Greenpeace Goes Fishing

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When the environmental group Greenpeace sent a boat to West Africa last week to highlight the terrible impact of pirate fishing, they didn't expect to have to help the fishermen they were targeting. The Greenpeace crew aboard the M. V. Esperanza and fishing authorities from the West African nation of Guinea spent 10 days undercover documenting nearly 70 vessels fishing off the Guinea coast. Greenpeace, which is working with the London-based lobby group Environmental Justice Foundation on the illegal fishing issue, estimates that pirate fishing is worth between $4 billion and $9 billion a year—or around 20% of the world's fish catch. Illegal fishing in sub-Saharan Africa alone is worth some $1 billion a year, according to the environmentalists.

Because most African nations can't afford the expensive patrol boats needed to guard against illegal fishing inside their national waters, pirate fishermen see the African coastline as easy pickings. The plunder is especially damaging to West African fishermen, most of whom use small wooden boats from which to net their catch. West Africa is the only place in the world where fish consumption is falling. Legal and illegal fishermen are taking such huge amounts of fish that local fishermen are catching less. That doesn't just hurt Africa's fish stocks, it also fuels the trade in other wild animals. A 2004 study in Science magazine found that when the supply of fish in Ghana falls, consumption of bushmeat caught in Ghana's forests goes up.

Working with the Guinean authorities, Greenpeace found 67 foreign flagged ships off the Guinean coast, registered to Belize, China, Italy, Korea and Liberia. More than a quarter of the vessels were not authorized to fish there and a third of them had a history of pirate fishing. Earlier this week, the Guinean authorities arrested the crew of a chinese vessel and impounded the boat. More arrests may be made.

But it's not just the fish stocks that are suffering. Conditions on many of the ships are appalling, according to Dave Walsh, a Greenpeace web editor who is on the Esperanza. (For his thoughts go to Some boats have holes rusting through the hulls, engines that don't work and portholes that have no glass. Fish and other seafood are stored in scum-filled containers. While the crews on board these ships wait weeks to be re-supplied with fuel and food, they often go hungry and end up eating what they catch. The Greenpeace crew felt so sorry for some of the fishermen that they gave them bags of rice, flour, noodles, beans and lentils. Larger vessels from the fishing companies visit every few months to take away the contraband fish. That way the rusting hulks and their tiny crews never have to leave the fishing grounds. Some crews stay for years, eventually abandoning their ships in the shallow waters. "It's a horrible situation," says Walsh. "These young men wasting away on a shambles of a ship, while their employers reap the benefits."