A Suriname fishmonger in the coastal city of Nieuw Nickerie says he pays 250,000 Surinamese dollars, or about $12,000, each year for his processing business and fleet.
The vendor acknowledges illegally transferring his permit to Guyanese boats, saying that it’s the only way to recoup costs.
“I have a permit, you have a boat. I say, ‘take the permit, use the boat, bring me the fish,’” said the vendor, whose name is being withheld due to his comments on illicit acts, including smuggling.
The practice, however, has created a black market for fishing licenses. Fishers from Guyana often work under the licenses, renting them from boat owners for a few thousand dollars.
Suriname – wedged among Guyana, French Guiana, and Brazil – has strict laws on fishing licenses, including one that says permits may only be issued to Surinamese vessels and that they are non-transferable. In 2020, the Ministry of Agriculture, Husbandry, and Fisheries issued just over 930 artisanal fishing permits. Due to the trade in licenses, however, many more boats are fishing in Suriname’s waters.
Licenses are readily duplicated, said Satesh Kodai, chairman of the Suriname National Fisherfolk Organization. He estimated that for every 100 permits rented to Guyanese fishers, 300 to 400 boats are working under them. He said that Guyanese fishers who illegally rent licenses also duplicate them to sell to their compatriots.
“Even a boat owner is not aware how many times their permits are being copied,” Kodai told InSight Crime.
Fish Smuggled to Guyana
Suriname’s artisanal fishers can apply for two types of licenses. An inland navigation license allows for fishing in rivers, including the estuary, and shallow coastal waters. A Suriname Coast license, or SK license for its Dutch acronym, permits fishing in offshore zones in waters up to 16.5 meters deep. In 2020, the inland fleet received some 470 permits and the coastal one 450, according to the latest fisheries management plan.
Boats provided SK licenses are typically large wooden vessels that can stay out to sea for up to three weeks, fishing for butterfish, Asian sea bass, and other large fish.
The more valuable SK licenses are most often rented to Guyanese boats. Guyana news organizations have reported that fishers pay up to $4,000 for a permit. These boats also illegally land their catch in Guyana.
Dew Jaddoe, the chief executive officer of a fish processing plant in the coastal municipality of Nickerie and a former fisheries director, said that it is well known, including to the ministry, “that SK boats are smuggling fish.” According to the fisheries plan, about a quarter of SK-licensed boats are landing their catch in Guyana.
“The SK boats need to be checked,” Jaddoe told InSight Crime.
But maritime patrol resources are limited.
“We try to do patrols at least twice a month if we have enough petrol,” Radjoe Bhola, director of the Suriname Coast Guard, told InSight Crime.
“Almost every patrol, we bring in one or two illegal boats, sometimes six or seven,” Bhola said. “We come across Guyanese and Venezuelan illegal fishing boats, but most of the violations are actually Surinamese who go fishing without a permit.”
Authorities struggle to catch Guyana fishers using illegal permits, because most who work for Suriname boat owners are Guyanese, said Mohamedsafiek Gowrie, the chairman of the National Assembly’s Committee on Agriculture, Animal Husbandry, and Fisheries.
“The Guyanese person fishing in the water doesn’t honestly indicate to the police, 'I paid a huge amount for this license,'” Gowrie told InSight Crime.
In August 2021, Guyana President Irfaan Ali and Suriname President Chandrikapersad Santokhi appeared to come to an agreement for Suriname to grant 150 licenses to Guyanese fishers. Part of the rationale for the agreement was to make it so Guyana fishers did not need to rent licenses. But the decision later received pushback from Suriname's fishing industry.
The question over the licenses has still not been settled. In April, Guyana Vice President Bharrat Jagdeo told fishers in the Upper Corentyne, which borders Suriname, that "some people are benefiting from this" and that "they are very reluctant to have the issue resolved."
Pamashwar Jainarine, chairman of Upper Corentyne Fishermen’s Co-operative Society, said his fishers commonly pay between $3,000 and $4,000 to work under original licenses. Copied licenses cost half as much, but the Guyanese fishers will take the "risk of working with the copy," he said, adding that they "even beg for them."
His fishers, he said, had not sought additional licenses but the transfer of about 50 licenses from people he claimed are leasing multiple licenses on the black market.
"These middlemen are very powerful, they make a lot of money from these licenses," Jainarine said.
Contraband on the Corentyne River
The mouth of the Corentyne River – near the small city of Nieuw Nickerie – is cluttered and busy with fishing boats.
A lone small speedboat is all that Major Wim Daal, commander of the National Army’s Western Region, has for patrols. The Nickerie district, which borders the Atlantic Ocean and Corentyne River, lacks even a coast guard station.
“Suriname has a strict fishing policy, but we lack the resources to apply the law,” Daal told InSight Crime.
A business owner on the banks of the Nickerie River, who asked for anonymity because of fear of reprisals, showed a cellphone video of a group of Guyanese fishers rapidly stripping a pick-up. Dashboard, seats, door, engine, steering wheel, and exhaust pipe disappear into the belly of a fishing boat docked near a jetty.
“You would think they’d do something like that at night, quietly. This was the middle of the day. Apparently, they have nothing to fear,” he told InSight Crime.
The businessman has delivered evidence of illegal fishing and smuggling to local officials and national agencies but has been met by a wall of silence.
InSight Crime contacted Suriname’s Ministry of Agriculture, Husbandry, and Fisheries numerous times to discuss illegal licenses and smuggling but did not receive a reply.
“On the Corantyne, everything is smuggled,” said the fish vendor who admitted renting out his license from time to time. You have people crossing illegally, smuggling, transit, and illegal fishing. It’s common knowledge.”
Much of the contraband is moved in boats designed to look like fishing vessels.
“They put a fishing net on the deck, and you start thinking it’s a fishing boat. They may even have a permit,” the fish vendor said.
*InSight Crime Editor Seth Robbins contributed to this report.
This report is part of a nine-part series on IUU fishing with the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies at American University. The second installment, "Plundered Oceans: IUU Fishing in South American Seas,” can be seen here.