Fisheries employ 500,000 of the West African nation’s nearly 8 million people. The industry accounts for 12% of the economy and provides 80% of the population’s protein consumption. But their catch is dwindling rapidly due to widespread overfishing, particularly by Chinese trawler crews.

According to President Julius Maada Bio in 2018, China’s illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing is a significant issue, costing Sierra Leone $50 million per year.

According to The Guardian, those who have protested illegal fishing in Tombo say they have faced violence from the crews of Chinese trawlers. For example, Alusine Kargbo, a 34-year-old mackerel fisherman, claims that Chinese trawler crews threw boiling water at him when he confronted them about fishing in prohibited areas.

Others are forced to travel further afield in search of fish, where conflicts with Chinese trawlers are even more likely. 

Ibrahim Bangura, a fisherman, said, “There’s so, so many of them. They disturb my property trash my nets. And if you try to stop them, they will fight you.”

In addition to dominating licensed markets, in a global survey of 152 countries, China is consistently listed as the worst offender for illegal fishing. Illegal trawling destroys marine ecosystems and undermines local fisheries in West Africa—a critical source of jobs and food security. According to a 2017 study, Sierra Leone, Senegal, Mauritania, the Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, and Guinea lose $2.3 billion per year due to illegal fishing, which accounts for 65% of the legal reported catch.

According to some experts, Chinese trawlers’ overfishing, both legal and illegal, is wreaking havoc on Sierra Leone’s coastal communities.

Stephen Akester, who served as an adviser to Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources from 2009 to 2021, said, “The Chinese fleet has been taking the profits of the fisheries for 30 years, and the impact on fish stocks has been terrible.” 

He continued, “The resources are disappearing, fishermen are suffering, families are starving. So many have just one meal a day.”

Abbas Kamara, a fisheries ministry official in Tombo, agrees, “Fish is very important to Tombo—it’s how people survive—but the Chinese take the fish.”

Salieu Sankoh, Sierra Leone’s West Africa Regional Fisheries Programme coordinator, said, “It’s a serious threat to the nutrition of the population.”

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