Illegal Fishing Trawlers Seized off South Africa’s Coast

Three illegal trawlers caught in May off the coast of South Africa highlight a worldwide problem when it comes to global fishing.

On May 22nd, three illegal fishing trawlers were seized off the coast of East London on the eastern shores of South Africa. The publicity surrounding their capture and the subsequent court case now facing the ships’ captains has thrown into the public spotlight a problem that has long plagued South Africa, as well as countless other countries throughout the continent. According to Reuters, illegal fishing costs the global industry approximately $23 billion USD every year, and a quarter of all fish harvested from African waters are thought to be caught illegally.

Of the three trawlers confiscated at the end of May, two were Chinese and one was Indonesian. Between them, the three ships had 600 tons of illegally-caught squid onboard, estimated to be worth R70 million ($4.7 million). To exacerbate the issue, the squid were caught out of season, affecting the stock’s ability to reproduce and replenish itself in time for the onslaught of legal fisheries later in the year. In this way, the illegal trawlers are jeopardizing the livelihoods of those that depend upon the squid industry, as well as affecting the sustainability of the species itself.

The ships’ captains have been charged with evading the law and fishing in South African waters without permission. They face three further charges, including the possession of fishing product and equipment without a permit, and possessing fishing gear within South Africa’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). However, the scale of the catch confiscated from these ships pales in comparison with the annual catch lost to illegal fisheries in South Africa every year, which experts estimate to be worth around R60 billion ($4 billion).

Illegal trawlers are the main culprits when it comes to marine poaching, and most of the violations are committed by Chinese-owned vessels. With Chinese waters rendered barren by overfishing and an insatiable demand for seafood, many Chinese captains are willing to risk capture in order to exploit more fruitful fishing grounds. However, their actions are already taking a toll on South Africa’s once-biodiverse waters. Back in 2011, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimated that almost 50 percent of South African marine resources are already fully exploited.

Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that the situation will change anytime soon. South Africa’s nationally-owned waters cover some 580,000 square miles (1.5 million square kilometers), an area larger than the country’s landmass. The South African Navy has just four frigates, three outdated offshore patrol vessels, and three inshore patrol vessels with which to enforce maritime law, meaning that seizures like the recent one in May are few and far between. In the vast blind spots created by this situation, illegal trawlers are free to come and go almost as they please.

To make matters worse, corruption is rife throughout the government agencies responsible for enforcing fishing laws. Aksel Sundström, a PhD candidate from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, recently interviewed over 40 inspectors and other fisheries staff and found that they spoke openly about the situation. One interviewee told Sundström “imagine these boats, how much money they carry. And we earn so little…we can make resources of half a million rand disappear from the books. So the temptation is always there.” Often, even those who would enforce the rules are met with the threat of violence.

Ultimately, only the government can change the future of illegal fisheries in South Africa, both by routing out the corruption within their own agencies and by assigning the necessary funding to allow the South African Navy to increase its fleet and thereby make proper patrols a possibility. Earlier this month, 29 countries signed a U.N. accord intended to combat illegal fishing around the world. South Africa was not one of these countries, proving that for now, protecting marine resources is far from a government priority.