Can an app help Liberian artisanal fishers fight illegal fishing?

Can an app help Liberian artisanal fishers fight illegal fishing?
  • Small-scale fishers in Liberia are using a data collection platform to document cases of illegal activity at sea.
  • Artisanal fishers have long borne the brunt of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, some of it occurring within an inshore exclusion zone that extends 6 nautical miles from shore.
  • Through the use of a mobile app called DASE, released by the NGO Environmental Justice Foundation, local fishers can geotag images and videos of incidents at sea and submit them to the National Fisheries and Aquaculture Authority for verification and possible investigation.
  • Though the app has not resulted in any prosecutions yet, fishers say it is having a deterrent effect on illegal activities.

ROBERTSPORT and MARSHALL, Liberia — On a mild Friday afternoon, Emmanuel Appleton beamed with smiles as he defied the waves of the Atlantic Ocean and landed his canoe on the beach in Robertsport, a fishing town about 90 kilometers (56 miles) northwest of Monrovia. Although Emmanuel’s day at sea wasn’t so good due to low catch, he seemed satisfied.

In his left hand was a smartphone wrapped in a plastic case to protect it from water. “I have been a fisherman here in Robertsport since the early ‘90s and we always had problems of big vessels destroying our nets by dredging it along with theirs,” he said. Appleton was referring to trawlers, many of them foreign, that drag their nets along the bottom while fishing, churning up the seabed habitat and anything else in in their path.

He said he had taken a geotagged photograph of a trawler he’d spotted fishing within the inshore exclusion zone (IEZ) reserved for artisanal fishers, and uploaded it to a data-collection platform where fishers can document and report cases of illegal activities at sea. “I had the phone close to my chest so no one suspects me and to get a shot of the vessel identification number,” Appleton said.

Liberia’s IEZ extends 6 nautical miles from shore, except for shrimpers, which can fish beyond 4 nautical miles from shore. But it turned out the trawler Appleton spotted was operating in a legal area, according to Cephas Asare, West Africa regional manager with the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), the British NGO operating the platform in Liberia, Ghana and Senegal. “We realized the vessel was just outside the 6-nautical-miles zone,” Asare said. “We could not follow up on it because that is a case of fishing within your jurisdiction.”

Emmanuel Appleton
Emmanuel Appleton, a fisher in Robertsport, Liberia, who has used the DASE app. Image by Edward Blamo for Mongabay.

Fish consumption in Liberia is huge; it accounts for approximately 15% of the animal protein supply and about 80% of Liberia’s population depends on it for essential protein. According to EJF’s website, some 33,000 people are employed in small-scale fisheries, which account for up to 10% of the country’s gross domestic product.

Yet for decades now, local fishers like Appleton have borne the brunt of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU) activities due largely to a lack of adequate enforcement of fishing regulations and insufficient maritime patrol capacity to monitor Liberia’s 580 km (360 mi) of coastline. A patrol operation conducted by the NGO Sea Shepherd and the Liberia National Coast Guard has arrested about 20 vessels for illegal activities since 2017, a number of them for operating inside the IEZ, according to the NGO’s website.

Established in 2010 to protect the livelihoods of small-scale fishers as well as the marine ecosystem, the 6-nautical-mile IEZ came under threat in 2017 from a government proposal to reduce it by half. The proposal was contested by fisher folk, who feared a diminished IEZ would put them and the country’s fish stocks at the mercy of the trawlers, and the government has since dropped it, Jerry Blamo (no relation to the author), president of the Liberia Artisanal Fishermen Association, told Mongabay.

EJF maintains when trawlers are left to fish in the inshore exclusion zone, small-scale fishers are disadvantaged. “Trawlers fishing illegally in Liberia’s waters are able to catch vast amounts of seafood, impoverishing local communities and destroying marine ecosystems,” a press release on the organization’s website states.

“Over the past months, fish has been scarce,” Victoria Wesseh, a fishmonger in Marshall, a fishing community about 30 km (19 mi) from Robertsport toward Monrovia, told Mongabay. “We are not seeing the amount of fish we used to see in the past. Everything is changing.”

Fishmonger Victoria Wesseh.
Fishmonger Victoria Wesseh in Marshall, Liberia, says fish stocks are declining. Image by Edward Blamo for Mongabay.

‘DASE’ means ‘evidence’

EJF first piloted the mobile app, called DASE, in Ghana in 2019, and then rolled it out in Liberia the next year and in Senegal in 2022. The name is derived from the word for “evidence” in the Fanti dialect spoken in parts of Ghana.

In Liberia, the app is allowing fishers in the four major fishing hubs, Robertsport, Marshall, Buchanan and Grand Cess, to take geotagged images and videos of incidents at sea and submit them to a system managed by the National Fisheries and Aquaculture Authority (NAFAA), the agency responsible for supervising fishing activities. NAFAA verifies the reports and determines whether to pursue an investigation. The platform is monitored by the Liberia Maritime Authority, the Liberia National Coast Guard, and EJF for tracking and follow-up purposes.

Ahmed Sherif, NAFAA’s director for marine fisheries, did not respond to Mongabay’s phone and email queries requesting comment for this story, and Lewis Konoe, NAFAA’s director of communication declined to respond, referring Mongabay to EJF.

Fishermen in Marshall, Liberia, prepare nets
Fishermen in Marshall, Liberia, prepare nets for fishing. Image by Edward Blamo for Mongabay.

App used to resolve disputes at sea

Jack Nyenneh heads Marshall’s community management body, a group that monitors local fishers’ activities. He said he and his fellow fishers have been using DASE to resolve conflicts and infractions among themselves.

“We are using the app to gather evidence against some of our fisherfolks who are involved with bad activities at sea,” Nyenneh said. “Incidences like the illegal harvest of nets, chopping off a colleague’s net in a case of entanglement are not frequent among us like [they were] before.”

Fishers are using DASE to document other illegal activities, too, even on land. For instance, people are using the app to record incidences of people cutting the mangroves and attempting to construct homes in the swamps, Matthias G. Weah, a fisher in Marshall, told Mongabay. This kind of evidence gathered on the app is not reported to NAFAA but used by community leaders to probe the incidents.

Fishers in Liberia have been submitting reports through DASE since its introduction, but so far there has not been a clear case of trawlers fishing within areas reserved for small-scale fishers, according to Asare.

“The reports we are getting are saying something else,” Asare said, adding that most are coming from outside the IEZ, possibly because fishers are not educated enough about the IEZ’s boundaries.

“It is either fishermen are fishing beyond the IEZ because they could paddle there or that they are not getting catches within the IEZ so they have to go further,” Asare said.

Fishmonger Victoria Wesseh sorts the catch. Image by Edward Blamo for Mongabay.

So far there have been no prosecutions in Ghana, Senegal or Liberia. Even so, Asare said the app is still supporting efforts to control IUU fishing in Liberia. It’s not only helping to solve the challenge of logistics, which has hamstrung the patrol capabilities of the Liberian coast guard, but it is also providing an opportunity for communities, through the local fishers, to join in the fight against IUU fishing.

For fisher Eddie Cole, the app is already recording success. He reported a trawler for destroying his nets a few months ago and although there has been no prosecution, it hasn’t happened again, which he attributes to a deterrent effect of the app.

“The trawlers are stubborn,” Cole told Mongabay. “We need to join in the fight to protect our territorial waters because these trawlers have come to destroy us.”

“My fishing gears have been damaged, and whenever they dredge at a particular place you cannot fish there and expect to get a catch,” he added. “And because of that, fish has become scarce for us.”

Banner image: Fishers in Marshall, Liberia, trade their catch. Image by Edward Blamo for Mongabay. 

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