Trawler haven is hell for the crews

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 May, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 May, 2006, 12:00am

Night falls suddenly in the Ships' Graveyard, a haven for illegal fishing boats about 150km from the African coastline of Sierra Leone.

But last week, a flickering light could be seen coming from the Long Way 007, a rusting hulk of a Chinese trawler with holes in its body so big that an adult could crawl through them. On board were Xun Wenguo and Zhen Tao, adrift at sea for over a week on a ship with no radio, no engines and little food. The generator for the pumps on the sinking ship was failing, so the two men preferred to light candles at night rather than risk straining their unreliable equipment.

With foreign trawlers banned from Sierra Leone's inshore waters, the Long Way and boats like it moor here on the high seas. In theory, the two men are supposed to keep the Long Way afloat long enough for it to be towed into a port, but neither man was clear about when relief would arrive.

Both hope it will be soon; they are competing with the rats and cockroaches for their last few handfuls of rice and packets of noodles. Drinking water comes from a filthy drum on the deck. 'It's very lonely, just the both of us here, and we don't really have enough food to eat,' said 36-year-old Mr Xun.

It's clear that the two men, like the fish their bosses target, are victims of a scramble for profits. They are part of a growing fleet of commercial fishermen who are combing the coast of Africa for rapidly decreasing fish stocks. The stakes are high - a trawler-load of fish can sell for upwards of US$400,000 - but environmentalists warn that the hunt is encouraging dangerous exploitation of workers and endangering the environment.

'As stricter quotas are imposed in Europe, companies are turning to poorly regulated African waters,' said Sarah Duthie, a Greenpeace campaigner who was recently in west African waters. 'Stocks are getting seriously depleted.'

A report issued by the WWF last week warned that several commonly targeted species, including tuna and orange roughy, were under severe threat. Ms Duthie says the practices of unlicensed or 'pirate' fishing fleets off the West African coast are largely to blame for overfishing.

Often Chinese-owned, they trawl the ocean with huge, closely woven nets, catching everything from dolphins to seahorses. The catch is dumped on deck, where up to 70 per cent is discarded overboard as 'bycatch'.

Poor-quality, but marketable, fish is sent straight to a factory ship, where it is canned and sold to Africa. Prime fish - like grouper and snapper - are transferred onto more robust ships with built-in freezers, then whisked away to the Spanish port of Las Palmas and the supermarkets of Europe. 'These fishing companies simply rape and loot their way across the ocean,' said Cobus Claassens, a former fisheries protection officer in Sierra Leone.

'They don't transship in the port, they don't pay tax on what they fish, they don't land part of their catch so that the country can benefit from it. At the rate they are going, Sierra Leone will not have a fishing industry in the next 10 years.'

Trawlers often ran down local fishermen in their canoes or cut their nets by mistake, he added. It can take a local fisherman half a lifetime to save up for his own net.

With little or no budget for protecting fisheries and fishermen, desperate African governments are increasingly turning to heavily armed freelance forces, offering them 50 per cent of fines worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Many armed boats operating off the coast of Somalia claim to be protecting the country's fisheries. In West Africa, one former mercenary, who now describes himself as an 'environmentalist', was hired to patrol Sierra Leone's 8km exclusion zone. It aims to protect local fishermen by forbidding large trawlers coming close to land. Boats which violate the zone, risking huge fines, often try to ram enforcement vessels or fire on them with automatic rifles, he said.

'We carried light machine guns, which looks more impressive, and for self-defence we did carry RPG7 rocket launchers. These are quite capable of penetrating the side of a vessel and the engine,' the former mercenary said.

When a crew resisted, they were locked in the freezer without shoes.

None of the trawler crews stranded in the Ship's Graveyard admits breaking the law or being fired upon.

Fan Xinsheng, aboard the Zhang Yuang YU1, confides that his contract expired over a month ago. He had to stay while the fishing was good because his boss had not provided any transport to shore. Now, the boat's engines had been broken for three days.

'I just had to agree, there's no other way out,' he said helplessly. Trapped aboard the drifting Zhang Yuan, Mr Fan, 37, is little better off than his colleagues a few kilometres away on the soon-to-be scrapped Long Way 007 - who also have no way to contact the outside world and no way off their ship.

There is no dinghy or life jacket on board. When they do crank up the generator, the radio makes a barely audible crackle and hiss.

Mr Zhen, at sea for 17 months without once going into port, said: 'This is the worst time in my life.'

Neither man has heard of the Chinese fishing trawler that Guinean authorities say went down last year, taking 14 crew members with it. The International Labour Organisation estimates that 24,000 fishermen die in accidents every year, most of them in small, developing countries.

'We do light a fire to cook with and as a signal and sometimes people come to help,' said Mr Xun doubtfully, scanning the horizon. 'Of course, sometimes they don't.'