Small Islands Voice Global Forum
Piracy in the South Atlantic Ocean
Fishermen and other community members on tiny Ascension Island, one of the most important marine turtle nesting sites in the Atlantic, have been fighting to keep away pirate high-seas fishermen. They are desperately trying to protect both their fishery resources and the giant green turtles, which swim 2,000 km from Brazil to lay their eggs.
At least two vessels, as yet unidentified, moved into the coastal waters of Ascension Island (a UK Overseas Territory) in February 2004 illegally deploying mile upon mile of long-lines with baited hooks aimed at a profitable tuna catch. They have been laying lines as close as 100 metres from the shoreline, in the heart of the second largest green turtle nesting colony in the Atlantic. Besides the devastating effect on wildlife, it is illegal to carry out such fishing within 200 nautical miles of the land, unless licensed. Licensed fishing is only allowed between the 12 and 200 nautical mile limit; these pirates are clearly operating illegally.
It is now the peak of the marine turtle nesting season with thousands of adult green turtles having arrived to mate and lay their eggs. Turtles have been entangled in the hooks and lines and have come up the beach to nest with hooks in their flesh. Local volunteers patrol the beaches to locate and assist affected animals.
Despite having no coastguard or marine protection force, local fishermen, conservationists and other community members took to the sea to remove the illegal gear.
Tara George, Conservation Officer for Ascension Island Government said ‘We could not believe it when we were informed by local fishermen that these vessels were actually fishing within a mile of the shore. A brief inspection of one of the lines confirmed our worst fears. In just one hundred metre stretch of the line, there were three turtles entangled; one of them appeared on the brink of exhaustion. We knew we had to take direct action.’
Under the supervision of local police and with the backup of a radio-linked network of lookouts from the Royal Air Force posted around the island, small vessels manned by local fishermen and other community members took to the sea to remove more than 10 miles of hooks and line, and releasing turtles, some of which had become severely entangled in long portions of lines. The pirate ships have maintained radio silence and have evaded identification. Although they have not deployed any more lines very close to land, they are undoubtedly still in the area stealing the resources.
Paul Davis of the South Atlantic Section, Overseas Territories Department, Foreign and Commonwealth Office said ‘Once we have details of the ship's name, port of registry and photograph, we shall pursue the matter with the flag nation. We recognise that illegal fishing is a growing problem in the South Atlantic and are in discussion with other government departments and non-governmental organizations about how to tackle it.’
Ascension Island has a growing economy in which eco-tourism and sport fishing are two important areas. Johnny Hobson, a member of Ascension Island Council, said ‘We are working towards a brighter, sustainable future on this beautiful island. Environmentally sensitive tourism is growing. We simply cannot stand around idly and allow these outside forces to come in and steal our resources. As seen by the events of the last week, the people of Ascension are prepared to act but we need the support of UK Government to deal with these pirates. We may be able to deal with them when they are up close, but once they are more than just a few miles offshore, they are able to act as they like.’
Adapted from Ascension Island Press Release, 8th February 2004
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