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Ministry of Marine Resources and Fisheries: Minister Soccoh Kabia Speaks

Plundering and pilfering Sierra Leone’s marine and fish resources is a perennially chronic infection that this tiny West African nation has left untreated for many years. As the albatross weighs down the neck of this poor, recovering nation, beset with formidable challenges, it is however heroically fighting for success and to integrate with the rest of the world community of democratic and prosperous nations.

Historically, foreign vessels have exploited and stolen Sierra Leone’s very lucrative marine resources with impunity, aided and abetted by a cohort of greedy and corrupt nationals. In a democracy where the war on poverty and systemic corruption are prevalent, government has a fierce fight in its belly, trying to cuff these wanton predators. Additionally there are stubborn ailments still depriving this naturally endowed nation of much needed funds necessary for financing a laundry list of necessary priorities.

Presently, things are beginning to look up, under the leadership of Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma, a former businessman, gifted, and with the head and heart for the job. Many believe he has the right aptitude and attitude for the job, and is positioned to take the nation to a coveted altitude. The president appointed a dynamic patriot, Dr. Alex Soccoh Kabia in December 2010 to take over the driver’s seat at the Marine Resources and Fisheries Ministry. He previously served in the Health and Social Welfare Ministries. President Koroma expects him to become the game changer and innovator. Dr. Kabia was very generous and gracious, in a conversation with me from Freetown, on Easter Monday 9th April, 2012, a national holiday in Sierra Leone. He was unapologetic, speaking to me about the measures he had created, as well as measuring progress at his Ministry, and the daunting challenges in his path; a fight he is not afraid of. Dr. Kabia is a reputable medical doctor of Internal Medicine from Atlanta, Georgia, specializing in Nephrology, who had acquired several years of successful practice under his belt.

He took a giant risk, abandoning his private practice with a leap of faith, and returning home to make selfless and valuable contributions to his homeland. He also serves as consultant in his discipline to the Ministry of Health which is desperately facing a dearth of skilled and professional manpower. A risk other professional Sierra Leoneans are neither too passionate about, nor eager to take. Dr. Kabia’s return is in response to the president’s clarion appeal to all Sierra Leoneans, especially experts and technocrats with the necessary skills, irrespective of their political persuasions to return home as team players and help in rebuilding a nation battered by war and divisive and diabolic attitudes, and tainted with cancerous corruption. In fact, the minister is not a member of the ruling APC party. He belongs to a new political party – Peoples’ Movement for Democratic Change (PMDC), that had helped propel Koroma to the pinnacle of power in 2007. The positive things presently happening in Sierra Leone could drown this malaise of melancholy of a decade long war, whose ghost refuses to remain in the graveyard.

Dr. Kabia said that his ministry is intensifying aggressive crackdowns on international vessels violating the nation’s territorial waters. Recently, a French vessel flagged Tuna Purse Sterenn is the latest vessel to face sanctions under Sierra Leonean law on illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing. The FV Sterenn (IMO 9225548) failed to communicate its entry into the nation’s territorial waters and failed to provide the catch reports, resulting in the initial fine of $51,000. Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources also confiscated the entire catch of 320 tonnes of tuna, valued at $ 650,000. The tuna is made up of a mixture of yellow fin, skip-jack, and bigeye according to information provided by the Ministry. The minister told me that $ 1,530, 970 has been collected from illegal industrial vessels in fines and fees from last year alone, and the proceeds already paid into government’s coffers. Government secured a World Bank loan of $ 52 million to put in place the dynamics and structures for the West African Regional Project, from which SL gets $ 25 million as its share from the project. West African nations constituting the project are Senegal, Guinea, Mauritania Guinea Bissau, Sierra Leone and Gambia. Fishing contributes some 10-13% of SL’s Gross Domestic Product, and last year alone, brought in 13.7 billion Leones, the highest ever collected by the ministry.

The FV Sterenn was nabbed by a Sierra Leonean boarding team of the USS Simpson as part of a United States Navy African Maritime Law Enforcement Partnership (AMLEP) mission commissioned to SL. Illegal fishing costs the nation about $30 million yearly in lost revenue and rural economic activities that thwart the vulnerable West African fishermen, who depend primarily on fishing as a cheap source of protein in their diet, and their only source of livelihood. The arrest of the French vessel brings the count to eight IUU vessels identified by MFMR since November 2011. IUU fishing is on the decline due to the aggressive measures and current structures instituted in this slowly recovering nation.

“It is crucial that we protect our valuable marine resources for them to continue to be a source of livelihood, food security and revenue for government,” Dr. Kabia said.

On the arrest of a French fishing vessel in Freetown, he revealed that a fine of US$703, 970 was also levied because “the vessel failed to communicate its entry into the country, submit catch report and display the call sign."

Government is also pursuing four vessels for IUU activity—the Marcia 777, Kum Myeong 702, the Five Star and the Ocean 3 for subsequent offences after their initial fines. They are flagged to South Korea and fled Sierra Leone after being documented operating illegally by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF). Their flag state, South Korea, and their likely destination, Guinea, have both been contacted to make an arrest and return the vessels to Sierra Leone. Besides these enforcement measures, tightening the rules governing the use of Vessel Monitoring Systems by licensed vessels and reforming its fisheries observer program are in the works.

The Executive Director of Environmental Justice Foundation, Steve Trent, said : “This is a potentially transformative moment in fisheries enforcement in West Africa. We congratulate Sierra Leone on the series of arrests it has made and the subsequent reduction in IUU fishing in the country’s waters. We are also proud of the contribution that EJF’s local staff and a new surveillance vessel have made on the crackdown. This is just the first step, however. Vessels that have been caught in Sierra Leone are moving to neighboring countries to carry on their illegal activities. We need a regional response to this threat, with increased transparency across the global seafood market so that retailers and consumers can avoid pirate fish.”

Finally, the minister had firm and pointed words at the end of our conversation, stressing that business as usual is no longer tolerated in his ministry. The nation strives to instill a new mental attitude to change the direction and destiny of the nation, very thirsty and desperate for a new era of success and prosperity for all, especially the most disadvantaged and vulnerable.

“We are working to ensure that every fishing vessel within our waters operates in compliance with our laws. It is crucial that we protect our valuable marine resources that provide a source of livelihood, food security and government revenue. So grateful to the French government for their cooperation in carrying out the responsible duties of a flag state as we are reaching out to partners in the region and beyond to coordinate our efforts to arrest IUU fishing. We are sending a clear message to poachers and would-be poachers that illegal fishing is no longer tolerated in the maritime waters of Sierra Leone,” Dr. Kabia concluded.