* Vessels responsible for bulk of illegal fishing can exportto EU
* Use variety of methods to avoid punishment * EU "very, very concerned" By Simon Akam
FREETOWN, Oct 11 (Reuters) - Nine of the 10 vessels believedto be responsible for the bulk of more than 250 reports ofillegal fishing off the coast of Sierra Leone are cleared toexport their catches to the European market, an environmentwatchdog group has found.
Illegal fishing is rampant in West Africa's Gulf of Guineawhere impoverished coastal nations with little capacity topolice their waters lose up to $1.5 billion in annual income toships operating in protected zones or without proper licences.
The European Union has set up regulations to prevent vesselsinvolved in so-called illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU)fishing from accessing European markets.
An 18-month investigation conducted by the EnvironmentalJustice Foundation (EJF), however, documented a long list ofabuses including fishing inside exclusion zones, using bannedequipment, and transhipping fish illegally at sea.
The majority of cases involved ships accredited to selltheir seafood at EU ports.
"As the world's largest importer of fish, the EU has acrucial responsibility to combat IUU fishing around the world,"the report by the British-registered charity said.
"The lack of communication and coordination between the EUand coastal states in West Africa means that there is a vacuumof information on what is happening in the area with the highestlevels of IUU fishing in the world."
FLAGS OF CONVENIENCE
EJF, which carried out surveillance in conjunction with 23local communities in southern Sierra Leone, said ships refusedto pay fines, covered identification markings, bribed officialsand fled to neighbouring counties to avoid sanctions.
It said many also sailed under so-called flags ofconvenience. The report says events last year exposed aproblematic system under which ships' flag states, many of whomhave no effective oversight of vessels, were given the primaryresponsibility for verifying whether catches were legitimate.
"Following the submission of evidence gathered at sea byEJF, 1,100 tonnes of fish were seized in March 2011 in LasPalmas and held for four months whilst an unprecedentedinternational investigation was carried out," the report said.
"Crucially, the seafood in question was eventually releasedwhen the flag states involved declared the catches were legal."
Oliver Drewes, spokesman for European Fisheries and MaritimeAffairs Commissioner Maria Damanaki, said the EU was "very, veryconcerned" about the possibility that illegally fished seafoodcould be making its way onto the plates of European consumers.
"We acknowledge and accept that the EU is a potentialmarketplace for these products," he told Reuters, adding that,if the abuses were confirmed, the offending vessels would bebanned from exporting to the EU and barred from European ports.
"In practice, this is a blacklist. Once you're on that listas a vessel, you have to cease your activities," he said.
Sierra Leone's fisheries minister, Soccoh Kabia, said onWednesday he had not yet read the EJF report but called illegalfishing an unacceptable practice regardless of the eventualdestination of the catch.
"If it goes to the EU it is particularly painful," he toldReuters. "I know the EU nations as nations that comply with thelaw."
(Editing by Joe Bavier and Alison Williams)
Keywords: SIERRALEONE EU/FISHING