The Italian fishery system (government authorities, shipowners, consumers) has been caught up in fishing crime in West Africa. The documents we gained access to, as well as the confidential testimonies we collected, reveal the legal shortcomings and institutional silence within the European system when it comes to illegal fishing in overseas countries. The seabed of the Gulf of Guinea is colonized by foreign trawlers; the sea is plundered, impoverishing the indigenous fishermen, using often illegal practices that cause losses for coastal countries estimated by the FAO at over 2 billion euros a year.
The Chinese fleet leads the pack, but there are also fleets from Korea, Russia, France and Spain. There is also an Italian fleet, though it’s shrunk to a few units since 2000. Six of these, registered in Sicily, have acted illegally or suspiciously along the African coasts for years, especially in Sierra Leone, a country which issued them fishing licenses between 2016 and 2020. In 2018, Orione Q and Pegaso Q of the shipping company Asaro, and Idra Q and Myra Q of Italfish were tracked to Sierra Leone.
Some of these would seem to have drifted to where they shouldn’t have, namely, the coastal strip that Sierra Leone reserves for small-scale artisanal fishing. This can be tracked on the Global Fishing Watch map, which intercepts the signals transmitted by the AIS satellite antennas, mandatory on large boats to avoid collisions. “By analyzing speed and direction based on AIS data, we identify the vessels that are probably fishing, but without having certain proof,” explains Maria Valentine of the NGO Oceana, curator of the project.
These trespasses were reported to the NGOs CFFA, Bloom and Living Seas by Sierra Leonean fishermen, who have also reported incursions into protected breeding sites and transshipments of unauthorized fish. The NGOs have formally complained to the European Commission concerning the inaction of the Italian government, which is required by EU law to monitor, and potentially fine, the boats that fly its flag. Italian law requires up to 2 years imprisonment or a penalty of 12,000 euro for fishing in prohibited areas.
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This is not the first time that Italy has been caught up by lack of oversight. In a 2019 audit, the Brussels executive reiterated the inadequacy of its VMS geolocation system, mandatory for national coast guards and boats over 15 meters. Problems were already highlighted in 2015 for the six boats, which were all operating in nearby Guinea Bissau and Gambia. Moreover, the latter country admitted the ships into its waters with private concessions, in violation of the fisheries agreement signed with the EU.
In May 2020, Brussels settled all disputes with a retrospective adjustment, despite the non-compliant ships not being punished by Italian authorities. Rome obtained further clemency for late notification of the renewal of the Sierra Leonean licenses to the boats, submitted to the EU one year after the January 2018 deadline.
The Fisheries Department of the Ministry of Agriculture rejects the allegations of the NGOs concerning Sierra Leone. Authorities reported an absence of any irregularities to the Commission, which has opened yet another dossier on the matter.
As evidence, the Italian Department confidentially provided us with a VMS printout that reconstructs the trespasses, attributing them to normal transit to and from the port as well as due to adverse weather conditions. Unfortunately, Pegaso Q had received a fine on the spot for lowering its nets in the forbidden area, South of Sherbro Island, between 6 and 7 August 2019. Position and date coincide with those appearing in the VMS and AIS tracks.
The Sicilian fishing boat paid 25,000 euros out of a total of 5 million euros collected by Sierra Leone between January 2019 and August 2020. These fines, collected from crews (almost all Chinese), represent only a fraction of offenders, who mostly escape arrest,” explains Dyhia Belhabib, principal investigator at Ecotrust Canada and Founder of Spyglass, a global database of fishing crimes. The researcher considers it “strange that Europeans receive lower fines than the Chinese, who, for similar infringements, often pay out over 400,000 euros”.
Belhabib, in contact with the local authorities, told us that Pegaso Q was recalled to port due to its anomalous position, and that the on-board observer’s journal recorded catches in the prohibited zone. There was no comment from Asaro, owner of Pegaso Q and Eighteen, the other unit which officially trespassed due to poor weather, on which shark fins were found in 2017 (banned by the EU to protect the species).
“Who knows how many infringements the Italian government has failed to detect?” Belhabib asks. “Our study shows that navigation off the coast for over three hours, more than enough time for landing, means that one is fishing, as Idra Q was in 2016“. The Italfish boat, according to AIS surveys, presumably operated around the off-limits Banana Islands until 2018. “We skirted the archipelago up to the coastal roadstead for shift and food changes, relying on our local agency”, says Massimo Sabato, company director. “I have often surprised Chinese and Italians fishing nearby,” protests Banana Islander, Samuel Caulker, “we are hauling less and less fish, almost all of them are hoarded by large foreign boats which, even if fined, continue their raids”.
A manager of the Sierra Leonean Ministry of Fisheries, Sheku Sei, admits that “we have strengthened the patrols, but many marauders are still escaping us.” in July, three seized Chinese boats disappeared from Freetown, the country’s port capital. In the village of Yeliboya, in the north of the country, sailor Saidu Sesay swears having spotted foreign flags offshore even during the Covid lockdown in the first week of May 2020. The lockdown provoked protests and even deaths among the artisanal fishermen, opposed to closures and to restrictions.
“The connivance of the public administration is common,” says Joe Rahal of the NGO Green Scenery. “Boats across the border travel with bundles of money to give bribes”, a brokerage agent tells us, while remaining anonymous, “I had to bribe ministerial employees with 400 euros each to register the licenses of my Chinese clients, as well as Italians in 2018 and 2019 “.
The fish caught in the Gulf of Guinea by fishing boats flying the Italian flag, and by their competitors, while engaged in alleged illegality, takes an obscure path to the unsuspecting consumer. Europe is a key market, because it needs to meet a demand that isn’t satisfied by domestic production.
Fish products, while a source of profit for international shipowners and distributors, provide the economic subsistence of the population of Sierra Leone: the country derives 12% of GDP and 80% of animal proteins from its catch.
However, from the 1980s to 2010 their population halved from 618.40 to 315.40 million tons, according to a FAO report. “There are many trawlers that catch small fish, often using them as bait to catch larger ones, or throwing them dead back into the sea, preventing them from growing, with serious damage to the sector,” said ministerial officer Sheku Sei.
To protect domestic supplies, the government requires foreigners to land at least 40% of their catch, in addition to paying an export quota, an obligation that Myra Q apparently violated in 2016, resulting in a fine. Since Sierra Leone does not comply with EU health requirements, its fish cannot be sent to Europe: for this reason, it is frozen on board and transported to Senegal which becomes its official exporter.
FAO and Eurostat do not publicly disclose how much Senegalese fish distributed in the EU and Italy is caught in Sierra Leone. Meanwhile, labeling within the EU lacks transparency. Let’s follow the supply chain.
Luigi Giannini, President of Federpesca says: “the two Italian companies Asaro and Italfish mainly sell their catch to wholesalers”. Massimo Sabato, director of Italfish, a company that has only been active in Guinea Bissau and Sierra Leone since the end of 2018, replies: “We sold, in addition to traders in Spain, to wholesalers in our country such as Orogel, Arbi, Esca, Pescanova and Marr”. All of these brands deny this. Another mystery.
In Sierra Leone, the entire Italian fleet has looted the cephalopods (octopus, cuttlefish, squid), which are in great demand in Italy. In 2017 alone, it transported greater quantities than all the fish loaded on the pirogues of indigenous fishermen in 2009: 318 tons (38 percent of the entire haul of the six boats), including 92 tons of octopus, valued at approximately 1.7 million euro. Compare this sum with the just over 500,000 euro in annual licenses (plus variable royalties) paid in total to Sierra Leone.
Fishing activity in Sierra Leone and neighboring countries converges on the export of cephalopods from Senegal, which then pour into the Italian market (28,000 tons and a turnover of 186 million euros in the period between 2016 and 2019) and represent an important share of EU imports of octopus, of which Italy is the second largest buyer after Spain (reported by the European Fish Market Observatory).
“Given their high quality, Asaro and Italfish products are preferably supplied by wholesalers to restaurants, which unfortunately have no obligation to inform customers about the origin of the food”, continues Giannini. “A restaurateur can sell frozen octopus as fresh, arrived from abroad and purchased at a lower price than the one caught in the Mediterranean”, points out Tonino Giardini, National Fisheries Manager of Coldiretti. “This penalizes our local fishermen, disadvantaged by larger fees compared to units in non-EU countries with dubious ethical controls“.
Several catering wholesalers we contacted, such as Baldi and Sicilfood, have not been able to confirm the capture area of the frozen octopus they advertise as Senegalese on their websites.
Not even retail distribution offers sufficient information. Packages of unprocessed fish must only indicate the oceanic region, which, for West Africa, is FAO Area 34 (Central-Eastern Atlantic). Octopus with this code is used by the well-known Pam supermarket chain which refuses to tell us the exact country of origin.
Asaro offers the octopus on its TistaShop online store, which sports the “Friend of The Sea” sustainability badge, certified by Rina in 2017. Customer service points out that all the octopus for sale is from the same fleet, namely the one in Sierra Leone, which includes Pegaso Q, tracked until last summer, as well as Eighteen and Twenty which may have fished without permission for a few months.
“The licenses of the two vesseles, which expired on 3 December 2016, do not seem to have been renewed until the end of February 2017”, clarifies an anonymous Sierra Leone official after checking the incomplete official lists of the Ministry of Fisheries.
The Italian fishing boats have gradually abandoned Sierra Leone. Orione Q is the last one which kept a license, renewed until January 2021. The majority of fish species continue to be exploited by Chinese fishing boats which, through commercial triangulations, introduce otherwise prohibited products into Europe. “Chinese companies, unlike European ones, are not subject to the ban on fishing octopuses weighing less than 450g in the central-eastern Atlantic “, explains Valentina Tepedino, director of Eurofish market. ”So it happens that undersized specimens, inadmissible in Europe if packaged whole, first go to China which then re-exports them to Italy in pieces or mixed in preparations (exempt from the FAO zone indication)".
Statistics from the Sierra Leone Ministry of Fisheries show that from 2016 to 2019 the Chinese fleet, made up of over 70 units (75 percent of all foreigners), achieved a record catch with 167,000 tons of fish. The six Italian boats (third after the Russians) totaled just over 13,000. However, this quantity is seven times higher than that communicated to us by the Italian Fisheries Department (1,780). From her office in Freetown, the director of the ministry, Kadijatu Jalloh, says: “we quantify the catches based on the logbooks of the observers, rather than those of the captains (who report to the flag state)”.
Italian authorities invoke methodological differences in the calculation of annual catches. But Ecotrust Canada’s Dyhia Belhabib is not convinced: “this apparent discrepancy calls into question the government’s ability to control the activities of its own fleet”. Beatrice Gorez of the NGO CFFA demands that “the European Commission put a spotlight on this misconduct that we have denounced”. Faced with the inaction of Rome, Brussels is entitled to independently investigate and put vessels on the EU black list, canceling their licenses.
This investigation was conducted with support from the Money Trail program by Journalismfund.eu
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