For years, Liberia fought a losing battle against the foreign vessels plundering its coastline. Then a bold new approach sent fines – and arrests – soaring
Petty officer George Kromah, of the Liberian coastguard, slings his AK47 across his back before disappearing over the side of the Sam Simon, joining his colleagues in the rib below. The boat roars off, quickly followed by a second, speeding through the choppy Atlantic swell in pursuit of a suspected illegal fishing vessel that has crossed into Liberia’s territorial waters from Sierra Leone.
Kromah and his fellow officers are on the frontline of the little nation’s ill-matched crackdown on fisheries crime – which Interpol has linked with the trafficking of drugs and people, as well as fraud and tax evasion.
The largely ungoverned waters of west Africa are plagued on a daily basis by big industrial vessels from wealthier nations that plunder hundreds of tonnes of fish, at the expense of local fisherman. One 2017 study estimates the cost of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU) to just six west African countries at $2.3bn (£1.8bn) a year. It is a cost that Liberia, one of the world’s poorest nations – and heavily dependent on foreign aid after decades of civil war – cannot afford.
But neither has it funds to police its 370km of coastline.
Two years ago, the defence ministry of this tiny country of 4.7 million people took an unusual step to tackle multi-million dollar crimes: partnering with Sea Shepherd, self-styled “eco-vigilantes”, known for controversial tactics against Japanese whalers in the Southern Ocean. The Guardian travelled with the coastguard aboard the Sam Simon, a 56-metre patrol vessel provided to the military, along with its largely volunteer crew.
The pursuit of the suspected illegal tuna boat, the Oriental Kim, ended undramatically with a warning rather than an arrest. It was found to be broadly operating legally, with some discrepancies. But according to Sea Shepherd, news of policing at sea has “spread like wildfire” among vessel owners, creating a deterrent effect.