Liberia artisanal fishing communities concerned by Government ‘trawlers friendly’ move

On June 9th, speaking at the fish landing site in West Point, a township of the Liberian capital city Monrovia, Jerry Blamo called on the Government to review its Executive Order No. 84. This will reduce the country's Inshore Exclusive Zone (IEZ) from six nautical miles to three. Jerry Blamo is the General Secretary of Liberia Artisanal Fishermen Association (LAFA). Artisanal fishing sector representatives from the nine coastal counties of Liberia gathered at West Point to hear the LAFA statement. They all fear that reducing the IEZ zone, currently reserved for the small-scale fishing sector, will allow industrial trawlers greater access to Liberia's coastal waters: ‘We are worried about the kind of vessels that will be coming to fish in Liberia's waters, given the bad experiences we had with trawlers from Asia’, underlines Jerry Blamo.

There are approximately 33,000 people employed in the small-scale sector, composed of both the artisanal and semi industrial sub-sectors. The artisanal fishery sub-sector is currently employing more than 2,000 former Liberia Civil War Combatants in all the nine coastal counties and many wives of deceased war combatants are also employed in that sector.

The artisanal sub-sector includes 3,000 dugout canoes (up to 7m length) using paddles or sail, with up to three people on board, operated by Liberians. The semi-industrial sub-sector is composed of about 500 larger Fanti canoes (up to 15 meters length), using a small engine up to 40hp, employing up to 15 people on board. The artisanal fishers use mainly hooks, long lines, gillnets targeting species like barracudas, croakers whilst Fanti style canoes use ring and purse nets for catching small pelagics like herring, and also sharks. While some Fanti canoes are permanently based in Liberia, others migrate from countries like Ghana or even Senegal.

Since 2010, within the rules established by the revised Fisheries Regulation, the small-scale sector has been supported by an inshore exclusion zone set 6 nautical miles from the coast. This zone is reserved solely for the use of ‘subsistence, artisanal and semi-industrial fishing activities’. 

The Fisheries Regulation 2010 was adopted after numerous stakeholder consultative meetings were held, with the support of the West Africa Regional Fisheries Project (WARFP), funded by the World Bank. A 2016 World Bank Paper describes that the 6 miles IEZ has caused a significant reduction in industrial fishing close to shore: 

In Liberia, access of industrial boats to a restricted six-mile zone has been forbidden, allowing small-scale fishermen to fish more safely within that area, and indeed, since 2011, Liberian artisanal fishing communities have experienced a positive change in fish availability with the sizes of all fish landed increasing and the overall volumes of fish caught more than doubling compared to 2009 levels, as recorded by the community science program and the WARFP fish stock assessment data collection… During the World Bank mission of January 2016, local fishing communities (in Robertsport) explicitly voiced the need to continue supporting the efforts that have led to fewer trawler incidents and increase of their fishing revenues 

However, its success has been undermined by frequent incursions by unauthorised vessels, with reports by local fishermen suggesting this is still an almost daily problem. Indeed, Liberia has had a long standing problem with illegal fishing, illustrated by 31 cases against foreign owned vessels being handled in 2012, resulting in fines totalling over 6 million USD. 

The Executive Order No.84

Despite the positive impact of expanding the area of the sea for artisanal and semi-industrial fishing, on 22d April 2017, Liberia President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf issued the Executive Order No. 84 pertaining to the Management of Liberia Fishery Resources. The order stated that ‘the fishery resources of the Republic of Liberia have been underutilized for over a decade and the Government of Liberia intends to encourage investment in this sector to ensure the sustainable development and utilization of this natural resource’. The government insisted that such development of the fishing operations will help the country's balance of payment and the foreign exchange situation, as the country currently imports nearly 50,000 tons of fish per year. 

Half of Liberia’s population lives along the coast, with 80 % of Liberians directly depending on fish for animal protein. However, Liberians consume a modest average of 5 kg of fish per capita per year, whilst the average for other coastal states in sub-Saharan Africa is 17 kg. 

Under the Executive Order, Liberia Maritime Authority (LMA) is granted ‘full and complete supervisory, oversight and fiscal authority of the Bureau of National Fisheries and Liberia’s fishery resources pending the enactment of the National Fisheries Act’. The Order charged the LMA to ensure that measures are put in place including the reduction of the Inshore Exclusive Zone (IEZ) from 6 nautical miles to 3 nautical miles, ‘to ensure that industrial and semi-industrial fishing can restart and again become viable’. Other measures include the fact that fishing vessels below 500 gross tons shall be exempt from port charges; conditions for obtaining a fishing license and fiscal regime will also be reviewed to facilitate industrial fishing activities. The government further clarified that all fishing vessels will have to land their catches in Liberia, so that the local market receives more fish supply and experience the consequent reduction in fish imports from Sierra Leone and other countries. 

In 2017, only two demersal trawlers were licensed to fish in Liberia EEZ (one Korean flagged, one Liberian – formerly Korean). Until it signed a tuna fishing agreement with the EU, Liberia did not have any bilateral fisheries access agreement with a third country, and it did not have private agreements with any individual companies. No joint-venture enterprises involving foreign fishing companies exist, nor do Liberian companies have any chartering arrangements for foreign fishing vessels. However, there is substantial interest among foreign industrial vessels to operate in the 6 miles coastal zone, where their access is currently forbidden, which explains such high levels of illegal fishing. The Executive order, by allowing them access to the zone between 3 and 6 miles, will encourage many of these vessels wanting to undertake trawling in coastal areas to purchase licenses.

Responses to the Order

These developments have caused serious concern among local fishing communities. In response, LAFA sent a letter to the House Speaker and Senate President pro tempore, highlighting that this Executive Order “has the propensity to create serious hardship on the already poor and struggling artisanal fishermen”. Members of the House of Representatives voted unanimously for the letter to be forwarded to the Presidency and to meet with the President, because of the gravity of the complaint.

The European Union also reacted. In a letter to President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the EU expressed concern over the implications of Executive Order 84. Through its Ambassador to Liberia, the EU said it believes that some of the measures introduced will not lead to sustainable investments. It noted that the Executive Order 84 will lead to accelerated depletion of current fish stocks, resulting in reduced economic opportunities in the sector and increased food insecurity. In the letter, EU made specific reference to Section 2.b of the Order that talks about reduction of Inshore Exclusive Zone (IEZ) from 6 nautical miles to 3 nautical miles, as well as section 2.c which says that the fishery resources to be harvested shall not exceed 100,000 metric tons per annum. According to the EU, the measures do not appear to be based on the precautionary approach of the FAO's Code of Conduct for Responsible Fishing. The EU ends by highlighting their on-going dialogue with the World Bank regarding the Executive Order. Indeed, the impacts of measures like the reduction of the IEZ is likely to undermine the work achieved by Liberia Government in fisheries with the support of the World Bank.

LAFA, with the support of the CAOPA, the African Confederation of Artisanal Fishing organisations of which they are a member, also took the initiative of meeting with Liberia decision makers, including the Liberia Maritime Authority (LMA) and the Bureau of National Fisheries (BNF). The BNF confirmed that the government has not yet implemented the Executive Order; and that the implementation would start with a one year trial. The Commissioner of LMA expressed his readiness to meet with LAFA on strategic measures that should be considered, before implementing the Executive Order, to avoid conflicts between trawlers and small-scale fishers, as well as to prevent and deter unsustainable and illegal fishing. 

This is somewhat reassuring for LAFA, although men and women of the artisanal fishing communities are vowing to monitor the situation closely and continue to raise their concerns with Liberia decision makers, particularly in the wake of the coming general elections in October

For Jerry Blamo, speaking to his colleagues at West Point, the Executive Order still somewhat misses the point, as it doesn’t consider the potential of the small scale sector, - artisanal small canoes or semi industrial bigger canoes – to bring more fish to the populations, if well supported: ‘Improving basic infrastructure, such as sanitary fish handling facilities, processing and storage facilities for artisanally processed products should be the government priority, rather than reducing the access rights of artisanal fishermen’.

About the Liberia Artisanal Fishermen Association

The Liberia Artisanal Fishermen Association (LAFA), Inc., was established in December 2009 as a national umbrella of all fishing association representing the interest of fishing communities in the nine (9) coastal counties of Liberia with over thirty-three thousand (33,000) fisher folks, and a total of one hundred and fourteen (114) fishing communities along the coast of Liberia. LAFA’s activities cover wide areas which include fishing, fish processing and preservation, fish trade and marketing. For further information, you can contact LAFA: 


About Fisheries relations between the EU and Liberia

Since end of 2015, the European Union and the Republic of Liberia have a 5-year Sustainable Fisheries Partnership Agreement (SFPA) allowing EU tuna vessels to fish in Liberia EEZ. In return, the EU pays Liberia an average annual compensation of 650,000 euros, out of which 50% is earmarked to support the fisheries policy of Liberia, including the reinforcement of its fisheries monitoring, control and surveillance capacity.

IUU is a key concern in the EU-Liberia fisheries relations: in 23 May 2017, Liberia was pre-identified as non-cooperating third countries under the EU's regulation to fight and deter illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. The reason given by the European Commission is that “Liberia has the second biggest shipping registry in the world with over 100 fishing transport vessels registered under this flag. The national fisheries authorities do not have the information or means to control this fleet. This lack of control has been confirmed by the listing of a Liberian vessel on the international "black list" last October. Liberia has taken reform measures including the revision of its fisheries laws, but no tangible progress has followed. The Commission hopes that the pre-identification will raise political awareness and encourage the country to implement the necessary reforms in fisheries governance”.

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