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Gone Fishin': Independence Day in Liberia Gone Fishin': Independence Day in Liberia

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As Liberia celebrates its 162nd anniversary as an independent nation, how much fish will be on the menu?

Liberia has a history very different from the other 52 nations that together make up modern-day Africa. The West African nation was colonized by freed American slaves, a group of which declared the country's independence on July 26, 1847. Named in honor of the fifth president of the United States, James Monroe, the capital city of Monrovia is the only city outside of the U.S. to be named after an American president.

And among the continent's leaders, Ellen-Johnson Sirleaf certainly stands out. When she became president of Liberia in 2006, she also became the first democratically-elected female president of an African nation -- and the world's first black female head of state.

But her glow has been tarnished by her recent admittance of -- and apology for -- her past support of the Liberian warlord Charles Taylor, who is currently facing war crimes charges in the Hague. Liberia's Truth and Reconciliation Commission has called for the Ms. Sirleaf's resignation.

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It is unlikely that the commission's recommendation will significantly hurt Ms. Sirleaf's standing. Indeed, the 70-year-old Monrovian-born Harvard graduate is a transformative figure. In the international community, she is a respected economist. Her past positions include Senior Loan Officer at the World Bank, the Regional Director of the Africa Bureau of the UN Development Programme and a Vice President of Citibank.

But she must not forget that a large part of her popularity within Liberia is that her countrymen are still hopeful that she can increase their standard of living. That standard may go down if overfishing and illegal fishing result in the collapse of fisheries within the 200 nautical miles of Liberia's waters, including a coastline that stretches 360 miles (579 km) along the Atlantic Ocean. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, fish supplies the Liberian population with 65 percent of its animal protein.

"The overfishing of West African coastal waters, often by large European trawlers and sometimes by 'fishing pirates' who trawl without any authorization, has largely depleted local fish stocks," writes Hilaire Avril in an August 11 AllAfrica.com article. "This has a direct impact on the rising rate of unemployment and on the ever-increasing flow of West Africans who embark on perilous journeys to Europe in search of a better life."

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Liberia has yet to ratify the Convention on Fishing and Conservation of Living Resources of the High Seas. Designed to increase international cooperation towards marine conservation, including the critical issue of overfishing, the ratification of this agreement is something that Ms. Sirleaf should give some priority. Not only would it help maintain sustainable fish stocks, it would keep jobs -- and people -- alive. It could also help regain some of her recently lost luster.

As President Sirleaf leads her nation in the celebration of independence, she would do well to remember the ship that graces Liberia's coat of arms. Symbolizing the ships that brought the first freed slaves to Liberia, it is also an apt reminder of the trawlers in the nation's waters that are rapidly removing all the fish.


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Reynard Loki is a New York-based artist, writer and editor. He is the environment and food editor at AlterNet.org, a progressive news website. He is also the co-founder of MomenTech, a New York-based experimental production studio whose projects (more...)

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