Seafood is a global industry that provides food to at least 3 billion and employs nearly 60 million people worldwide. Unfortunately, this all hangs in the balance as around 90 percent of fish stocks are now fully depleted or overfished due to illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

Illegal fishing fleets continue to decimate the exclusive fishing waters of other nations. The 200 nautical miles from the shore of a country is demarcated as the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in which a country has the sole fishing rights. There are also areas of the high seas which are protected by international agreements that are being plundered.

south africas exclusive economic zone or EEZ
South Africa’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)

In light of this, it is estimated that around 20 percent of the global harvest comes from illegal fishing. The proceeds are estimated at between $15 and $36 billion per year. Some of the biggest offenders in this venture are the industrial super trawlers.

Super Trawlers

The Geelong Star, a super trawler drew public attention when its exploits made headlines in 2016. The Australian public openly voiced their opposition against the factory freezer ship being in Australian waters. The ship is a 95-metre industrial super trawler that is equipped with a 70-metre long fishing net. The bycatch which includes protected and endangered fish species are discarded. The rest of the catch is immediately processed aboard the ship. The ship originally called the Dirk Dirk is owned by a Dutch company Parlevliet & Van der Plas (P&P), who is on the Greenpeace blacklist for environmental abuses.

Geelong Star as Naeraberg at IJmuiden in 2010
The Geelong Star as Naeraberg at IJmuiden, The Netherlands in 2010.

Public resistance 

The Geelong Star had killed numerous dolphins and seals. After two expeditions, it had caught so many dolphins that it was banned from fishing at night. The operator, Seafish Tasmania proceeded to appeal the ban. They argued that the ship was not able to generate enough income if it could only fish during the day. It was soon allowed to operate again in Australian waters. Further atrocities included mass deaths of albatross getting caught in its massive nets. This time, it only received a temporary ban and was allowed to fish after a few days.

The crew started turning off the ship’s Automatic Identification System (AIS) which sends tracking information and position to authorities.

Eventually, after the public outcry, the trawler was banned from Australian waters for good. 

geelong star protest
Geelong Star protest.

The original super trawler

The super trawler that paved the way for the Geelong Star, was the FV Margiris renamed the Abel Tasman. At 130 metres long, it was banned in 2012 by Australian authorities. Thus, the ban didn’t apply to the Geelong Star at only 95 metres. This isn’t even the world’s largest supertrawler. This title goes to the Annelies Ilena at 144 metres in length. It is a factory trawler that can fish, process and freeze the catch aboard the ship. Interestingly, it is also owned by P&P who owns the Dirk Dirk.

According to P&P the technology used in their supertrawlers allows it to only targets specific species with minimal bycatch. The catch sold to countries in West Africa and China. These factory ships are only part of the bigger problem.

Illegal fishing in West Africa

In a recent documentary film called Zwarte Vis (Black Fish), journalist Nelufar Hedayat sails with activists aboard the Sea Shepherd to investigate the fishing trade in Ghana. In 2015 the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) found that at least 90% of new vessels registered in Ghana were built in China. They obtain their fishing permits by importing their ships into the local fleet register and then the ships sail under the Ghanian flag. The Chinese, with superior fishing equipment catch fish, further out to sea, thereby depleting local fish stocks. 

Chinese trawlers also sell fish to the local fisherman at night from their boats to canoes. The local fisherman and traders then sell the catch on the local market at inflated prices.

The government seems to be mum on the topic. Either apathy or complete ignorance of the matter will lead to the fish stocks being depleted in five to seven years.  

fishermen on a boat in ghana
Fishermen in Ghana


According to the IUU Fishing Index, a global indicator of a nation’s exposure and ability to combat illegal fishing, China ranks as the number one offender out of 152 countries globally. Chinese vessels receive a fuel subsidy from the government in a bid to feed its growing population of 1.4 billion people. Since the oceans around China have virtually no fish left it relies on fishing grounds in the North West Pacific, South America and Western Africa.

South Africa

department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries logo
The Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF)

In April 2016, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife’s contract with the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) to look after the coastlines was terminated after 32 years. 

Ezemvelo Wildlife was responsible for maintaining wildlife conservation areas and biodiversity in KwaZulu-Natal. However, due to a lack of manpower, DAFF chief control conservation inspector Dino Govender said that beaches were not being monitored closely and illegal fishing was widespread. In 2018 there were only ten fishery control officers that were responsible for the entire coastline from Cape Town to East London. They also look after the Durban area.

South Africa’s fishing patrol fleet

Further offshore, there are three Inshore Protection Vessels (IPVs) that patrol South Africa’s coastline within the 200 nautical miles from the shore demarcated as the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in which South Africa has the sole fishing rights. These patrol vessels are the Victoria Mxenge, Lillian Ngoyi and Ruth First. These three vessels effectively patrol a coastline of 3000 kilometres. We also have an Offshore Protection Vessel (OPV), the Sarah Baartman that has a range of 7500 nautical miles and can patrol in the deep seas around Prince Edward and Marion Islands.

In May 2016, DAFF discovered nice vessels that were suspected of illegal fishing off the coast of Durban, Port Saint Johns and Port Elizabeth. The patrol vessel Victoria Mxenge intercepted them and escorted them to Saldana Bay for inspection. However, during the night several of the vessels made a getaway. The patrol ship could only seize control of one of the ships and escorted it to the Port of Cape Town.


Public resistance to factory trawlers yielded results in getting them banned permanently from Australian waters. However, it seems that these goliaths are not the biggest threat. In 2018 there were around 2600 distant water fishing vessels registered in China. 

Due to international pressure, 264 Chinese fishing vessels had their subsidies cancelled by the Chinese government since 2016. Three companies lost their certificates for distant water fishing, while 15 company owners and captains were blacklisted. They admit that super trawlers are hard to police as they under-report fishing or do not list their catches. 

Here in South Africa, a lack of patrol resources create opportunities for fisheries to exploit. It seems the fight to combat the scourge of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing is only getting started. 


I’ve tried to track down a copy of the Zwarte Vis documentary about illegal fishing in Ghana. The only working web link states that the broadcaster no longer has the rights to the content.

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