People & Power

Pirate Fishing

People and Power takes to the seas off Sierra Leone to investigate the multi-million dollar illegal fishing trade.

PART ONE: Watch as the People and Power team manage to catch two South Korean trawlers fishing illegally inside a coastal exclusion zone off the coast of Sierra Leone.



Watch as the People & Power team reveal the identity of one of the trawlers and confront the captain and crew with the evidence of their crimes.

Click here to try our interactive game investigating Sierra Leone’s illegal fishing trade. 

The precious marine resources of some of the world’s poorest people are being targeted by industrial-scale pirate fishing operations, to feed the seafood hungry markets of Europe and Asia.

The problem is particularly acute in West African waters where fish is a vital – and often the only – protein source for millions of people.  

In a special two-part investigation, People & Power set out in 2012, to identify and expose some of those involved in the multi-million dollar trade and to look in particular at its consequences for the impoverished West African nation of Sierra Leone. More than two years later, in 2014, the problems are still the same, and now Al Jazeera is re-airing the investigations.

In part one of Pirate Fishing , reporter Juliana Ruhfus and producer Orlando von Einsiedel take to the seas off Sierra Leone with an NGO, the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), which has been trying to raise awareness about the issue.

The location of two vessels observed by People & Power within the Inshore Exclusion Zone on October 22, 2011

In a dramatic opening sequence they manage to catch two South Korean trawlers in the act of fishing illegally inside a coastal exclusion zone. But contrary to international maritime regulations, the trawlers have covered up ship-board markings making it impossible to determine their names and ports of origin. The vessels refuse all their requests to stop and eventually make good their escape.

What follows is a remarkable piece of forensic journalism as the Al Jazeera team strives to track down and identify the vessels. Along the way they investigate disturbing allegations that the trade is flourishing because of rampant local corruption, in which officials are paid to turn a blind eye to the activities of foreign trawlers. With their time in Sierra Leone fast running out and the authorities seemingly reluctant to help, it looks as though the two vessels might evade justice.

But then the team gets a vital clue that cracks the mystery wide open.

In part two of Pirate Fishing , the identity of one of the trawlers is revealed and in a nail biting climax, the captain and crew are confronted with the evidence of their crimes.  

Taken together the two films are akin to a dramatic detective story, but the issue they address is deadly serious. 

Sierra Leone is one of the poorest countries in the world – currently ranked 180th out of 187 countries on the Human Development Index.

After coming out of a brutal civil war that lasted 11 years, the country has struggled to rebuild its devastated infrastructure. Its waters contain some of the richest fish stocks in the world and could, if sustainably developed and managed, one day provide the country with much-needed income.

Even as things stand, fishing currently represents 10 percent of Sierra Leone’s GDP and is a crucial component in its food security (contributing 64 percent of the total animal protein eaten in the country). But the pirate fishing activities of foreign trawlers are stripping these fishing grounds so quickly that unless the practice is stopped there will soon be nothing left to develop. And most important of all, local people will be deprived of a crucial food source – just to satisfy the appetites of seafood lovers in Europe and Asia.


By producer/director Orlando von Einsiedel

Right from the start of this project, our ambition was always to do more than just show that pirate fishing was taking place in West African waters. We wanted to see justice being done, to witness and film an illegally operating trawler being apprehended by the authorities at sea. But as a quick glance at a map will show, that was going to be easier to wish for than to achieve. Our chosen location, Sierra Leone, had many hundreds of miles of coastline – a huge area for us to cover – yet only a handful of small boats in private hands with the range and speed to do the job effectively. We also realised, early into the shoot, that our presence was not universally welcomed and that there were plenty of people with an interest in allowing pirate fishing to continue unhindered.

Fortunately the NGO we were working with, the Environmental Justice Foundation , gave us access to their small but fast new patrol boat. With a ministry of fisheries representative, Victor Kargbo, on board (he had the authority to stop and board an illegal vessel if we found one), we were all set to go.

As viewers of part one of our film will have seen, we got lucky. On our first day out at sea we received a tip off about two trawlers fishing illegally within the Inshore Exclusion Zone a few miles away. When we actually came across them, one of the things that really struck me was just how brazen they were. I could not believe how little respect they had for the rule of law or for the livelihoods of the local fishing communities they were destroying. They had deliberately covered over their shipboard markings (name, number and port of origin) to make identifying them very difficult and they ignored all of Kargbo’s radio attempts to get them to stop. In fact, the crew members we could see on board just laughed at him. Their disdain was obvious and they clearly felt confident that they would get away with it. Such a level of ambivalence towards a country’s laws only comes about when you are certain that there will be no consequences.

But of course, in the concluding episode, you will see exactly how mistaken that belief was. Through good solid detective work we were able to identify one of the vessels and take the evidence to the authorities. What followed … well, you will just have to watch and see.

On a professional level this was a very intense shoot. The only time we stopped moving was to sleep. When filming an investigation like this you always feel there is one more interview you could be filming or one more lead you should follow, so you only ever stop when you are completely exhausted. And filming at sea in a small boat has its particular challenges – we got caught in a huge storm on one occasion – and everything gets very wet, but our cameras (a Sony EX1 for the more action led sequences and then a Canon 7D HDSRL for the prettier shots) stood up well. They even survived climbing in and out of a deep freeze in the depths of one trawler we boarded, which, I have to say, at one point was more than I thought we would.

Ultimately, this is a project I am very proud to have worked on. From a personal point of view I hope that the films will assist in moving the issue forward in Sierra Leone and internationally and that they will help to highlight to consumers in Europe and Asia the fact that the fish they are eating could be unethically sourced. I also hope that in a small way, the story of how a few very brave and determined Sierra Leoneans are prepared to take risks to help better their country, will inspire others to follow suit. It certainly inspired me.


Ocean 3: Following the end of filming, the Ocean 3 was fined $90,000 for breaking four Sierra Leonean fishing laws. In addition, it was charged the local value of its catch, a further $65,000. The vessel’s owners struggled to pay the fine, eventually handing over only $125,129. The vessel was released from port to undertake further fishing in order to pay the rest of the fine. Its current location is unclear.

More Investigations by Juliana Ruhfus

The Nigerian Connection  
Exposing the plight of African women caught up in a web of organised crime, prostitution and human trafficking.

The Brazil’s River of Mud  
We investigate the events leading up to the Fundao dam disaster. Is enough being done to avoid future recurrences?

Sri Lanka: War Crimes  
Is the establishment of truth key to reconciliation in Sri Lanka?

Haiti: Seismic Election  
Revisiting Haiti ten months after the devastating earthquake

Crude amnesty  
A look at the conflict between militants and the Nigerian military in the Niger Delta

Marampa: The second vessel viewed by Al Jazeera and Victor Kargbo was documented fishing illegally by EJF again on January 8, 2012. The following week, the vessel was finally firmly identified as the Marampa 803 using photographs belatedly provided by the vessel’s agent, the Sierra Fishing Company. It was arrested on the night of January 18, 2012 and now faces multiple charges. The complicity of Sierra Fishing Company, which is part-owned by a donor-funded ethical venture capitalist company, is currently under investigation.

Five Star: The Five Star – the vessel photographed by Juliana Rufus in Freetown harbour and found not to be one of the trawlers viewed by Al Jazeera on October 22, 2011 near Bonthe – has been repeatedly accused of fishing within the Inshore Exclusion Zone by fishermen in the Bonthe area. Fishermen in Liberia also allege that it fished without a license in that country’s Inshore Exclusion Zone several times in November and December 2011. The vessel is also under investigation by EJF for transhipping illegally on the night of January 18, 2012.Kum Myeong 2: On December 9, 2011 the Kum Myeong 2 was documented by the EJF boat fishing illegally at the entrance of the Sherbro River. The government of Sierra Leone reacted swiftly to EJF’s evidence and called the vessel to port. Instead of coming into Freetown to be fined, however, the vessel fled Sierra Leonean waters. It is believed to now be on the run in Guinea.

 Victor Kargbo: Victor continues to investigate pirate fishing vessels breaking Sierra Leonean law. On the night of January 18, 2012, Victor travelled with colleagues from the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources and the Sierra Leonean navy in a chartered vessel to arrest the Marampa 803 over 70 miles from the coast. Victor and his colleagues next attempted to arrest a refrigerated cargo vessel that the Marampa was believed to have been planning to transfer its catch to. Victor’s vessel ran into difficulty, however, and was lost at sea, out of contact for 36 hours, before being spotted by a UN helicopter scrambled in a massive search and rescue effort.
Vessel monitoring systems: The Minister of Fisheries and Marine Resources has ordered a significant tightening of controls on fishing vessels operating in Sierra Leone. Vessels are now liable for sanctions if they turn their vessel monitoring systems off for longer than one hour instead of the previous 72 hours. In addition, Sierra Leone’s cabinet is currently considering a draft Fisheries Act that will increase fines on vessels operating illegally and strengthen the role of fisheries observers on board vessels. Under the act, fishing vessels that hide their markings will face much stiffer penalties.
The navy and Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources (MFMR) recently undertook a joint fisheries patrol on board the EJF boat. The team travelled to Sulima, a hard to reach area near the Liberian border with high levels of illegal fishing activity. This area is now reachable in the EJF boat and illegal trawler incursions are reported to have declined since the team’s visit.


  • Click here  to find out more about the work of the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF).
  • Do you know this ship?  Click here  for a list of all the vessels that have been blacklisted by any of the eight Regional Management Organisations that currently operate lists of vessels that have been involved in illegal fishing. The list is published in cooperation with Stop Illegal Fishing, a working group of the NEPAD Agency’s  Partnership for African Fisheries Programme . The NEPAD is the implementing arm of the African Union. The list is continuously updated as the vessels change name, flag and/or call sign. Where they are available, pictures of the vessels are also included.