long accused of ‘looting’ Africa for oil, precious metals and the endangered wildlife its safari industry relies on – rhinos, elephants, lions — China is by far the worst offender of illegal fishing, plundering the continent’s seas with its vast armada of super trawlers (pictured below in Zhoushan, China, in 2011).

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Just one of these industrial trawlers can have a colossal impact, capturing over 12,000 tons of fish a week – more than twice the sustainable catch for a country like Liberia, Mauritania or the Gambia. 

As the world’s biggest seafood exporter, China accounts for more than a third of all global fish consumption.

Having long exhausted the dwindling reserves in the South China Seas, the Chinese fleets have been moving further out to sea in recent years to exploit the distant waters of other nations, particularly along the West African coast. It has forced out local fishermen and ravaged the region’s once-abundant stocks.

Captain Paul Watson, environmental activist and founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, warned that the crisis in West African waters will have dire implications for the entire planet.

‘We’re strip-mining life from the sea. Marine eco-systems are collapsing and that will lead to the inability of oceanic eco-systems to support life on this planet.’ 

What this massive die-off means for the future, he said, ‘is a rise in piracy by impoverished African fishermen just like the situation in Somalian waters. It will mean a rise in poverty and starvation in these affected countries and it will lead to social chaos and possibly violent revolution.’ 

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West Africa, with its rich marine biodiversity, is a hotspot for what is known in the industry as Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing.

Europe and Asia have been benefitting at the expense of some of the poorest nations, where enforcement tends to be weaker as governments lack the resources to police their waters.

Such illegal fishing is estimated to cost West African countries about $2.3bn each year. IUU fishing in West Africa accounts for 40 percent of all illegal fishing globally.

Senegal, which has an exclusive economic zone of around 200 nautical miles (370km) teeming with a diversity of species from sharks, tuna and swordfish, is one of the African states most targeted by foreign pirate fishing fleets from Europe and Asia. 

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has taken on a daring mission to end this.

The international non-profit, set up in 1977 by Paul Watson, one of the co-founders of Greenpeace, focuses on the protection of marine wildlife using aggressive yet non-violent tactics, that have shut down hundreds of illegal operations. 

In a sweeping effort to crack down on trespassing foreign vessels and illicit activities, Sea Shepherd has partnered with eight African coastal and island states to conduct joint at-sea patrols.

Recently, in less than two days, armed Sierra Leone Navy sailors stationed on board the Sea Shepherd ship Bob Barker carried out a series of at-sea raids on illegal fishing vessels in the waters of Sierra Leone, detaining five trawlers, almost all of them Chinese-flagged, for fishing without a license or in the inshore exclusion zone reserved for artisanal fisherman.

As Captain Hammarstedt explained: ‘Sea Shepherd provides a vessel that operates as a civilian offshore patrol vessel along with fuel and a ship's crew. The government partner provides the law enforcement agents with the authority to board, inspect and arrest illegal operators.

'Offenses range from fishing without a license or in a prohibited area (either a marine park or an inshore exclusion zone reserved for artisanal fishers) to fishing using prohibited gear; to the taking of endangered species such as sharks and rays; and to other convergence crimes, such as fraud, forgery and tax evasion.

'To date, 68 vessels have been arrested through these partnerships.’

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Seaspiracy star and director Ali Tabrizi joined the Sea Shepherd during one of their sea patrols off the west coast of Africa and documented the illegal fishing on an industrial scale in his vivid exposé.

‘West Africa is like a gold rush for countries, especially China, where they’ve already depleted their own local stocks, and are using more and more sophisticated technologies. It’s here that the intersection of wildlife loss, international corruption and human impact are most clearly seen.’

Lamya Essemlali, the French-Moroccan campaign coordinator and president of Sea Shepherd France, believes West Africa’s fisheries are at serious risk of collapse from the Chinese fleets. 

‘It’s the area of the world most targeted by illegal fishing. Most of the fish stolen from Africa ends up on the plates of much richer countries that otherwise applaud themselves for the crumbs of charity that they throw to African nations.

‘Countries like Senegal do not need charity, but rather the kind of justice possible only through effective law enforcement patrolling.’ 

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Some African countries are starting to assert themselves.

Senegal and Liberia’s decision to deny fishing permits to Chinese industrial trawlers last year marked a turning point in the region. But incursions by Chinese supertrawlers are getting more frequent and aggressive.

Trawlers are destroying the coral reefs that aquatic animals rely on to live and breed, and, in the process, contributing to ocean acidification, warmer seas and reduced oxygen levels in the water. 

Severe overfishing and destruction of the reefs is also ravaging coastal communities that depend on these waters for their livelihoods and survival.

‘The fishermen, who’ve lived here since time immemorial, are starving,’ said Tabrizi.

‘They’re risking their lives going further out in the ocean in small canoes, without life vests, because the illegal commercial fishing vessels are scooping up all the fish. West African canoe fisherman now have the highest mortality rate of any job on the planet.’ 

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Such intensive fishing operations are not only wiping out the fish, but also destroying economies, according to the film director.

‘One of the causes of the Somalian pirates was actually illegal fishing. They were once humble fishermen working to feed their families. But when Somalia fell into civil war, foreign fishing vessels, the real pirates of the ocean, invaded their waters and began taking fish, giving Somali fisherman no choice but to move into another line of work.’ 

Interestingly, the EU likes to boast about its role in monitoring and thwarting unregulated fishing in the region, but it continues to be part of the problem.

With its multibillion-euro fish subsidies paid for by the bloc’s taxpayers, it helped create the Somali pirates.

As the Somalian civil war broke out and warlords scrambled to rule, the longest coastline in continental Africa, at over 2,000 miles (3,300 km), was unprotected, and illegal foreign trawlers moved in, stealing millions of tonnes of fish.

Even before the country collapsed in 1991, foreign vessels were routinely encroaching on their coast to fish.

The piracy started off as a protest against foreign fleets coming in and trying to take back control of their waters.

Beyond Somalia, the effect of foreign trawlers on the indigenous African fishing industry has been catastrophic, with over half the fish stocks along the coast between Nigeria and Senegal categorised as ‘overfished’.

There are also widespread reports of local fishing nets being cut by foreign trawlers, who unload their enormous catch directly onto container ships where they are transported back to Europe or Asia, bypassing inspections. 

West African governments have been urged to band together to protect millions of Africans and their fragile economies from the ceaseless onslaught.

According to Tabrizi, the key lies in ending harmful subsidies, which he said is ‘propping up one of, if not the most, destructive industries on earth – to the tune of $35bn a year. It’s unacceptable, especially as, according to the United Nations, $30bn would solve world hunger.’ 

A committed vegan, Tabrizi believes the single most effective thing individuals can do to protect the reefs from trawlers is to stop eating fish and seafood.

It’s a view echoed by the Sea Shepherd’s Paul Watson, who added: ‘There’s no such thing as sustainable fishing. The amount of fish being taken out of the ocean is absolutely stunning, five million fish a minute.’

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