By Lamin Jahateh
BANJUL (Reuters) - Gambia is negotiating deals with three private companies to crack down on rampant illegal fishing in its territorial waters, a senior official with the fisheries ministry told Reuters.
Made possible by poor monitoring capacity and, in some cases, corrupt local officials, illegal fishing costs West Africa's coastal nations around $2.3 billion a year, according to a recent study.
Chinese fishing boats are regularly seized by regional coast guards for fishing illegally. An investigation published by marine conservation group Oceana this week found that European vessels had also broken European Union law in West Africa.
"Fighting illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing requires continuous monitoring and surveillance of our waters, and we don't have the resources to do that," Bamba Banja, permanent secretary at the Ministry of Fisheries and Water Resources, said late on Tuesday.
A former ruler of Gambia, Yahya Jammeh, fled the country earlier this year amid accusations of widespread corruption. President Adama Barrow is now seeking to bring order to a sector neglected by the old regime.
Despite its narrow coastline, Gambia possesses particularly rich waters, caused by the merging of fresh water from The Gambia River with the Atlantic Ocean.
Banja said the government was in talks with Dutch shipbuilding group Damen and two other companies, from the United States and South Africa, to provide monitoring and surveillance of Gambia's exclusive economic zone.
"The South African and Dutch companies will provide patrol boats while the American company is for aerial surveillance to complement the patrol boats," he said.
A spokesman for the Damen Group said it would not comment on ongoing negotiations.
Banja said the names of the two other companies would be announced following talks to complete the deal next month. Operations are expected to begin in January.
He added Gambia was also seeking to reactivate a fishing agreement with the EU, which would probably include support for local monitoring. An existing access agreement is considered dormant because its requirement are not being met. That means EU member states cannot authorize their vessels to fish there.
Oceana's researchers nevertheless found that vessels from Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece illegally spent nearly 32,000 hours in Gambian waters from April 2012 to August 2015.
Banja said the vessels also appeared to be violating a prohibition on industrial fishing enacted under Jammeh. While the ban did little to curb illegal activity, it was only lifted in March.
(Additional reporting and writing by Joe Bavier; Editing by Edward McAllister, Larry King)