Operation Sola Stella: Combatting Illegal Fishing in Liberia, West Africa

In February 2017, Sea Shepherd began a three-month campaign to patrol the waters of the Republic of Liberia in West Africa in an operation to tackle illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing in partnership with the Liberian Ministry of National Defense.

In 2010 Liberia adopted an inshore exclusion zone that reserves the six nautical miles closest to shore for subsistence, artisanal and semi-artisanal fishing, a sector which employs 33,000 Liberians. Although industrial trawling — which targets fish living close to the seabed such as shrimp, sole and other groundfish — is not allowed inside this inshore exclusion zone, Liberia’s resources to monitor, control, and surveil their coastline are stretched.

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Sea Shepherd was invited to Liberia by the Minister of National Defense, the Honorable Minister Brownie Samukai, to assist with the patrolling of Liberian waters and help crack down on IUU fishing. Sea Shepherd’s M/Y Bob Barker patrolled Liberia’s coastline as a civilian offshore patrol vessel, with 20 crew under the direction of Campaign Leader Captain Peter Hammarstedt, ten Liberian Coast Guard sailors with the authority to board, inspect and arrest ships violating Liberian law, and two Israeli maritime advisors and conservationists providing training assistance.

Sea Shepherd, Sola Stella Mission, Liberia
Sea Shepherd, Sola Stella Mission, Liberia

Operation Sola Stella resulted in the arrest of five illegal fishing vessels committing over 50 violations of Liberian laws and maritime regulations, including fishing without a license, operating without vessel documentation, fishing in restricted zones, systematic underdeclared catch, attempted bribery of a Liberian Coast Guard officer, and undocumented workers without passports living in unsanitary conditions. A shrimp trawler certified by the US Department of State to export “sustainably-caught” shrimp to the United States was caught without a valid fishing license and without using the legally-required Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs), and a refrigerated cargo vessel was arrested transmitting a false identity to the Liberian port authorities where it was planning to offload 460 tons of undocumented fish cargo.

In the last month of patrolling Liberian waters, Sea Shepherd did not come across any IUU fishing activity, indicating that law enforcement at-sea was having a deterrent effect. The arrest of five vessels, and the deterrence of further criminality, speaks to the success of Operation Sola Stella. The campaign concluded in May.

However, in the late summer of 2017, artisanal fishermen in the Liberian town of Harper, which borders the neighboring country of Cote d’Ivoire, reported that foreign industrial trawlers are returning to Liberian waters to poach fish.

Sea Shepherd therefore returned to Liberia in September 2017 with the M/Y Sam Simon to continue our commitment to work with national governments to help end IUU fishing in the one of the world’s most impoverished areas.

Since returning, they have arrested five vessels participating in illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing, for violations such as fish smuggling, tax and customs violations, fishing with an expired license, using illegal fish aggregation devices, attempted bribery, fishing without a license, using non-authorized fishing gear, and forging a Certificate of Nationality. Among the arrested vessels are the F/V Labiko II, which has been found on three international blacklists, and the F/V Hai Lung, an infamous fishing vessel that is blacklisted by several regional fisheries management organizations.

Also on the Labiko II, a shark liver oil production facility was discovered on board. Based on the amount of shark liver oil they were producing, it was determined that the Labiko II was conservatively killing up to half a million sharks per year.