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FREETOWN/DAKAR (Reuters) - On a recent mission pursuing pirate fishermen off Sierra Leone's coast, the head of the Fisheries Protection Unit found himself adrift on the high seas with six crew after their rented motorboat ran out of fuel.
"We started rationing the food and water," Victor Kargbo said. With no long-range radios to seek help, they improvised a makeshift sail from a tarpaulin, but with only one day's supply of food and water remaining, they feared the worst.
"Even if we should die in the process, we knew we had served the country well," Kargbo said.
Their ordeal, which ended when a U.N. helicopter spotted the stranded boat after two days, underscores the huge challenge facing impoverished West African states seeking to defend their waters from illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.
West Africa, recognized as one of the world's richest fisheries grounds teeming with snapper, grouper, sardines, mackerel and shrimp, loses up to $1.5 billion worth of fish each year to vessels fishing in protected zones or without proper equipment or licenses.
Widespread corruption and a continuing lack of resources for enforcement mean huge foreign trawlers often venture into areas near the coast that are reserved exclusively for artisanal fishermen, allowing them to drag off tons of catch and putting at risk the livelihoods of millions of local people.
Experts say the annual plunder risks deepening instability in West Africa by driving communities that live off the sea toward crime, in the same way illegal fishing in Somalia in the 1990s encouraged locals there to turn to piracy, now a criminal enterprise that costs the world billions of dollars each year.
"Illegal fishing in West Africa is essentially out of control," said David Doulman, senior fisheries planning officer at the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
The acts of piracy, particularly in and around the Gulf of Guinea, have spread and become more violent, U.N. officials say, threatening shipping activity from a growing source of oil, metals and agricultural commodities for Western markets.
While there is no clear evidence that local fishermen there are behind recorded hijacks of ships and sea-borne raids on banks in coastal cities, there are fears their declining livelihoods could push them into such activity.
"It would be reasonable to be concerned," Doulman said.
A study by the U.K.-based Environmental Justice Foundation showed that many of the culprits of the illegal fishing off West Africa are Chinese, South Korean and European-flagged vessels.
EJF says fish native to West Africa have shown up in market stalls in London, some in boxes "carrying the logo of CNFC, a state-owned Chinese company that owns many of the IUU (illegal, unreported, and unregulated) vessels operating in Guinea."
The European Union says it is working on the problem. An EU official said it seeks to curb illegal fishing as well as the sale of illegally caught fish in EU markets through a system of certification and a blacklist for violators.
China's Ministry of Agriculture, which oversees the fishing industry, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In an ironic twist, Sierra Leone's Kargbo and his colleagues ended up being rescued by the same trawler suspected of illegal fishing that they had seized earlier in their troubled mission, the Marampa 803.
The 61-meter (200-foot) trawler, boarded by Kargbo's unit before the group raced off to intercept another suspect vessel, was one of several owned by local firm Sierra Fishing Company (SFC). Its management had been outsourced to a Canary Islands-registered company, Taerim Ltd, according to private equity firm ManoCap, which owns 40 percent of SFC.
"We took the decision to outsource management, and then didn't spend time looking at what the vessel was doing," ManoCap founder Tom Cairnes said, adding management of Marampa 803 would be changed.
A Sierra Leone patrol had spotted the ship twice in inshore waters reserved for artisanal fishermen before it was seized.
The illegal trawlers typically catch fish in off-limits waters near shore and 'launder' their catches by offloading far out at sea onto refrigerated vessels, sometimes European- or Chinese-owned, called "reefers".
Illicit fish catches off West Africa are part of a global problem straining world stocks. The United States and the European Union estimate illegal fishing yields as much as $23 billion worth of seafood worldwide annually.
But the ocean off West Africa presents a special case: it has the world's highest proportion of illegal catch at about 37 percent of the region's total, according to researchers, and as a result is at risk of collapse.
Lack of money to buy patrol boats, or even the fuel to run them, has crippled West African governments' efforts to crack down on the illegal fleets.
"At the end of the day we, the local fishermen, suffer a lot," said Philip Gabbidon, a 32-year-old from Sierra Leone's John Obey beach, where brightly painted canoes are drawn up on the sand and women stack freshly caught fish in wicker baskets.
Other forms of illegal fishing in the region include the use of a single license for multiple vessels or small-mesh nets - nets whose holes are smaller than regulations stipulate and which end up catching even the smallest fish.
Sometimes local fishermen become part of the illegal fishing enterprises. The interlopers employ them with their canoes to access the off-limits near-shore zones along the vast stretch of coast without triggering suspicion.
On the cliff-lined beach at Ouakam just outside Senegal's capital Dakar, Mamadou Seck rests among the wooden pirogues - canoes hand-built from local timbers - after months working for South Korean ships.
He said a typical sortie involves several large pirogues and their crews leaving from Senegal's northern port of St. Louis, being picked up by a South Korean-flagged trawler at sea, and then travelling thousands of km (miles) south to fishing grounds as far away as Gabon near the equator.
"In the mornings, we are lowered and in the evening we return to the ship and sell them our catch at a discount," he said, adding the pirogues often venture close to shore to catch grouper. "It is hard work, but it used to pay well. Now it is more difficult because the sea has fewer fish."
Like Sierra Leone, other regional countries like Liberia, Ivory Coast and Guinea are also losing the fight to what their officials call "pirate fishing". Guinea alone loses some $100 million per year in catches, according to the EJF.
In Ivory Coast, authorities have seized only four vessels found fishing illegally since 2007, even though local fishermen say run-ins with foreign ships are a near daily occurrence. Captured ships are typically held at port until their owners pay a fine to release them.
"When we go out, we see Chinese vessels and they take everything in their path," said local Ivorian fisherman Balima Hyacinthe, 29, who lives in a coastal village on the outskirts of the commercial capital Abidjan.
Ivory Coast, which is trying to recover from a 2011 civil war, is being deprived of some 55,116 tons of fish by illegal fishing every year, fisheries minister Kobenan Kouassi Adjoumanil told Reuters.
The country is in talks with a French aerospace firm, Thales SA, about using satellite technology to monitor its territorial waters, and is also seeking more high-speed patrol boats to intercept suspect vessels.
"A big problem is access to resources to patrol zones and to do the things you need to do," said the FAO's Doulman.
"There is also often very outdated fisheries legislation, so if you get caught in some countries you pay $100, and off you go. And thirdly, you have this endemic problem in the region, what we used to call 'unprofessional behavior', but which we now call corruption," he said.
When suspect vessels are intercepted by local patrol boats, their captains and crews often offer West African soldiers and fisheries officers bribes to look the other way, local officials and fishermen say.
"In general they pay money in cash and carry on," a military source in Guinea, who asked not to be named, said. He said the bribes offered are typically in the thousands of dollars.
Sierra Leone has faced a similar problem with graft.
"Certainly in the past there have been issues that have taken place that have indicated some corruption," said Soccoh Kabia, Sierra Leone's minister of fisheries. But he added the country was trying to toughen its stance on illegal fishing.
West Africa's fisheries sector accounts directly and indirectly for up to a quarter of the region's employment, according to the FAO. So any deterioration in the livelihoods of coastal communities from Mauritania down to South Africa could have a devastating impact on social conditions in countries already struggling to overcome poverty and unemployment.
West Africa is already a transshipment point for South American narcotics bound for Europe, with traffickers often employing local boats and fishermen to offload and stash their drug cargoes along the unpatrolled jigsaw of mangrove-lined creeks and islands that makes up much of the rugged coast.
"The problem is that when fishing becomes more difficult, people will look for easier ways to make money, maybe piracy, maybe drug trafficking," said Ibrahima Niamadio, West Africa Fisheries program manager at the World Wildlife Fund.
Additional reporting by Loucoumane Coulibaly in Abidjan, Alphonso Toweh in Monrovia, John Zodzi in Lome, Ed Stoddard in Hout Bay, South Africa, Kim Miyoung and Park Eunjee in Seoul and Judy Hua in Beijing; Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Sonya Hepinstall