Liberia’s fishery authority colluding sea cucumber fishery from the locals

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The local people of Kligbay in Yarnee district know they have what they call maggots in the sea, but they have no idea what their economic values are. Until the beginning of 2020 when, they observed the presence of Sierra Leonean divers amongst them and when their leaders asked about their mission, the divers would tell them [local leaders] that they were in search of something called maggots.

Like the inhabitants of Yarnee district in Rockcess Chiefdom, particularly the town of Henryville or Kligbay as it is commonly called, the sea cucumber is a new word because almost everyone in Liberia did not have an idea about its benefits and worth until now. Sea cucumbers are marine creatures with a leathery skin and an elongated body containing a single, branched gonad. Sea cucumbers are found on the seafloor worldwide and there are about 1,717 different species with the greatest number being in the Asia Pacific region.

But here is the good news, sea cucumbers serve a useful purpose in the marine ecosystem as they help recycle nutrients, break down detritus and other organic matter after which bacteria can continue the degradation process; even though they may not look it, just a kilo of those marine creatures may cost you over 3,000 US dollars.

Seeking for more answers about sea cucumber harvesting and some of the possible harms that might pose to the future of a portion of the country’s marine ecosystem if care is not taken, we set out on this investigation.

A Liberian biodiversity expert, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons, said sea cucumbers have many roles to play in the marine environment, just like inland biodiversity that plays many different ecological roles and functions.

“They are there to keep balance between ecological functions and also making sure that the environment is safe; they also attract the kind of fish species that we have,” he said.

One of the many concerns of the people of Kligbay was that they were afraid that by taking out the sea cucumbers from the ocean, the divers could also drive away the regular fishes that they rely on for food and economic activities.

He continued: “So if you’re talking about fish stock in a particular area, some fish species will exist because of the sea cucumbers and if you’re not mindful they will be lost in the fisheries in time to come.”

According to this expert, what is the essence of the harvesting of sea cucumbers if the country and people do not benefit financially and ecologically?

“If a particular species exists somewhere, they’re in association with one another; the cucumbers can attract other fish species and other marine life and so if you take it away from there it means that you’re driving away biodiversity from that particular area.”

He averred that already Liberia doesn’t know what it has in terms of the ocean’s stock, including the different layers of the ocean: “we have not been able to dive down there and study to see what we have; when you talk about oceanography in Liberia, we don’t have it…even one picture of our seabed we do not have for archival purposes.”

Oceanography and fishery are not common; or taught in higher institutions of learning in Liberia, but information available indicates that the University of Liberia and the National Fishery and Aquaculture Authority (NaFAA) are working on a fisheries curriculum.

Rivercess county is located in the southern central region of Liberia.

Alphanso Bah, Paramount Chief of Rockcess Chiefdom says he arrested the last group of Sierra Leonean divers because they were operating illegally in his chiefdom.

Paramount chief, Rockcess Chiefdom

“They did not tell anybody when they started the operation; they can go under the water, sea, they take some maggots and when they come ashore they will cook it and put it under the sun. This is what they were doing until I heard the news,” explained the Paramount Chief.

He also stated that the divers made it clear to him that they were going to be back in the next dry season because right now, the water tides have risen due to the rain regardless of the arrests.

The Chief of Henryville who happens to be a subordinate to the Paramount Chief of Rockcess Chiefdom, Vero Jackson Payley, explained that when the divers first came and told her leadership that they were in search of something that looked like maggots, her only question to them was what will the town people benefit in return? Chief Vero however revealed that the divers then gave them [the town people] 60,000 Liberian dollars which is about or close to 400.00 US dollars plus another 20,000 Liberian dollars and that has been their social contract so far.

According to her, the divers’ last time in the township was their third visit and they’ve been aware of their operation since the beginning of 2020. When asked about where they sleep when they come, she disclosed that the local people made space in their houses for the divers initially.

She, however, expressed dismay that the divers haven’t been doing anything tangible to benefit the town when departing. She named some of those tangible things as hand pumps (Is this potable water?) and so on.

“We tell them say when you come, you suppose to do something for the town but those things you can give it can’t do anything for us; we want you to build good house for us; all our three handpumps in this town spoil and we want to fix it too,” she said.

Local fisherman and canoe carver, Emmanuel Payley, says they normally see the Sierra Leonean divers during the dry season, and he thinks it is so because they are being taxed by the Liberian government through NaFAA which enables them to operate freely.

“They tax them a certain amount and when the people pay the money they operate freely and go back to their home country at the end of the season,” he said.

To understand further the reason why these Sierra Leonean divers are freely operating in that coastal part of Liberia, we contacted Lucinda Rouse, a freelance journalist currently in Liberia who was the first to report on the sea cucumbers for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in March 2021. Lucinda recommended we also get in touch with Tom Collison, who tells us that he worked closely with NaFAA, Conservation International (CI) and other partners to co-design a national management plan in collaboration with sea cucumber divers/fishermen in Sass Town, Grandkru and Kligbay, Rivercess county from October 2020 to May 2021.

Drying cucumbers

Tom Collison is a graduate student researcher at the University of California, Santa Cruz, USA. According to him, the management plan is intended to ensure that the fishery is both sustainable and profitable and that the benefits of the fishery are shared equally with local communities and stakeholders.

Collison, who is working with the NafAA and partners to craft the plan, stated that it is best practice around the world for authorities and researchers to work together with fishermen to study a particular marine species especially if there is not much resources to outsource the research.

We’ve however gathered from Tom that NafAA charges 1,500 US dollars as license fee yearly to sea cucumbers divers to operate in these coastal parts of Liberia, even though Liberia’s fisheries authority refused to speak on the issue.

After several failed attempts to get NaFAA to speak on the issue, fortunately, Collison connected our reporter through email to the Director of Policy, Planning and Investment at NaFAA, Alexander Dunbar. Mr. Dunbar asked which institution the story was for and indicated that he and his team were called at the Legislature a few days before our interaction concerning the sea cucumber project.

“They want to shut down the programme because of sustainability problems,” explained Dunbar.

Meanwhile, when contacted about Dunbar’s claims, the office of the Speaker through his Political Affairs Officer, George Watkins, said that there was no ongoing discussion at the legislature of banning  the harvesting of sea cucumbers.

“Even if Liberia should decide to derive a policy on a ban on harvesting sea cucumbers, that decision squarely rests with the Executive branch of government,” Watkins said.

Report by Alline Dunbar (Liberia)

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