“You’re in EJF’s relatively small patrol boat, off the coast of West Africa, there are no lifeguards to save you, there’s no RNLI, and there’s no support network; there’s nothing. Your next stop across the Atlantic Ocean is Venezuela.

“I have done a huge amount of field-based work for over 30 years now, from undercover investigations [to] field investigations. The last boat that I personally boarded was in Sierra Leone in 2012, at sea in the waters near the capital city and main port, Freetown. The boat was a Chinese trawler. One of several we suspected of engaging in on-going illegal fishing and which our team was monitoring. We approached the vessel at sea, in a very small, single-engine boat, joined by two armed members of the Sierra Leone Maritime Wing. It’s never easy to board a vessel at sea, even when [the waters are] calm there can be violent and sudden movements between the vessels. There is also the risk that the boat captain and crew will forcefully resist the boarding. On this occasion they did not and we hauled ourselves the six to eight feet from our boat on to the trawler.

“There were around 15 crew-members on this boat. As we have seen on many occasions with these vessels the boat was very poorly maintained, with dirty, cramped and miserable crew conditions. Language is often a barrier and [the crew] often has little interest in assisting. At sea, the captain is both in charge and responsible for the actions of the boat and crew and if they engage in illegal fishing or other illegal activities they are responsible. We examined the log, but we had doubts it had been correctly kept. [However], the catch had already been trans-shipped, off-loaded on to another boat. On this instance we did not get the evidence to initiate an action against the boat.”

The oceans campaign

Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) or ‘pirate’ fishing in the world’s oceans is increasing, as is the global awareness surrounding it and the subsequent plight for its eradication. At the forefront of this battle is the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF). Their aims include protecting marine life and fish stocks, allowing local communities to have access to their seas and food, and eradicating slavery on-board these pirate boats. It’s a multifaceted campaign, which, as Steve Trent–executive director of EJF–tells me is a challenge.

With the highest estimated levels of IUU fishing in the world, West African waters take much of EJF’s attention. Locally, EJF’s staff patrols the waters, documenting fishing boats and verifying with local authorities that each has a licence to fish, sometimes boarding the boats and making arrests where human rights or fishing violations are made. It’s a job that involves a deep understanding of the risks involved, Steve explains: “When you’re approaching the boats, especially in the more vulnerable areas of West Africa, like Sierra Leone, it’s very hard to know what you are going to find. [The fishermen] are acting illegally and are criminals already in effect and we know that they can be violent.” Patrols do background checks and sometimes have armed members of the law, be it navy or a fishery official, at hand to adhere to the security protocols, but ultimately it is down to each staff member to think, plan and litigate carefully.

On an international scale, reports are presented directly to West African governments and European Union officials to make them aware of the effect of their blind trading and their inadequate levels of coastal security. “We’re working with groups like Oceana [and] WWF and we want to eradicate IUU pirate fishing forever in all seas and oceans,” Steve enforces. “That’s our goal: [to] get rid of those illegal and unsustainable fishing vessels that all too often have horrible human rights abuses on boards and to make sure those fish products don’t come to Europe or North America and to squeeze them out of the market.”

Working alongside world-renowned chefs, such as Thomas Bühner and Tom Aikens, the importance of buying and eating seasonal and sustainably-sourced seafood is spreading. For Tom Aikens, “one of the key things is to only offer what is in season on your menu. If every restaurant sticks to this rule, it will already be a good step.”

The fact is it’s not only the restaurant industry that should join Steve Trent and the EJF team on their campaign; being every-day seafood consumers, everyone should stand at the frontline.

Fact box

  • Over three and a half billion people depend on the oceans for a primary food source, employment or income.
  • More than three quarters of the world’s fish stocks that have been measured are defined as fully exploited, over exploited or depleted due to over fishing.
  • Over 90 per cent of each of the world’s large ocean species—like cod, halibut and swordfish—have been lost since the 1950s.
  • 90 per cent of vessels documented in West Africa are bottom trawlers, which drag heavy trawl equipment along the seabed, damaging the bottom habitat and high levels of by-catch, including vulnerable marine life such as sharks and turtles.

Donate to EJF through the FOUR Foundation at