Q&A: Liberia’s Decision to Deny Fishing Permits to 6 Chinese Super Trawlers “Sends a Powerful Message”

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Three of the six Chinese super trawlers that were denied fishing permits by the Liberian government docked in Monrovia. Photo via Environmental Justice Foundation.

After months of deliberations, Liberia’s National Fisheries and Aquaculture Authority (NaFAA) announced last week that it would deny permits to six Chinese super-trawlers to fish in its territorial waters. The trawlers arrived earlier this year and immediately sparked widespread concern that their ability to catch 12,000 metric tons of fish would wipe out the country’s yearly sustainable catch, jeopardizing both the maritime ecosystem and the livelihoods of coastal populations.

NaFAA Director-General Emma Metieh Glassco granting licenses for these Chinese trawlers would have been a “breach of international protocols.” She added that the vessels’ larger fishing capacities are not compatible with local fishing conditions.

The decision was welcomed by both local advocacy organizations like the Liberia Artisanal Fishermen’s Association and international conservation NGOs including the London-based Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF). For some perspective on the decision, CAP Managing Editor Eric Olander spoke with Steve Trent, Executive Director of the Environmental Justice Foundation. The following is an unedited transcript of that discussion:

ERIC OLANDER: Why, in your view, is it important that the Liberian National Fisheries and Aquaculture Authority (NaFAA) refused to grant permits to those six Chinese super trawlers?

STEVE TRENT: These vessels would have been capable of taking nearly twice the nation’s sustainable catch of key species that local small-scale fishers depend on; any decision to license them would have threatened the marine ecosystem, coastal livelihoods and food security.

The decision to deny licenses to these super-trawlers demonstrates important leadership and sends a powerful message about the effectiveness of Liberia’s new fishing regulations, which require licenses are only to be granted in line with the nation’s sustainable fishing plans. If unsustainable levels of industrial fishing are allowed, this leads to a crash in fish populations and illegal fishing in both the industrial and small-scale sectors. By refusing the temptation to raise short-term revenue from unsustainable licenses, NaFAA is laying the groundwork for the long-term environmental, economic and social benefits for coastal communities and the country as a whole that come from sustainable, well-managed fisheries.

ERIC: While the government’s decision is no doubt good news for local fish stocks, not everyone’s happy. Earlier this summer the Liberian Seaman Union protested in support of the trawlers because the members depend on those Chinese vessels for jobs. What do you say to them?

STEVE: There is a simple equation to be read: allowing unsustainable fishing would not only devastate the livelihoods and employment of an estimated 37,000 Liberians dependent on small-scale fisheries, it would ultimately put the crew on board the trawlers out of work as overfishing brings the fishery to decline and then collapse. This is why the Liberian Artisanal Fishermen’s Association was so strongly opposed to these vessels being licensed.

“The decision by [the Liberian government] to refuse licenses to these super trawlers is an important milestone in the sustainable management of Liberia’s fisheries. We further commend the transparent process undertaken by Liberia to consider these licenses. It sends a clear message across West Africa that states in the region can prioritize local fishing communities to protect the marine environment and the jobs and food security that it supports.” — steve trent, executive director of the environmental justice foundation

ERIC: Liberia now joins Senegal in rejecting fishing permits for Chinese trawlers. Are these two countries part of a new trend in West Africa to crackdown on China’s distant fishing fleet or are they the exception?

STEVE: We hope that leadership shown in the decisions taken in Senegal and Liberia to protect legal and sustainable fishing practices will mark a turning point in the region. There are still examples elsewhere in West Africa of distant water fishing vessels being allowed to exploit coastal waters in ways that do not comply with national laws and sustainable fishing plans. Now we are encouraging other countries to join us, along with many in the international community, in applauding the actions taken by Liberia and Senegal and to follow their example.

ERIC: There’ve been well-documented reports that China’s distant fishing fleet operates beyond the enforcement capabilities of local governments in places like West Africa. So, ultimately, if these permitting decisions are not effectively enforced, does it really matter whether the governments grant permits or not?

STEVE: Licensing decisions are only one part of good fisheries management. Liberia and other countries in the region also need to work together to prevent vessels fishing without licenses. EJF’s team in Liberia works with coastal communities and employs satellite tracking to identify vessels fishing without licenses, and we submit any evidence we find to Liberian authorities for further investigation. China, as the flag state of these six super-trawlers, also has an inescapable responsibility to effectively monitor them, ensuring they only fish legally and sustainably and, crucially, when granted licence to do so. By adopting a transparent process in considering these vessels Liberia has also done great service in making clear their status to their flag state, other countries in the region, industry and other stake-holders.

ERIC: What’s the situation in Ghana regarding the pending applications of Chinese fishing trawlers there?

STEVE: We are still awaiting confirmation from Ghanaian authorities regarding whether or not license applications have been approved for Yu Feng 1, 3 and 4. We will know for certain when the next license list is published.

Written by

Managing Editor of The China Africa Project

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