Out on the high seas near the coast of West Africa, a rusty old trawling vessel is engaged in some fishy business.

Down in the ship's belly, a dank and grimy hull is filled to the brim with boxes of frozen fish. The catch is bound for a European port, where it might be served up to patrons at a trendy restaurant.

The fish are illegally caught, but hardly anyone will know it. Before reaching its final destination, the catch will be transferred to another vessel and mixed in with legal cargo. The rusty old trawler, of which there are several off the West African coast, will go on making catches and hauling a profit.

Meanwhile, in the coastal villages of Sierra Leone, people are suffering the consequences. Fish are scarcer than ever before, and local fisheries are feeling the pinch. For those who make their living on the water, the ocean is more dangerous than it used to be.

It’s a problem that affects not only Sierra Leone, but the entire coastline. West Africa has become the No. 1 region for illegal fishing worldwide, and most of the catch ends up at European markets.

A Thursday report from the U.K.-based advocacy group Environmental Justice Foundation reveals that the illegal fishing operation in West Africa is pervasive, well-established and confounding in its sophistication. Worst of all, these unlicensed trawlers are having a monumental impact on developing countries nearby.

In total, this so-called ‘pirate fishing’ is estimated to cost the people of Africa about $1 billion every year.

All Washed Up

As outlined in the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, countries can claim territorial sovereignty over any waters within 12 nautical miles of their shore. They can also claim waters as far as 200 nautical miles away as exclusive economic zones, or EEZ.

But poor countries like Sierra Leone and its neighbors lack the resources to patrol those waters effectively. Illegal vessels not only fish in the country’s own EEZ; they have even been seen creeping into the territorial zone, often under cover of night but still in view of coastal villagers.

And because these ships are operating illegally, they can skirt regulations that are meant to prevent the unnecessary waste of resources.

In one example, EJF investigators took footage of crew members on an illegal trawler as they inspected a catch, separating the valuable fish from the less valuable ones. The vast majority were deemed substandard, and the crew used shovels to scrape that refuse -- now mostly dead or dying -- back into the ocean.

Profligacy is no problem for these pirate trawlers since they are able to rake in such enormous hauls -- and this, again, is due to irresponsible fishing methods. Crews engage in bottom-trawling, or casting their nets low so that they drag along the ocean floor. This scrapes up huge masses of fish, but it also destroys ecosystems by disrupting larvae environments and tearing up marine flora.

It is an environmental issue to be sure, but the human costs are even more pressing.

In Sierra Leone, more than two-thirds of the population lives in poverty. About half are malnourished. Fisheries account for up to 10 percent of the country’s GDP, according to the World Bank, and marine life makes up more than half the animal protein in a typical Sierra Leonean diet. So any dent in fisheries’ productivity is a serious issue for this country, which is on a slow but steady road toward recovery after 11 years of a brutal civil war, which ended only a decade ago.

Furthermore, Sierra Leonean fishermen actually face physical dangers when illegal trawlers encroach on their territory. Some are forced to use wooden canoes -- traditionally meant only for use in nearby waters -- to go farther out to sea, a precarious journey that becomes necessary when pirate fishers have depleted supplies.

Other Sierra Leoneans have reported outright violence, telling EJF that illegal vessels sometimes ram into their own small boats. There have even been incidents of trawler crew members physically attacking small fishermen who get too close.

Tricky Trading

It would be a mistake to malign all of the people on board these illegal trawlers; many crew members are as victimized as the Sierra Leoneans they steal from.

The crew members who conduct the day-to-day business of running the trawlers are often working for very low wages in cramped, unsanitary conditions. They tend to come from both Asia and China and can work at sea for months or years before getting an opportunity to visit home. If they complain, they could be terminated and left ashore at a foreign port. But as long as they continue working, they risk running afoul of international law if their vessels are seized by authorities.

Ships’ captains and owners -- not to mention the land-based officials they sometimes bribe to turn a blind eye to their operations -- are the ones who ultimately profit from illegal trawling. Many of the ships that have infiltrated West African waters in recent years can be traced back to South Korea and China, though these are by no means the only nations involved.

Unfortunately, it’s not so easy to track down the specific business -- or even country -- behind each pirate trawling ship, since virtually all of them engage in active obfuscation.

According to international law, every vessel on the high seas must be clearly identified by a vessel name and a flag. But creative crews can find ways to hide their ship name -- strategically placed nets, for instance, or untreated rust. Some even paint on new names whenever convenient, or simply crib names from boats that are licensed.

In order to hide a ship’s nationality, most illegal trawlers use Flags of Convenience. These banners belong to countries -- like Panama and Togo -- that sell the use of their flags to foreign ships, but do not fully regulate their activities.

And just to make matters even more difficult for the authorities, smart pirate trawler captains hardly ever pull into port. These ships can spend years at a time without touching land, refueling and transferring cargo at sea. All too often, that illegal cargo is transferred to a licensed vessel and mixed in with legally caught fish, so as to cover all tracks.

It thereby becomes nearly impossible to identify which fish are responsibly caught, and which are the ones that legally belong to poverty-stricken communities in West Africa.

An International Solution

EJF outlined some possible solutions to combat this problem, and the first of them is spurring governmental involvement.

This can take place in three places: in countries near where the fishing is carried out, like Sierra Leone; in countries where the fish ultimately make their way to market, like Spain or the United Kingdom; and in those countries that sell the use of their flags without enforcing regulations, like Panama.

Sierra Leone, for instance, might allocate more of its security forces to patrolling the nearby seas. This can be difficult considering the government’s dearth of economic resources, and here international assistance would be useful.

In European countries, authorities at the ports can require more extensive records and proof of the legality of every catch. This would include more comprehensive research on the existence and location of illegal vessels, as well as a blacklisting of companies found to knowingly engage in illegal fishing activities.

Meanwhile, Panama, Togo, Tanzania and other such flag-leasing countries must adhere to the guidelines regarding the monitoring and regulation of those vessels that carry their banner. The elimination of third-party brokers, who today often facilitate the sale of flags to foreign ships, would be a step in the right direction.

For now, awareness is key. Anyone who wants to see a list of already-identified illegal trawling vessels in West Africa can find one in the full ECJ report here, which also details current regulations and further steps international actors might take to address this critical problem.