Gabon Cracks Down On Illegal Trawlers

Authorities in Gabon arrested two fishing trawlers carrying 5 metric tons of rough-head sea catfish and more than a metric ton of rays. Catching the catfish species and removing the fins of rays, sharks and skates is banned in Gabonese waters.

Sea Shepherd Global, which helps several West African governments rid their waters of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, helped make the daytime arrests during routine inspections. IUU fishing leads to overfishing, destroys local ecosystems, and deprives locals of food and income.

Authorities inspected the trawlers several times previously, and its Chinese captain claimed he didn’t know the catch was illegal, Peter Hammarstedt, Sea Shepherd’s director of campaigns, told ADF. Two of the rays were from a prohibited species, and one had its fins removed. Ray fins are commonly exported to China for sale as shark fin soup, considered a delicacy.

“On many local trawlers, crew are allowed [by the ship owner] to keep — and sell — the fins as part of a crew bonus system since the wages on board are so low,” Hammarstedt said.

Since 2016, Sea Shepherd and Gabonese authorities partnered in hundreds of fishing vessel inspections at sea and 12 arrests. During that period, Sea Shepherd helped arrest an additional 42 illegal trawlers in Benin, Tanzania, Liberia, and São Tomé and Príncipe. Many illegal trawlers in West African waters are Chinese.

According to the Financial Times, up to 40% of the fish caught in West and Central-West African waters are taken illegally.

COVID-19 has not stopped the practice.

“These crimes could only have been detected, thanks to the diligence of Gabonese law enforcement authorities … who continue their duties offshore with great courage, despite COVID-19,” Byron Carter, a Sea Shepherd captain who led the Gabon operation, said on the organization’s website.

Up to 26 million metric tons of fish — about $23.5 billion worth — are caught globally through IUU fishing every year, according to the United Nations. Illicit trawlers often target poorer countries with rich fish stocks because they lack the resources to properly patrol their waters.

Fish is a large part of people’s diets in Gabon, where each person consumes an average of 40 kilograms of fish per year, more than double the global average, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society. Most artisanal fishermen in Gabon are from Benin, Ghana and Nigeria.

Foreign fishermen catch two-thirds of the fish along Gabon’s coast, Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported.

“It is our fishermen brothers from West Africa who are the majority workforce here, so their integration is essential for us,” Georges Mba-Asseko, director general of Gabon’s National Agency for Artisanal Fisheries, told AFP.

Besides combating IUU fishing in Gabon, Sea Shepherd is helping the country establish Africa’s first shark preserve, which aims to conserve 60 species of sharks and rays. Every year, an estimated 100 million sharks are killed worldwide, and many shark populations have decreased by 90% since large-scale fishing began, according to the Smithsonian Institution.

Sharks fins, which comprise about 5% of a shark’s weight, are the most valuable part of the fish.

On industrial trawlers, a shark carcass “takes up valuable fin space and is therefore discarded at sea, sometimes while the shark is still alive,” Hammarstedt said. “This means that a shark finning vessel could end up taking as many as 20 times more sharks on a fishing expedition than they would if they offloaded the remaining 95% of carcass ashore.

“Essentially, the shark-killing capacity of the vessel increases by a factor of 20. This is a primary reason why one-third of shark species are facing extinction.”

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