M/V Panofi Forerunner (AFT 95), a Ghanaian tuna vessel was intercepted by the Liberian Coast Guard and Sea Shepherd, an international marine conservation non-governmental organization (NGO) around 19.00hrs on 14 January 2018 and was escorted to the Monrovia port. Prior to the entry of Panofi Forerunner into Liberian waters, the vessel owners, Panofi Company Ltd. submitted entry-exit notification by e-mail to the Liberian Fisheries Bureau on Friday, 12 January 2018. The Liberian Fisheries Bureau gave the reasons for the interception and arrest of Panofi Forerunner by the Liberian Coast Guard and Sea Shepherd as follows:
- The vessel was alleged to have switched off its Automatic Identification System (AIS) in Liberian waters
- The vessel was alleged to have deployed Fisheries Aggregating Devices (FADs)
The incident was quickly published by Sea Shepherd and ATUNA on their websites with the respective headlines, “Panofi-Owned Ghanaian Seiner Faces Multi-Million Dollar Fine” and “Liberia Arrests High-tech Poachers for Illegal Fishing and Attempted Bribery”. The reports laid claim to illegal fishing by Panofi Forerunner in Liberian waters and attempts by the crew to bribe the arresting team, and that Panofi Forerunner could be fined up to USD11 million. Despite the extensive hype in the reports by ATUNA and Sea Shepherd, Panofi Forerunner was released on 18 January 2018 at 10.30 by the Liberian Coastguards without any charges being brought against it. The vessel arrived at Takoradi port at 1.00am on 20 January 2018.
It was observed during the interception of the vessel by the Liberian Coast Guard and Sea Shepherd that they deliberately prevented the vessel’s communication with its owners, and for over 24 hours the company could not reach the vessel by any means available. This gave reason to the suspicion by the company that the vessel was under armed robbery or pirate attack. The situation could only be clarified after the Ghana Navy had contacted the Liberian Navy. The Fisheries observer on board the vessel has reported that the master and crew were assaulted by the Liberian Coastguard and Sea and forced to return to pick one of the FADs (Serial No. T8E020185846) that was deployed on 25 August 2017 to give credence to the committal of a crime.
Contrary to the claims by the Liberian Coast Guard and Sea Shepherd, the Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) and AIS reports on the vessel’s fishing trip monitored by the Fisheries Monitoring Center in Tema, showed that the vessel’s electronic monitoring equipment were kept functional during the fishing trip. It is therefore incorrect that the vessel’s AIS was off. Regarding the claim of the illegal deployment and fishing on FADs, there is evidence that nine FADs which are trackable electronically had been deployed between 25 August 2017 and 2 December 2017 in various locations in the high seas but have drifted into Liberian waters by means of sea currents.
The arrest of Panofi Forerunner by the Liberian Coast Guard and Sea Shepherd coming after a similar one involving a Ghanaian trawler, Lu Rong Yuan Yu 988 in a spate of one year, requires thorough investigation by such international bodies including the Fisheries Committee for West Central Gulf of Guinea (FCWC), the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) and the International Tribunal for the Law of the Seas (ITLOS). In the case of the trawler, the vessel was detained for forty-eight days in Monrovia port after which it was released without any charges preferred against it, amidst extensive maltreatment of the crew.