Detained trawlers abscond from Sierra LeoneThree trawlers held pending payment of fines have disappeared from Sierra Leone’s Freetown port. Photo: EJF

Sierra Leone has alerted other states in the region after three trawlers escaped detention in Freetown port. They were being held pending payment of fines. However, on 27th July all three escaped sailed without paying. The authorities say they are unaware of their location and have appealed to neighbouring states to help locate and return the vessels.

A regional search has been launched to locate the fugitive vessels and return them to Sierra Leone to face justice. Jian Mei 1, Jian Mei 4 and Hong Chang 1 had been documented by local fishermen apparently operating in inshore waters where trawling is banned, and the three trawlers were sanctioned for violating national laws and regulations.

Sierra Leone’s Minister of Fisheries and Marine Resources Emma Kowa-Jalloh announced that the three vessels had absconded, commenting that the three “were under arrest for infringing the laws and regulations of Sierra Leone [and] have left the country on the 27th July 2020 illegally without fulfilling the relevant sanctions levied on them.”

The nationality of the vessel owners has not been verified, though China Dialogue Ocean estimates that 75% of trawlers operating in Sierra Leone are connected to China.

The role of Chinese vessels in West Africa has been under increasing scrutiny in recent months, with Chinese fishing operators making controversial efforts to fish in Senegal, Ghana and Liberia, in the face of opposition from local fishing associations.

Illegal fishing is a serious issue in western Africa waters. In Sierra Leone, fisheries provide 9% of the economy, providing tens of thousands of jobs and the country’s main source of animal protein.

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