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Black Johnson is the site of the proposed industrial harbour in Sierra Leone. Photo: Handout

Locals fear Chinese fishing plant threatens ‘environmental catastrophe’ in Sierra Leone

  • Residents warn that the planned facility will destroy pristine rainforest and fishing stocks and people will be displaced
  • China and the local authorities deny accusations that the US$55m deal will pave the way for a fishmeal factory

China has defended its plans for an industrial fishing harbour in Sierra Leone, dismissing accusations that it will be an ecological disaster.

The US$55 million deal has been criticised by conservationists and landowners as “a catastrophic human and ecological disaster” that would destroy pristine rainforest, plunder fish stocks and pollute fish breeding grounds and marine ecosystems.

The Sierra Leonean fisheries ministry confirmed the deal but denied that the land would be used to build a fishmeal factory, saying it would be used to export fish. The ministry said it had set aside US$1.3 million to compensate those who would be displaced.

But responding to accusations that it had bought 250 acres (101 hectares) of land that would displace people and destroy the ecosystem, the Chinese embassy in Freetown said concerns about environmental risks were unfounded and that the project was owned by Sierra Leone.

Du Zijun, the economic and commercial counsellor at the Chinese embassy, said the project in a community known as Black Johnson would promote the development of Sierra Leone’s fishery sector. He also stressed that the plan was to build a harbour rather than a “fish meat mill”.

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“The accusation about the Sierra Leonean side selling 250 acres of land to China is groundless,” he said.

He also said that accusations that China was “not paying attention to environmental protection and destroying the ecological environment are completely sensational and hypothetical”.

But environmentalists insist that the project could have disastrous consequences for marine resources, leading to the collapse of key species and jeopardise the food security of Sierra Leone.

According to the Environmental Justice Foundation, species that are key for local food security and livelihoods will be sent to factories to be turned into feed for agriculture and aquaculture.

Early this month the Black Johnson Land Owners Group sent a petition to President Julius Maada Bio, urging him to cancel the deal, which they said would destroy pristine rainforests and ecosystems as well as deplete fish stocks.

Researchers say Chinese vessels are using local flags to operate in West Africa. Photo: Handout

“We appeal for your immediate intervention and leadership to prevent a catastrophic human and ecological disaster … The government of Sierra Leone has sold off 250 acres of protected rainforest and beach land to the Chinese. The proposed use is for fish meal production,” the group said.

“What this means is that vast quantities of fish are ground down to make fish meal pellets for export. Industrial fish meal production is hugely damaging to the environment. Fish meal factories discharge toxic chemicals.”

Concerns over the project highlight growing disquiet among fishing communities along the Atlantic coastline of Liberia, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal and Guinea, where China’s distant water fishing fleet has been making inroads.

Researchers say that because China has depleted its own fish stocks, its fishing fleet has been looking elsewhere, including West Africa and in neighbouring countries such as South Korea, which recently protested about China’s fishing in its waters.

Dr Miren Gutierrez, research associate at the London-based Overseas Development Institute, said China’s distant water fishing fleet had the technology, the capacity, and the incentives to travel to fish grounds far from China, which had “exhausted” its own waters.


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The 5,500km (3,415-mile) coastline of West Africa was home to some of the world’s most diverse and abundant fisheries, she said.

She said 518 Chinese vessels were flagged to African nations, where enforcement measures were typically limited, and fishing rights were often restricted to domestically registered vessels.

“It is no secret that 20 per cent of the global IUU [illegal, unreported and unregulated] catch is estimated to come from just six contiguous West African countries [Mauritania, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, and Sierra Leone],” said Gutierrez, who last year co-authored a report on China’s distant-water fishing fleet.

She said Chinese vessels were fishing under local flags and signing secret agreements that allowed them to fish in local waters.

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Although there are European or Russian vessels, “China is the biggest fleet globally, with more than 16,000 vessels capable of distant water fishing”, according to a 2020 study by the Overseas Development Institute – far more than the Chinese government’s own estimate of 3,000.

By contrast the European Union and United States have fewer than 300 vessels operating beyond their own waters.

These vessels get permission to fish in the West African waters by signing agreements in exchange for a fee that is paid to host governments. But the agreements have been criticised for overfishing, especially in Guinea-Bissau, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Cape Verde, Mauritania, Senegal and Gambia. The trawlers may also be taking advantage of poor governance, corruption and weak fishing regulations.

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Last December, when the US slammed China as the worst IUU fishing offender in the Pacific, the Chinese foreign ministry dismissed the claims as “just another lie”.

“We have ‘zero tolerance’ for violations of relevant laws and regulations committed by distant fishing vessels,” ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said.

Steve Trent, chief executive and founder of the Environmental Justice Foundation, said: “Some estimates indicate that more than half of the total catches made by the Chinese fleet originate from West Africa, mainly from demersal [bottom] trawling activities, an inherently destructive form of fishing,” Trent said.

In recent years, “we have noticed a steady growth – fuelled by subsidies – in the number of Chinese distant water fishing vessels targeting West African fish populations already under threat from overfishing”, he said.

Overfishing is a threat to local fishing communities in Sierra Leone. Photo: Handout

Their activities often competed with those of local small-scale fishers, who had seen their catch decrease dramatically and, too frequently, their gear destroyed, he said.

In Ghana the foundation has estimated that around 90 per cent of industrial trawlers are linked to Chinese corporations in spite of a prohibition against foreign ownership in the sector.

Trent said Chinese corporations operated through front companies, and between 65 to 75 per cent of the non-tuna fishing vessels operating in Guinea and Sierra Leone were linked to Chinese corporations.