Italian Trawler Arrested in The Gambia with “Sustainably Caught Shrimp” Bound for Europe

Wednesday, 13 Sep, 2023

An industrialized trawler named Twenty—with connections to an Italian fishing company—was arrested in West Africa by Gambian Navy sailors stationed on board the Sea Shepherd ship Age of Union, after law enforcement agents discovered that the vessel was using undersized, and therefore illegal, fishing nets to catch undersized octopus, cuttlefish and shrimp for export to the European market.   

Boxes with ‘Friend of the Sea’ logo and certified sustainable stamp. Photo by Sea Shepherd Global.
Closeup of the "Friend of the Sea' box. Photo by Sea Shepherd Global.
Gambian soldier boarding the Twenty. Photo by Sea Shepherd Global.
Bags of octopus onboard the Twenty. Photo by Sea Shepherd Global.
Dirty fish being selected on the Twenty. Photo by Sea Shepherd Global.
Fishermen hauling the net on the Twenty. Photo by Sea Shepherd Global.
Gambian soldiers inspecting the Twenty's fridges. Photo by Sea Shepherd Global.
Sharks found onboard the Twenty. Photo by Sea Shepherd Global.

Boxes of frozen shrimp found in the hold of Twenty were packaged in boxes branded by Asaro, a fishing company based in Mazara del Vallo, a port town not far from Palermo in the northwest of Sicily. Some of the boxes were labelled ‘Certified by Sustainable Fishing’. 

Twenty was licensed as a shrimp trawler as this allows for the vessel to use a smaller mesh size than if it were authorized to do demersal trawling which is fishing for groundfish that live on the ocean bottom. However, less than 0.1 percent of the catch on board was shrimp, leading investigators to suspect that the captain was simply claiming to be engaged in shrimp fishing in order to use a smaller net. Even then, the mesh size was under the legal limit for shrimp trawlers.  

When the mesh size is too small, undersized and juvenile fish are unable to escape. Undersized fish and cephalopods were found in the ship’s cargo hold, along with over 100 bodies of sharks. 

The captain of Twenty did not maintain a proper fishing logbook—common practice by operators who wish to obscure their historical tracks and data on how much fish is being taken—and neither were they transmitting their position on an automatic identification system (AIS), a mandatory transponder that shares location data with law enforcement and ensures that industrialized fishing vessels don’t fish in no-go zones reserved for artisanal fishermen.  

The Gambian Ministry of Defense routinely receives reports of industrialized trawlers fishing in zones reserved for the over 300,000 Gambians who depend on artisanal and small-scale fisheries for their livelihoods.  

In 2018, Pegaso Q, another trawler connected to the Asaro shipping company, was fined by neighboring authorities in Sierra Leone for fishing in a similar prohibited area.  

A further Asaro vessel, Eighteen—a sister ship to Twenty—was busted with shark fins by those same authorities one year earlier. The ship was flagged to Italy at the time of the offense. 

In 2018, the Italian shipowner Asaro, obtained sustainable catch certification by ‘Friend of the Sea’, a project of the World Sustainability Organization. The fishing vessel Twenty was included in the certification scheme. In 2021, the certification expired.   

However, some of the shrimp boxes found on board Twenty still included the ‘Friend of the Sea’ logo and certified sustainable stamp. 

“I think most Italians would be shocked and appalled to discover that shrimp and octopus that they’re finding at the supermarket—some of which may even be marked as sustainably caught—was not only caught in West Africa, but was captured with illegal fishing gear by operators with a history of circumventing the law."

Andrea Morello, National Director of Sea Shepherd Italy.

Twenty is the fifth trawler to be arrested through this year’s Operation Gambian Coastal Defense, a renewed 5-year partnership between Sea Shepherd Global and the Gambian Ministry of Defence to conduct at-sea patrols. It is detained in the port of Banjul. 

Operation Gambian Coastal Defense is a unique partnership with the government of The Gambia that started in 2019 to conduct joint at sea patrols to combat illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. Since 2016, Sea Shepherd has worked in partnership with the governments of Gabon, Liberia, Sierra Leone, São Tomé and Príncipe, Tanzania, Benin, Namibia and The Gambia to combat IUU fishing by providing the use of civilian offshore patrol vessels to African coastal and island States so that authorities can enforce fisheries regulations and conservation laws in their sovereign waters. To date, the unique partnerships have resulted in the arrest of 86 vessels for illegal fishing and other fisheries crimes. 

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