How Chinese trawlers poach in Gambian waters – Greenpeace rings the bell
“Fu Yuan Yu”! This name is unfamiliar to many Gambians but not to international organizations monitoring the movements of voracious Chinese fishing vessels that continue to plunder oceans resources along the coasts of The Gambia and Senegal. “Fu Yuan Yu” and the way its fleet of vessels cheat the laws to abusively catch fishes off The Gambia have been exposed by Greenpeace in a recently published report “SEASICK, As Covid-19 locks down West Africa its waters remain open to plunder“.
How Chinese trawlers fake surveillance to poach in Gambian waters
According to evidence Greenpeace got access to, the Chinese Fu Yuan Yu fleet is composed of eight vessels with identification like “Fu Yan Yu 9883”, “Fu Yan Yu 9884”, “Fu Yan Yu 9885”, “Fu Yan Yu 9886” and so on. Greenpeace reveals that the latter, “Fu Yan Yu 9886”, has been issued a license to fish in The Gambia, although the company denied this in its answer to Greenpeace prior to the publication of its report.
The same information obtained by Greenpeace indicates that “Fu Yan Yu 9887”, “Fu Yuan Yu 9890” and “Fu Yuan Yu 9882” have also been issued licenses for The Gambia and for Senegal, but the company claims it does not hold a license for The Gambia in relation with these three ships. According to the company response “Among the eight “Fu Yuan Yu” that you (Greenpeace) have mentioned, only the “Fu Yuan Yu 9890” has a license in The Gambia and unloads its catches in Senegal”. Due to a bilateral agreement between The Gambia and Senegal, “Fu Yan Yu 9886” that the Chinese refuse to recognize it has a license in The Gambia, may also have the right to fish in Senegalese waters.
The opacity surrounding the issuance of license to these Chinese vessels makes Greenpeace believe that both the governments of The Gambia and Senegal are accomplices in the illegal activities of these Chinese fishing boats off the coasts of the two countries. “These vessels may actually have a valid license, the difficulties in confirming this information highlight the lack of transparency in the process around license issuing in these countries” according to Greenpeace.
One common pattern to all the ships associated with the Chinese “Fu Yuan Yu” fleet when they operate in the waters of The Gambia and Senegal is their repeated attempts to hide their trajectory from the Automatic identification system (AIS), according to the Greenpeace report. It’s an automatic tracking system that uses transceivers on ships and is used by vessel traffic services (VTS) to detect AIS signatures of vessels. It clearly helps to locate a vessel at a particular time.
Greenpeace investigations have discovered “new instances of repeated strange behavior from the Fu Yuan Yu fleet originally highlighted by a Global Fishing Watch Investigation in 2016. The vessels look to be making use of a trick meant to disguise the actual position of fishing vessels by modifying their AIS24 data”.
Privileges for the fishmeal and fish oil industry during covid-19
Every year, thousands of tons of fresh fish perfectly fit for human consumption are picked from the Gambian waters for fishmeal and fish oil (FMFO) to feed animals like salmon and sea bass in the aquaculture industry as well as the livestock industry or even ends up as pet food in China.
Meanwhile, “it takes 4 to 5 kg of fresh Gambian fish to produce 1 kg of fishmeal” for the Chinese”, according to Greenpeace. Unlike local artisanal fishing actors and women processors, the Chinese fishmeal and fish oil industry in The Gambia appears to continue working as if under normal circumstances. “The continued pressure from the factories is negatively impacting the marine environment and the pressure on food security for the people in The Gambia”, Greenpeace warns.
In The Gambia, fishing activities are vital for the country’s economy. Fisheries were estimated to represent about 1.8% of GDP in 2013. The artisanal sector is the major producer of fish with around 90% consumed domestically. Also, fish is the most important source of animal protein by volume for the Gambians, and the fishing sector represents around 30,000 jobs.
In the past five years, three fishmeal factories have been established in The Gambia (Sanyang, Gunjur and Kartong) resulting in tensions and protest from local communities and activists objecting to the consequences like fish stock depletion, fish price increase and pollution from the factories.
The COVID-19 pandemic lockdown in The Gambia caused local community members to demand a closing of all three fishmeal and fish oil factories as a preventive measure to avoid spreading the virus. The members also argued about the need to close the factories to minimize social and environmental consequences of the industry when food security was picking up and local business and artisanal fishermen restricted due to the lockdown.
Even though President Adama Barrow, temporarily closed the three fishmeal and fish oil factories from 23rd March, they quickly reopened during April. This happened despite protests from local activists and artisanal fishing communities suffering from the restrictions still imposed on them. In particular, female fish processors were reported to be struggling to keep up their livelihoods during the lockdown.
Journalist and environmental activist Mustapha Manneh said: “Despite government restrictions on non-essential businesses, fishmeal factories in The Gambia continued to operate without being mindful about the need for social distance”.
“It happened because of authorities feeling weak and being scared to enforce domestic laws and ensure everyone complied with them, also the investors of these factories. Allowing fishmeal factories to operate during the pandemic caused huge problems for local people who entirely depend on fish, like food insecurity and risk of spreading the COVID-19 virus.”
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Gambian artisanal fishermen and seafood sellers have seen their activities restricted in the middle of the important pelagic season from January to July. “With Mauritania, The Gambia was the only country in West Africa where fishmeal and fish oil factories continued operating” Greenpeace informs. According to statements from fishermen, fish vendors and local communities, the price of pelagic fish has drastically increased with the COVID-19 pandemic due to scarcity linked to the decrease of fishing activities.
Joint venture to flout the weak Gambian legislation
In 2015, Greenpeace pointed out that joint-venture practices created many loopholes that may encourage overfishing, such as allowing originally foreign flagged vessels to operate with less or looser restrictions, undermining local fisheries management. Five years later the issue remains. Despite several warnings from civil society groups and fishermen organizations, the practice of private joint-venture agreements has become ‘a plague’ for West Africa.
In The Gambia for example, Chinese use Gambian proxies to operate fishing trawlers in Gambian waters. Fleets of such vessels are openly seen anchored at the Denton bridge creek like the one owned by Hansen Seafood Company Limited, a Chinese business joint venture in The Gambia. In September 2020, Famara Darboe, the Director of Fisheries Department said “Hansen Seafood Company Limited was given approval by the department of Fisheries, National Environmental Agency (NEA), Parks and Wildlife to discharge their catches at Denton Bridge” without the approval of The Gambia Ports Authority, the legal entity to authorize such a station for the Chinese vessels.
According Greenpeace, fishing pressure because of such easy access to plunder the resources, “increases day by day due to fishing licenses agreements, the booming of the fishmeal and fish oil industry (FMFO) but also due to the increase in the artisanal fishing effort to match the need to survive. According to the Oceanographic Research Center and the last CECAF report, the stocks of flat sardinella (Sardinella maderensis), round sardinella (Sardinella aurita) and hake (Merluccius spp) on which fishing licences are requested are all OVEREXPLOITED including in The Gambia. Most of these fish stocks (mainly sardinella) are shared between Senegal, The Gambia and Mauritania, which means over-exploitation in any area affects the entire sub-region”.
Flawed bilateral fisheries agreements between the Gambia and Senegal
Senegal and The Gambia have signed a bilateral fishing agreement in 2017 which allows artisanal fishing canoes and industrial fishing vessels flying flags from either country to fish in both. It is a reciprocal agreement whose memorandum of understanding allows both parties to have fishing rights in the other country for 250 small-scale licenses, 15 tuna industrials fishing boats and 4,100 TGB for the other types of industrial fishing.
This agreement has enabled industrial fishing vessels to have fishing licenses in Senegal and The Gambia and to compete with Gambia’s national fleet on stocks of fish already overexploited for the most. According to Greenpeace, “Some foreign fishing companies
that were not granted fishing licenses in Senegal take this opportunity to apply for The Gambian flag to be able to fish both in Senegalese and The Gambian waters”.
Greenpeace report’s warns that “in reality, the fishing communities of these two countries do not really benefit from these fisheries agreements. The Gambian small-scale fishing is more coastal and inland fishing targets mostly small pelagics. Therefore, the main beneficiaries are undoubtedly the foreign vessels which have taken advantage of the loophole in the laws of the two countries regarding the creation of mixed companies with nationals and taken advantage of the flag of this country to have access to Senegal and The Gambian waters through these bilateral fishing agreements”.
Greenpeace believes that “This is not by any means a real shared regional fisheries management agreement which would help coastal communities and the environment. On the contrary, this creates more confusion, lack of transparency, surveillance and accountability, making it easier for bad practices such as Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated fishing (IUU)”.
In fine, Greenpeace asks that governments in The Gambia and Senegal publish the list of industrial fishing vessels and fishing trawlers, as well as the type and date they have been issued licenses. The organization also demand for a practical suppression of all production of fishmeal from fresh fish as well as the reorientation of the processing capacity of fishmeal and fish oil towards products intended for direct human consumption.
Finaly Greenpeace requires that women and fish processors and local vendors be officially recognized as professionals and be given institutional and financial support so that they enjoy their rights.