The Anthropocene: Do European Pirates Still Exist? Plunder in West African Fisheries

Will illegal fishing transform the Gulf of Guinea into the new Somalia? How EU companies are implicated in the depletion of West African fisheries.

Image courtesy of UK Ministry of Defence, © 2012, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of UK Ministry of Defence, © 2012, some rights reserved.


In a coastal West African country like Sierra Leone, fish represent a key food staple and a source of economic livelihood, with nearly 4% of the population directly employed by the fishing industry. It is therefore worrying that the West African Coast’s fishery grounds are being depleted due to harmful fishery deals and illegal plunder. Sierra Leone alone loses $29 million a year to pirate fishing, leading to significant economic and ecological effect.

To what degree is the EU implicated in such plunder?

As the world’s largest fish importer, the European Union should serve as an exemplar of responsible trade behaviour. However, despite the EU’s legislative efforts to increase regulations on fishing imports, fish caught illegally in West Africa often appears in European markets. Between 2010 and 2012, the Environmental Justice Foundation, a UK-based environmental rights charity monitored the fishing activity of industrial vessels off the coast of Sierra Leone. During this time, the charity received 252 reports of pirate fishing, and obtained photographic and video evidence of 10 vessels operating illegally. Out of these 10 vessels, 9 were accredited to export their catches to Europe.

Weak governance and insufficient monitoring systems in West African states allow international corporations to circumvent local and international law. Off of Sierra Leone, the Environmental Justice Foundation witnessed international corporations that export to the EU launder illegal catch into the European seafood market. International firms may use single licenses to cover multiple vessels, and frequently employ small-mesh nets, catching fish too small to meet government regulations. European-owned vessels routinely bribe local enforcement officials.

In one notorious incident, a vessel owned by the Sierra Fishing Company was observed operating illegally in Sierra Leone’s Exclusive Economic Zone. In a technique commonly used in the region, it covered its name and markings in order to go about illegal activity under a cover of anonymity. Through its 40% ownership by Manocap, an equity fund manager, the Sierra Fishing Company has benefited from significant funds from the UK Government’s Commonwealth Development Corporation. This signifies the extent to which European governments are implicated in illegal fishing activity through lack of effective regulatory mechanisms.


According to current law, in order for fish to be imported to the EU, it must be accompanied by a catch certificate validated by its ship’s flag State. However, international fishing corporations are able to bypass government supervision through registering their ships to Flags of Convenience, or registries such as Panama that turn a blind eye to the behavior of its vessels. Fishing vessels can easily change flag, name and geographic location when facing fines or sanctions. At least 100 European-owned shipping vessels off of the West African Coast are registered under Flags of Convenience. However, the exact number of European beneficiaries evading regulation through lax registries is unknown because many obscure their identities behind shell companies based in tax havens.

Overall, EU regulations are well meaning but insufficient, allowing European-based firms to profit directly or indirectly from illegal fishing. In 2010, the EU passed legislation that sought to deter pirate fishing in international waters through blacklists for companies and countries that transgress the law. Yet despite rampant illicit behavior witnessed in Sierra Leone and many other countries, the EU has failed to add any additional members to its blacklist due to pirate fishing. Without effective compliance, the EU’s regulations risk becoming empty rhetoric that do little to reverse the increasing chaos of the coastal region.

What does illegal fishing imply for the region?

The looting of West African fisheries has grave implications for a region marked by fragile economies and increasingly delicate ecosystems.  In West Africa as a whole, 37% of fishing yields are caught illegally. As fishing resources become scarce, vessels have increasingly turned to habitat-destroying techniques like dynamite and bottom trawling. The depletion of sustainable food resources has enormous consequences for a state like Sierra Leone, whose economy and infrastructure still have not fully recovered from the country’s brutal civil war that ended in 2002. Sierra Leone serves as an example of a fragile and impoverished post-war state that could easily be reduced to chaos.

In the 1990s, illegal fishing by foreign firms pushed Somali fishing communities towards piracy and criminal enterprise. After years of international naval effort, piracy off the Horn of Africa is finally in decline. Acts of piracy and criminality, however, are on the rise in West Africa, where fishing stocks are now in decline. As fisheries are depleted along the West African Coast, will local communities increasingly resort to illegal economic activity and crime?

West Africa is a trafficking route for South American narcotics destined for Europe. As fishing’s profitability decreases for local communities those formerly employed by the fishing industry could turn to the black market. Ironically, the region is increasing in geopolitical importance as its levels of instability rise: The U.S. will import a quarter of its oil from Gulf of Guinea nations by 2015, and the entire African continent relies upon the region for 70% of its oil production. A collapse in security in the Gulf of Guinea, a crucial naval passage, would therefore likely require a naval response similar to that seen in Somalia. Ensuring the sustainability of West African Coast fisheries is in the international and European interest.

How can the EU help reduce its contributions to West African pirate fishing?

In order to help West African states reduce criminal behavior off their coasts, the European Union should require all vessels importing to the EU to be equipped with satellite monitoring technology. Currently, all vessels flagged to European Member States must be surveyed by a satellite Vessel Monitoring System (VMS), which gives an hourly electronic report on the ship’s location and speed. This, however, does not apply to vessels exporting to the EU that do not have a European flag. This will provide a way for European monitors to get around the corruption and lack of economic resources in many countries in the region.

In Western Africa, ecological sustainability will prove crucial to economic and political stability. It is in the European Union’s best interest to ensure that its hunger for maritime products doesn’t contribute to growing militancy in the Gulf of Guinea.