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Friday, January 22, 2021

Fish for food, hope comes to artisanal fishers in Africa

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Inside the trays strewn on the floor bed of his wooden boat were bonga and catfish. Scores of women crowded around, looking to buy his catch.

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“This is just enough to cover my expenses,” he told me, indicating the squirming silvery creatures. “I went up to 20-something kilometres and all we could get was bonga. I spent more than 2,500 dalasis on this one trip.”

Badjie, 38, is not a native Gambian. Originally from neighbouring Senegal, he came here as a teenager looking for work. But the sea he has been fishing for almost two decades is no longer the same, he said, sombrely. 

“This trade is about win and loss,” he added. “But nowadays, we have more losses. The previous days, I went up to 50-something kilometers; to another fishing ground but had no catch.

“The problem is the variations in the weather pattern. Also, we do encounter with trawlers in the waters. Sometimes, they would threaten to kill us when we confront them. When we spread our net, they destroy it.”

Divided into two halves by the river it derives its name, The Gambia is part of the West Africa gulf, which is reported to have some of the richest fishing grounds in the world. 

As a major job supplier, the fisheries sector contributes 12 per cent to the country’s Gross Domestic Product. An estimated number of 200,000 people depend on artisanal fisheries for their livelihoods while fish and fish products provide important sources of animal protein for most households. 

Yet, according to Greenpeace, sub-Saharan Africa is now the only region where per capita fish consumption is falling. 

Adama Jallow, president of women fishers in Guinea Bissau said foreign fleets do trawl in the waters of his country. 

“The EU, Chinese and all kind of boats,” she told me in an interview. “They fish and take their catch away. The Bissau population does not eat the fish they catch.”

The UN estimates that the West Africa sub region loses at least 1 billion US dollars every year due to illegal fishing. 

According to report, the countries, including The Gambia, do not have adequate capacity to put up efficient surveillance mechanisms to police the waters.

A Senegalese, Mr Gaossou Gaye, who is the secretary general of a sub-regional civil society fisheries alliance called CAOPA, admitted that as a result of lack of coordination of policy and policing among countries, illegal fishers are largely escaping the arm of justice. 

He told me that “there needs to be a common policy and common surveillance in waters. We need to come together to prevent these losses”.

Besides illegal fishing, reports suggest that licensing of heavily subsidised European and Chinese trawlers that reportedly populate the waters in West Africa, is contributing to the declining fish stock. 

Experts observed that these fishing agreements are made to the detriment of over 1.5million local fishers who cannot compete with European and Chinese trawlers, an allegation Ms Jallow, the fisher woman from Bissau, confirmed. 

“Our governments want only money, rapid money,” she said. “They do not consider the interest of the common people. Supporting artisanal fishers is more sustainable because the sector employs millions of people.”

Mr Gaye shared her view, saying: “Of course, as we always say, the resource belongs to the community but managed by the state. But we want the governments to take into consideration the voices of professional organisations representing fishers; our needs and worries.”

Although information on the EU website confirms the existence of no fishing agreements with The Gambia, it remains unclear whether the government has fishing agreements with fleets from Asian or Eastern Europe. 

Unofficial sources have it that there are forty-seven industrial fishing vessels in Gambia’s waters, thirty-five of which are foreign fleets. 

However, fisheries authorities have declined to grant an interview to clarify claims pointing to the presence of the fleets.

There has over the years been a phenomenal increase in the prices of fish, and shortages of in the market are no longer a rarity.

Artisanal fishers, who the population depends on for supply, say they are finding it hard to feed the market.

“Our waters are overfished,” said Mr Ousman Bojang, 80, a veteran Gambian fisher. 

Bojang learnt the fishing trade from his father when he was young, but later changed his gears to become a police officer.

After 20 years, he retired and returned to fishing. Building his first fishing boat in 1978, he became the first president of the first ever association of fishers in the country.  

He told me: “Fishing improved my livelihood. While I was in the service, I could not build a hut for myself. Now, I have built a compound. I’d sent my children to school and all of them have graduated. 

“I transferred my skills to them and they’ve joined me at sea. I have 25 children; 10 boys and 15 girls. All the boys are into fishing. Even the girls, some do know how to do hook and line and to repair net.”

The old man no longer hits the sea waves, but he is still active in the national and transnational discourse around fisheries.

According to him, while climate change and industrial fishing might contribute to the declining fish stock, ‘the unethical ways’ of the new breed of artisanal fishers are also to blame. 

He explained: “The nets that are being used today are dangerous; the biggest threat to our natural resources. The net size is 15 millimeter square. The net itself is huge. It has 50-60 meters debt. One net can load 3 to 4 boats, each with 10 to 15 tons of fish.

“That is why we are finding it difficult in our waters today to catch fish. The nets cause us so much post-harvest loses. If you are talking about conservation, that net size should not be used.”

With fisheries sector glaringly suffering from bleak prospects before his eyes, there was apprehension in the tone of the octogenarian. 

“My fears are in two or three year’s time, it will be very difficult for our markets because the fishes are going far away,” he said. 

He added: “Nowadays you have to go up 20 to 25 nautical miles for fishing. During my days, you go just one nautical mile you get bonga, catfish, barracuda and all kind of fish. I just don’t know what is going on here. I don’t know what this is.”

Mr Bojang called for reforms in the fisheries sector governance. For him, stakeholders should embrace co-management system, which will involve fishing communities. 

He pointed out: “Local fishers should be trained and empowered to be able work with the government officials. If you have co management, the communities will be able to share accurate information and address issues such as poaching.”  

Be that as it may, all might not be lost. A hopeful trend for the artisanal fishers is the recognition by the Africa Progress Panel, headed by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, that illegal fishing is a priority that the continent must address.

Another is the endorsement in June last year by the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations of guidelines which seek to improve conditions for small-scale fishers.

Nicole Franz, fishery planning analyst at FAO’s Fisheries and Aquaculture department in Rome, told me that the small-scale fisheries guidelines provide a framework change in small-scale fisheries. 

She said of the guidelines: “It is an instrument that looks not only into traditional fisheries rights, such as fisheries management and user rights, but it also takes more integrated approach,” she said.

“It also looks into social conditions, decent employment conditions, climate change, disaster risks issues and a whole range of issues which go beyond what traditional fisheries institutions work with. Only if we have a human rights approach to small-scale fisheries, can we allow the sector to develop sustainably.”

What is so far the icing on the cake came on April 2 of this year when the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea reacted in favour of the application of West African Sub Regional Fisheries Commission, which comprises Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mauritania, Senegal, Sierra Leone and The Gambia. 

The tribunal rules that countries, and even the EU, can be held liable for failing to take necessary measures to prevent illegal, unreported or unregulated fishing operations by their vessels in the waters of other countries.

For the fishers like Binta Sanneh of The Gambia, unless concrete steps are taken, the seas will continue to empty faster than nature can replenish, putting under threat their livelihoods. 

“When I was coming here, I was suffering financially,” she told me. “I thank God that over time, I started getting some money. I paid my children’s school fees from here. Some of them have graduated. But now, things are difficult and some have dropped out of school because I could not pay their school fees.”

The 50-year-old woman has been working at the landing site in Bakau for more than thirty-five years, buying fish from the fish mongers and selling it to vendors at the market. 

“Those days, I used to have variety of fish, not only bonga. But now, only bonga is available. Fishers say they could not catch other species. They are not in the waters.”

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