Chinese trawlers snapped fishing in Djibouti’s protected waters

Trawlers from the Fu Yuan Yu fleet, as photographed by our Observers in Djibouti.
Trawlers from the Fu Yuan Yu fleet, as photographed by our Observers in Djibouti.

Six trawlers flying the Chinese flag were spotted off the coast of Djibouti in the past few weeks, flouting a ban and fishing in a protected coastal area near the town of Obock. Local fishermen, residents and activists immediately began protesting against the plundering of their resources… and, against all odds, they succeeded!

Hamid, a Djiboutian student and activist currently studying abroad, contacted the FRANCE 24 Observers team about a case of illegal fishing off the shores of Djibouti. Fishermen on the Fu Yuan Yu 98 86, a trawler flying a Chinese flag, were shamelessly casting their nets and raking the bottom of the Red Sea, less than five kilometres off the coast. They were seen carrying out the destructive practice of deep-sea trawling near the villages of Godoria and Khor Angar, between April 24 and May 3, 2017.

On April 27, our Observer, Houssein Mohamed Houmed Ganito, hopped into a small boat with four local fisherman and was able to get close enough to film the fisherman pulling in nets full of fish.

"Look at what the Chinese trawlers did on our sea (...) Watch until the end of the video so that the entire nation can bear witness to the voluntary destruction of our coral and algae,” wrote Houssein in the caption of the video that he posted on Facebook on May 3, 2017.

In the small town of Obock, more than 60 people make a living from fishing. As soon as they heard about the activities of the six Chinese trawlers, the population swung into action to stop this illegal commercial fishing in their coastal waters.

Clearly in illegal waters

The boat’s prow, where the name of the trawler is written. Photo published on Facebook on April 28, 2017.

The FRANCE 24 Observers team tracked the Fu Yuan Yu 98 86 using the website Marine Traffic. The trawler fished in a protected marine zone between the villages of Godoria and Khor Angar, where fragile, precious corals are located. According to calculations done by the Observers team, the boat covered about 160 square kilometres in this zone. In the protected area, which was established in 2004, only artisanal fishing is authorised. Trawlers are actually banned from all of Djibouti’s territorial waters.

Screengrab of the path taken by the Fu Yuan Yu 9886 trawler between April 24 and May 3, 2017, reproduced by the website Marine Traffic.

"They were throwing the smaller fish overboard”

Our Observer, Houssein Mohamed Houmed Ganito, is a founding member of the Association for the Future and Development of Obock (AADO). He’s the one who sounded the alarm about these Chinese trawlers on social media.

On the evening of April 26, I went to go and see these trawlers. We saw four boats with our very own eyes near Godoria, about two kilometres from the coast, and we were told that there were two others close to the Seven Brothers Islands.

“They are destroying our marine ecosystem. Tonight, we are five adventurers, taking a dhow to brave the cold and the choppy waters of the Red Sea to chase down these predatory Chinese trawlers. We are five adventurers are committed to defending our coasts, our fishing resources,” wrote our Observer in this Facebook post published on April 27, 2017.

The boats use projectors to attract the fish, so we could see what was happening on the deck. There were about a dozen shirtless Chinese workers on board, who were pulling up large nets. They were throwing the small fish back into the water and loading the big ones into a large freezer. Considering the time of year, my guess is that they were fishing mackerels and barracudas.

Everyone rallied round

That night, we returned to Godoria. I went back to Obock to post the videos that I had filmed. My comrades went back out to sea the next day to take more photos and videos.

On that day, the president of the fishing cooperative in Obock organised a protest and, that same night, the coast guard chased away these trawlers.

They wanted to calm things down because there was an usually strong call to arms amongst the population.

"We only have the sea to provide our livelihoods and to support our families. We want these boats to leave!” said one fisherman in Afar, the local language, in this video filmed by our Observer.

“Don’t cut off our means of subsistence!” shouts a woman towards the end of the video. .

It’s definitely a victory, but only a semi-victory. The boats will remain in Djibouti. They’ll wait for popular pressure to subside and then they’ll continue their fishing activities. But we aren’t going to give up.

"The sea is our only wealth”

Coral reefs are badly damaged by deep-sea trawling, and are one of the country's top tourist draws. Ahmed Mogola, an administrator at the Ministry of Energy, a resident of Obock and a member of the AADO association, is extremely worried about his country’s future.

It’s such a waste — even protected species like sea turtles and sharks, which you are not allowed to hunt, are not spared by the practice of deep-sea trawling.

These trawlers use ropes to move the coral. This causes the fish who live in the reefs to come out. These ecosystems are extremely fragile and this technique can literally cause their collapse. And who knows if these trawlers are also stealing coral?

Djibouti is not self-sufficient and is dependent on imports of food products

Climate change will exacerbate these problems in the years to come. Coral bleaching is a serious issue. The overexploitation of natural resources, which are already limited, and population growth are putting pressure on the limited resources that we have. Currently, Djibouti is dependent on imports of food and agricultural products.

Djibouti’s endemic problem is that the current laws about protecting the environment aren’t actually enforced. We need to force people to respect these laws to protect our fishing resources, our only national wealth.

A global problem especially affecting Africa

The photos and videos taken by our Observer, Houssein, are just one example of a global problem. The African continent as a whole is most affected by illegal fishing. In West Africa, the situation is the most critical in the world: an estimated 40% of fish are harvested illegally, according to the World Ocean Review. Chinese trawlers are largely responsible for this illegal fishing and, in recent years, they have increased in number. The NGO Greenpeace counted 462 illegal fishing vessels flying the Chinese flag in 2013, versus just 13 in 1985.

The Fu Yuan Yu fleet is stationed at the entrance of Djibouti’s port. Some of these boats go out on fishing expeditions periodically. The boat numbered 98 87 seems to serve as the headquarters for the fleet. This photo was taken on April 12, 2017, by Mahdi Ahmed, the director of publication for Human Village, a Djiboutian news source.

Chinese companies behind illegal fishing

The name of the boat that was photographed and filmed in Djibouti is actually already associated with illegal, unreported or unregulated fishing (IUU). In January 2016, the NGO Sea Shepherd, which is dedicated to protecting marine life, documented the presence of six trawlers bearing the name Fu Yuan Yu in the southern Indian Ocean. They were using drift nets of more than five kilometres long, which have been banned by a UN moratorium since 1992.

Captain Siddharth Chakravarty and his team documented the activities of these boats, which belong to a Chinese company, the Dong Xing Long Ocean Fishing Company.

Similar inscriptions were painted on the backs of all of boats, indicating that they were all registered in Fu Zhou, the capital of Fujian province. The photo on the right was taken by Mahdi Ahmed. On the left, you can see a screengrab of a video taken by the members of the Sea Shepherd project, Operation Driftnet, led by Captain Siddharth Chakravarty.

Deep-sea trawling: a hugely destructive technique.

The nets used by the Chinese trawler. This photo was published on Facebook by our Observer on April 28, 2017.

After looking at the images taken by our Observers, Chakravarty confirmed that these trawlers,which are forbidden in Djibouti, practise deep-sea trawling, a particularly destructive technique. He explained that the panels on the side of the boats (which can be seen in the video) are used to keep the nets open.

This screengrab of a video produced by the NGO Greenpeace explains how deep-sea trawling works. “Deep-sea trawling involves using enormous nets weighted with heavy metal plates, which are dragged along the seabed, leaving behind a path of devastation in their wake as well as a trail of disturbed water,”explained Greenpeace.

The FRANCE 24 newsroom asked for an explanation from Ahmed Darar Djibril, the director of fishing associated with the Djiboutian Ministry of Agriculture and Fish by telephone. He refused to comment on the situation. The port of Djibouti did not respond to numerous calls.