“Every day is a fishing day, not every day is a catch day.” We are in Kent, a small fishing village an hour outside Freetown, Sierra Leone. Ibrahim was repairing his net when we asked him how much fish he had caught this week. He pointed out to sea to a large boat: there have been more and more foreign industrial trawlers, fishing closer and closer to shore, directly competing for catch with artisanal fishermen. “Five years ago, I could easily bring back three dozen fish per day. Now it’s lucky if I bring back one dozen.”
But this might change soon for Ibrahim and the 40,000 fishermen along Sierra Leone’s coast. The newly elected president, Julius Maada Bio, has made it clear that fisheries are a priority. At the state opening of parliament in May 2018, he said, “The overall policy objective of my New Direction administration is to create a profitable fisheries sector that contributes significantly to socio-economic development through sustainable management and utilisation of our fisheries resources, while also conserving the environment.”
The Ministry of Marine Resources, with a new minister, Emma Kowa Jalloh, and deputy minister, has already begun to put in place measures to meet this objective. On World Oceans Day, they suspended licences for four trawlers that they could prove were operating illegally in Sierra Leone’s waters. Each of these trawlers can catch the equivalent of 667 local canoes: suspending them can mean improved livelihoods for 11,700 Sierra Leoneans catching and processing fish. The ministry is also working on an improved system for licences that will reduce the fishing effort while ensuring the same revenue to government.
These efforts could be crucial. Experts fear that if nothing is done to reduce fishing effort, fish stock depletion could get to a point of no return by next year. This would threaten 80 per cent of protein intake for Sierra Leoneans, and the livelihoods of half a million people who catch, process or trade fish. If the sector is sustainably managed, fish has the potential to become Sierra Leone’s second export after minerals. Fifty thousand more jobs could be created in the next five years.
On Tony Blair’s recent trip to the country, he visited Tombo, the main fishing town of the Western Peninsula, with Minister Emma Kowa Jalloh. They discussed not only the challenges faced by the sector and the immense needs but also the great potential it presents for the population. The Institute will support the government to transform the industry, so that it can increase jobs and prosperity. The World Bank is also planning large investments in Tombo and other areas to create landing and processing facilities, while new data systems are being put in place to better manage industrial fisheries.
This could be the beginning of a new era for fishing in Sierra Leone. And rather than relying on luck, Ibrahim may soon be leading a fleet of local canoes, landing fish to a new processing facility exporting high-quality product to the region and the world.