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African Nations Are Sharing Data to Crack Down on Illegal Fishing

An initiative called FISH-i Africa helps coordinate the efforts of eight cash-strapped countries to uncover and catch pirate fishing operators in the western Indian Ocean.

Written by Paul Tullis Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Fish i africa
A FISH-i Africa investigation found that this ship was likely illegally fishing. It was subsequently seized by the Mozambique government.Courtesy of Fish-i-Africa

In July 2016, the trawler Greko 1 approached Mombasa, Kenya, a major fishing port on the western Indian Ocean. Registered in Belize and owned by a Panamanian subsidiary of a Greek company, the boat’s operators had been fishing for years in Somali waters and unloading and selling their catch in Mogadishu and Mombasa. In Kenya, they would present a fishing license issued by Somalia. Authorities in Mombasa had sought to verify the legitimacy of the license with their counterparts in Somalia and couldn’t get a response. But when the trawler approached Mombasa this time, port authorities denied the Greko 1 a berth, forcing the vessel back to sea.

What its operators didn’t realize was that since the last time it had been in Kenya, Somalia had joined FISH-i Africa, an initiative supported by the Pew Charitable Trusts that coordinates the efforts of eight East African coastal countries to stop illegal fishing in the region. At Somalia’s first meeting of the group a month earlier, it had shared information about the Greko 1, revealing to the other task force members that the vessel had been operating with a forged license.

Eventually the boat docked in Mogadishu. Port authorities there notified FISH-i Africa, which sent its technical team to the Somali capital to conduct an inspection. They found that Greko 1 had been fishing in waters reserved for Somali fishers and using illegal gear. Authorities forced the boat’s owner to pay a $65,000 fine.

But the story doesn’t end there. A photo that the inspectors took of the Greko 1 in Mogadishu revealed something they had been unable to see in person: Embossed on the hull, and painted over, was a different name. Further investigation revealed that the Greko 1 was previously named the Deeqa 1, which was listed as “scrapped” under a European Union program aimed at reducing the capacity of the fishing industry. The program had paid the Deeqa’s Greek owners 1.4 million euros ($1.6 million) to take the boat out of commission. That investigation is ongoing, but it appears that the owners had never in fact scrapped the Deeqa 1, but just gave it a new name and moved operations to East Africa, pocketing the E.U. cash.

FISH-i Africa helped uncover an illegal fishing license operation in Tanzania. (Courtesy of Fish-i-Africa)

Both chapters of the story of the Greko 1 – or whatever it’s called – reveal the challenges facing fisheries managers the world over, and the benefits of pooling data and resources.

“When you put the pieces together and share information and have proper analysis of what you’re finding, you see it just gets worse and worse the deeper you dig,” said Sandy Davies, co-founder and treasurer of Stop Illegal Fishing, a Botswana-based nonprofit that organized FISH-i Africa in 2012.

The organization grew out of a working group of monitor, control and surveillance officers in the eight western Indian Ocean countries – Mozambique, Tanzania, Kenya, Somalia, Madagascar, Comoros, Mauritius and Seychelles – that now form the FISH-i-Africa. Originally dedicated to implementing a commitment from the Southern Africa Development Community, based in Gaborone, Botswana, to stop illegal fishing in the region, the working group’s first step was to share lists of vessels licensed in their offshore Exclusive Economic Zones. Today, FISH-i Africa countries communicate on an Internet platform to collect and disseminate information about suspicious vessels, provide each other with on-the-ground assistance and share remote sensing data.

FISH-i Africa reflects a trend in the fight against illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, said Mark Spalding, president of the Ocean Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that helps ocean-related groups fulfill their missions. “The amounts of time, fuel and human resources needed to deal with IUU fishing far exceeds the ability to do it properly – even for a developed country,” Spalding said. “If we can figure out instead how to make enforcement more targeted so that interdiction is going after a specific boat at a specific time and place, spotting it in advance on an electronic monitoring system, we’re being more efficient with limited resources.”

That’s especially critical in countries like those that joined FISH-i Africa, some of which are among the world’s poorest. Spalding pointed to Satellite Applications Catapult, a technology company based in the United Kingdom, and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s Vulcan, as other organizations that are bringing to bear the latest technology against illegal fishing. The Ocean Foundation recognized FISH-i Africa with its 2017 Seafood Champion Award for Innovation, noting that its investigations have led to “fines and prosecutions that provide a strong deterrence to illegal activity and promote legitimate operators.”

Those investigations have uncovered much more than illegal fishing, as the ongoing investigation into the Greko 1’s provenance may reveal. A report released by FISH-i Africa in September noted that in 80 percent of cases, vessels are plying the waters under forged identity documents or fraudulent licenses. “It may be those vessels are fishing with the right gear in the right place and taking the right species, but the whole operation is fundamentally illegal because it’s not the vessel it’s saying it is, or there are three vessels fishing under the same name using a single license,” Davies said.

Moreover, FISH-i Africa has discovered, fishing boats in the western Indian Ocean are often used to hide or facilitate other crimes, such as human trafficking and the smuggling of drugs or wildlife: 26 percent of FISH-i Africa investigations so far had uncovered evidence of such “sinister” crimes not under the purview of fisheries enforcement. When crimes of forgery, fraud, smuggling or slavery are involved, resource-strapped enforcement officials can bring in other government agencies, increasing their capacity to shut down fishing operations and thereby reducing pressure on the fish stocks.

Illegal fishing operators, Spalding said, “are basically avoiding the full cost of doing business, so if you make them internalize the costs necessary for sustainable fishing, some of this kind of fishing and other activity will stop.”

Davies noted that the change in the nature of the crime requires a change in response – which can ultimately make it easier to nab non-compliant vessels. “Why should we go around in a patrol boat chasing around someone illegally fishing when at some point, these boats must come into port, and most of them come into ports in our region?” she said. “If we could clean up the bad operators, we could go a long way toward cleaning up illegal fishing and damage to the fish stocks – and to improving the well-being of the people in the western Indian Ocean.”

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