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FREETOWN (Reuters) - Sierra Leone is closing its international shipping registry to foreign-owned fishing vessels in a move intended to reduce illegal catches in its seas and around the world, the fisheries minister said on Thursday.
Officials said the West African country -- notorious as a so-called "flag of convenience" with minimum enforcement of maritime regulations -- was the first such nation in the world to implement the measure.
"When these vessels fly our flag they go to the open ocean and there's nothing we can do about it," Minister of Fisheries and Marine Resources Joseph Koroma told a news conference.
"We are saying enough is enough, the buck stops here."
The minister added that the ban on foreign-owned shipping would only apply to fishing craft. Other commercial vessels will still be able to register in the country.
Sierra Leone's devastating civil war came to an end eight years ago. Now between 40 and 50 foreign-owned fishing vessels are signed up with a registry in New Orleans that allows them to fly the country's green, white and blue flag.
Activists say these ships use the flag to disguise illegal activities and their identities, using banned fishing gear and operating inside an inshore fishing zone reserved for artisanal fishermen in Sierra Leone itself as well as much further afield.
Duncan Copeland, a campaigner from the Environmental Justice Foundation, said last year a Sierra Leonean-flagged ship was caught illegally fishing in the Cook Islands in the Pacific Ocean, thousands of miles from the country.
"Sierra Leone is now the first country operating one of these regulations to shut it down," Copeland said.
A survey by the Marine Resources Assessment Group estimated that "illegal, unreported and unregulated" (IUU) fishing costs Sierra Leone $29 million per year, in terms of lost revenue and other expenses.
Koroma said between 2005 and 2009 ship owners paid a total of just $46,000 for flag privileges. Due to a revenue sharing agreement with the registry in the United States, the government in Freetown received only around $10,000.
West Africa in general -- with minimal government capacity for enforcement and close to the world's largest fish market in Europe -- is a haven for so-called pirate fishing.
According to the Environmental Justice Foundation, the Eastern Central Atlantic has the highest level of IUU fishing in the world, 40 percent higher than reported catches. The value of this fish is put at anything up to $500 million.
Officials in Sierra Leone say that two new fast patrol boats funded by the World Bank will help them enforce the new regulations in local waters. However, the fisheries minister said dealing with illegal fishing under their flag further afield would remain beyond their capacity.
"For the illegal vessels on the high seas, I must confess for the moment we don't have the means," said Koroma.