Villages lose a lifeline as fish stocks dwindle
For generations the Atlantic Ocean has provided for fishing villages dotted along West Africa's coast. The men took to the sea in colourfully painted wooden canoes, first powered by wind and later by outboard motor. The women stayed on shore, cleaning, preserving and selling the catch.
Life was difficult, but the fish stocks were adequate and the trade dependable. But as populations increased, more canoe fishermen entered the industry and better equipment made them more effective.
A few decades ago, domestic and foreign-owned industrial vessels - able to travel farther and dragging massive nets - arrived to compete for a limited resource.
West Africa's marine fish stocks are now in distress, leaving fishing communities struggling for survival.
'The fishing industry in the coastal area is collapsing,' says Christina Sackey, leader of the fishmongers association in Prampram, a fishing community not far from Ghana's capital, Accra.
Families find it hard to afford food and send children to school, she says. Many of Prampram's fishmongers - the women who preserve and then sell the catch - have turned to petty trading to fill the income gap. And fishermen are forced to leave their communities in search of work or idle away their time.
'I've been a fisherman my whole life,' says Joshua Quaye, 29, sitting among a group of fishermen in Prampram on a typically hot and sunny day. 'How will I live? How will I raise my children?'
The Ministry of Fisheries estimates there are about 500,000 fishermen and fishmongers in Ghana. The number of people affected jumps to 2 million, or about 10 per cent of the population, if peripheral jobs in the industry, such as canoe building, are included.
Fishing communities in Africa - from Morocco in the north to Angola in the south - are experiencing similar strains, says Alhaji Jallow, senior fisheries officer for the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation. Most commercial fish species along the coast are either 'fully exploited' or 'overexploited', says the group.
'Policies need to change in favour of canoe fishermen because they cannot compete with large vessels,' says David Eli, chairman of FoodSPAN, a network of 50 non-government organisations in Ghana.
He wants vessels to use larger-meshed nets to reduce bycatch - unwanted fish that are discarded - and a ban on bottom trawling, a technique in which nets are dragged along the ocean's floor that can be damaging to the habitat.
Commercial fishing companies counter that bottom trawling should continue as long as it is done responsibly.
M.G. Tackey, president of the National Fisheries Association of Ghana, an umbrella group representing all sectors of the industry, says that the fishing industry could be sustainable if proper gear was used and a closed season introduced to allow fish stocks to replenish themselves.
Mr Jallow says the entire industry must be managed if the fisheries are to remain sustainable.
But in this region, where states struggle to maintain schools, roads and hospitals, the funding for the management of fisheries is limited.
The Ministry of Fisheries is unwilling to put a limit on the total catches or to restrict the number of canoe fishermen.
'We prefer other methods which are easier to implement,' says Alfred Tetebo, director of fisheries for the ministry.
He says the ministry has tightened regulations on the types of nets that can be used for vessels and canoe fishermen and will soon limit the size of fish that can legally be landed. The ministry has also restricted the legal fishing areas for the industrial vessels. 'We are making progress,' Mr Tetebo says.
But Mr Tackey says the laws are not being enforced. He says many canoe fishermen and industrial vessels use nets with small mesh sizes and many vessels violate the restrictions on where they can fish. In the past five years the number of licensed trawlers, the type of vessels which practice bottom trawling, have almost doubled, he says.
In the meantime, in villages like Prampram, the battle goes on for limited fish.