Liberian fishing communities threatened by Chinese supertrawlers
Six Chinese supertrawlers have arrived in Liberia, capable of taking over 12,000 tonnes of fish a year – nearly twice the nation’s sustainable catch. This has sparked outrage among canoe fishers, who fear for their jobs and food security. Liberia is now the third West African country to witness a sudden increase in Chinese industrial trawlers in the last six months - a deeply worrying trend when many of these countries rely on the food and livelihoods provided by healthy fisheries.
The Liberia Artisanal Fishermen’s Association was joined by local community fisheries associations in calling on the government to consider the livelihoods and food security of coastal communities and reject the request for fishing licenses. Their statement is underlined by the Environmental Justice Foundation, which warned against the unsustainable growth of distant water fishing fleets in the region and called for increased transparency.
On 12 June, six supertrawlers arrived in Monrovia – Hao Yuan Yu 860, 861, 862, 863, 865 and 866 – all recently constructed in China. After an apparent attempt to start fishing operations in Mozambique, they headed for Liberia. Each supertrawler may be capable of catching at least 2,000 tonnes of fish per year of key, bottom-dwelling species that are important to local fishermen. This is 4,000 times the catch of a local Kru canoe, which catch an average of 500 kg a year.
The country’s maximum sustainable catch of these key species – including by local fishermen – is only 7,136 tonnes a year, according to fisheries scientists. The Chinese vessels alone could, therefore, have the capacity to catch almost twice as much as the total national sustainable catch, potentially decimating vital fish stocks in just a few years.
This could have serious implications for livelihoods and food security, especially in light of the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, which threaten to plunge millions of the world’s poorest into famine. 80% of Liberia’s population is dependent on fish for essential dietary protein and the sector provides full- or part-time employment for 37,000 people.
The arrival of these supertrawlers is a part of a major increase of industrial fishing vessels across West Africa, with many linked to China’s growing distant water fleet. In Senegal, 52 vessels applied for licenses in April, which would have put an enormous strain on local marine resources. In a victory for local fishers and sustainable fishing, these were rejected by the government on World Oceans Day. In Ghana, three new trawlers from China still await a decision from the government, and local canoe fishers have stated their serious concerns.
Liberian fisheries legislation requires that only vessels that do not “threaten the sustainability of a fishery resource” are licensed by National Fisheries and Aquaculture Authority.
Jerry N. Blamo, the President of the Liberia Artisanal Fishermen’s Association, said, “We sincerely hope that the government will respect Liberian law and protect the interests of local coastal communities and our shared marine environment. Our waters support local jobs and provide good quality food, but granting these massive supertrawlers fishing licenses would destroy that.”
Charles Simpson, the President of the Grand Cape Mount County Community Management Association, said, “Over the last decade, we have worked extremely hard to stop illegal fishing and overfishing. We slowly see more fish for local fishermen to catch and women to process. These supertrawlers would unfairly compete for the same fish as local fishermen and reverse all of that progress. We are calling on the government to safeguard Liberian coastal communities by refusing fishing licenses for these vessels.”
P. Nyantee Sleh, the President of the Montserrado County and Bomi County Community Management Associations, said, “Small-scale fishing is an important source of jobs for people here in Monrovia and across the country. In earlier decades, local fishermen could not earn a livelihood because of rampant overfishing, but in recent years things have improved. These supertrawlers would be a big step backwards, harming jobs and future food security.”
The Liberian groups were joined by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), which works in Liberia and other West African countries to combat illegal fishing and promote the sustainable management of marine resources.
The Executive Director of EJF, Steve Trent, said “The growth of China's industrial fleet in West Africa is deeply worrying. Many of these countries have small-scale fleets that are vital to local livelihoods, stability and food security. They have almost no chance of competing with supertrawlers that are able to hoover up vast amount of fish and move on. Liberia has taken enormous steps forward in managing its fisheries, and the National Fishing and Aquaculture Authority (NaFAA) has played a positive role combatting illegal and unsustainable fishing. Fisheries management involves hard choices. We hope that NaFAA continues to safeguard Liberia’s fisheries and those that depend on them.”
- Significant proportions of Liberia’s population live with poverty and food insecurity, with 31.9% classified as undernourished and 50% of the population living on less than US$2 a day.
- Illegal and overfishing is threatening Liberia’s food security – 80% of Liberia’s population is dependent upon fish for essential dietary protein. Some coastal counties, where the project’s target groups are based, suffer from higher levels of poverty and food insecurity, such as Margibi (Marshall), Grand Cess and Robertsport, where over 25% of households are food insecure (compared to 16% nationally).
- Fisheries contribute about 10% to the country’s gross domestic product. The sector provides full- or part-time employment for 37,000 people. Small-scale fisheries provide employment for 33,000 people, 60% of whom are women.
- The Maximum Sustainable Yield of demersal (bottom-dwelling) species was estimated to be 7,136 tonnes per year as reported in the “Retrospective and Ex-ante evaluation study of the Protocol to the Agreement on Sustainable Fisheries Partnership between the European Union and the Republic of Liberia”. See page 30 on: https://op.europa.eu/en/publication-detail/-/publication/f407575c-6d7e-11ea-b735-01aa75ed71a1/language-en/format-PDF/source-12291531
Max Schmid, Environmental Justice Foundation Deputy Director