Pirates have made global headlines for capturing people off the coast of Somalia. But on the other side of the African continent, another group of pirates is quietly sneaking away with a different catch.
In a two-part documentary, Al Jazeera films South Korean vessels fishing illegally in Sierra Leone’s coastal waters. Full of frozen fish, the vessels return to South Korea and ports in China to sell the fish to markets in Asia and Europe.
The victims are Sierra Leone’s subsistence fishing communities, which are dependent on the sea for their diet and economy. Not only do the boats empty the sea of marine life, their enormous nets destroy local fishing gear.
In this riveting documentary, Al Jazeera exposes layer upon layer of illegal activity by tracking one boat, the Ocean 3. When caught fishing illegally, the vessel pulls up its nets and heads to sea, only to be commanded to port a few days later. When inspectors board the Ocean 3 and confront the captain, he disappears into the bowels of the ship.
Complicating the fishing saga are alleged illegal arrangements between fishing companies and Sierra Leone’s navy and Fisheries Ministry. Captains pay off government observers and top-brass navy officials, according to anonymous sources within the navy. One scene in Part II demonstrates that the navy is, at the least, unhelpful in enforcing the rules. The navy refuses to assist in an inspection of the Ocean 3, leaving the unarmed fisheries officials to confront the crew alone. A navy commander later tells the fisheries official they were never in danger.
“Sierra Leoneans are friendly,” he tells Al Jazeera, though the crew is largely Korean.
Sierra Leone’s Acting Director of Fisheries and Marine Resources refutes that the Ministry is not doing everything in it’s power to stop illegal fishing. The navy also denies accusations of bribery.
“We have a very great record in the eyes of Sierra Leoneans of our achievement,” a navy commander told Al Jazeera. “Notwithstanding, not everybody knows what our challenges are or how much we can do.”
The Environmental Justice Fund reports that the tide may be turning. On January 18, a vessel was arrested after a three-month investigation into its illegal fishing tactics. And since October 2011, three $100,000-plus fines have been levied against large trawlers, including the Ocean 3.