Thousands of years of history and a way of life are under threat on the coast of west Africa. The reason? Pirates. Just not the kind you think.
These pirates are the world's biggest fishing companies, which are pillaging the African waters, stealing every last fish they can get out of the sea – and in the process they're destroying livelihoods and threatening the food security of millions.
The industrial-scale fishing pirates have plagued the region for decades, brazenly defying local and international laws as they scoop up a vital regional protein source and ship it to lucrative markets in Europe and Asia. Local fishing ministries are helpless to stop the theft, often lacking any functional boats to police their waters. With crippled government oversight, the people of west Africa have for years been forced to watch as bottom trawlers devastate their marine environment.
But all that's changing.
Local communities fight back
The Environmental Justice Foundation has been hard at work organising local communities and equipping them to police their own waters. Armed with GPS devices and cameras, these small groups of fishermen track the activities of illegal trawlers, sending their coordinates and pictures to anybody who has the capacity to act: local governments, the EU, fishing ports and other authorities.
So far, the programme has been a huge success. Thanks to the efforts of local fishermen, $500,000 in fines have been collected, $6m worth of fish has been seized – and the infringing vessels rarely come back. The EU has also promised to crack down on illegal fish markets, and Panama and South Korea, two of the countries whose vessels have been regularly caught, have agreed to investigate their monitoring mechanisms.
African pirates, like those off the Somali coast, are often forced into their trade due to a lack of economic opportunities. This isn't an excuse for their criminal behaviour, but it means that it's a problem that the world can solve, with enough will and effort.
This latest initiative is just one example of how such effort can translate into real results: empowering local communities to protect their livelihoods, while fighting the international pirates who are decimating our oceans.
There's still much, much to be done in the fight against illegal fishing, but it's an inspiring step in the right direction.
Learn more: Watch as the hunt for fishing pirates unfolds firsthand in this two-part investigation with Al Jazeera's Juliana Ruhfus.
Sources: Al Jazeera, BBC, Environmental Justice Foundation, Guardian, TIME