By Ngala Killian Chimtom
Henry Maloke is disentangling a couple of black catfish from his fishing net at the wharf in Limbe, a seaside locality in Cameroon’s South West Region. It is a day’s catch after spending close to 24 hours at sea.
Back when the ocean was healthy and teeming with life, the 64-year old fisherman could return home after just a few hours with a full net. The situation has changed.
“Chinese fishermen are going away with everything, leaving our waters empty,” complains Maloke. “It’s a catastrophe,” he adds, casting an uncertain glance out to the ocean’s limits.
Rising appetite for seafood in China is a major driver of Chinese fishing trawlers moving farther afield. Between 1990 and 2010 for instance, consumption in China grew by 6 percent per year, and is projected to grow even more – 30 percent by 2030.
However, the rise in consumption is being matched by dwindling stocks in the South China Sea, leading to frequent clashes between Chinese fisherfolk and those of other coastal states.
The result is that Chinese fishing trawlers are moving further afield, especially to the West African coast where they face less competition and weaker regulatory frameworks.
“We used to have abundant fish from February to September,” says Maloke, but the fisherman comes home these days with a virtually empty net.
The fish drought has particularly affected women who sell roast fish in places like Limbe. Céline Enanga, who has been involved in the business for the past 25 years, complains that her income has dipped by over 70%.
“Fifteen years ago, I could make CFA 60,000 (about 100 dollars) a day by roasting and selling fish. I barely make CFA 15,000 (about 7 dollars) today”, she told IDN.
The scenario could have been avoided if the Chinese “limited their activities to international waters,” says the South West Regional Delegate for Livestock, Fisheries and Animal Industries, Walters Adu Ndi.
“But they encroach into territorial waters and use all forms of subterfuges to escape law enforcement.”
According to Adu Ndi, the industrial fishing vessels that the Chinese use are not supposed to enter the three nautical miles from coastal areas. “These are areas reserved for artisanal fishermen and by the way, these areas are meant for reproduction to ensure sustainability.”
However, he notes, “we have had repeated complaints that Chinese trawlers have been moving into areas meant for artisanal fishing. They are catching just all species of fish in the waters…it is a destructive way of exploiting our fishing resources.”
In July 2016, at least six Chinese fishing trawlers were caught fishing illegally in Cameroonian waters, according to the Commander of the Limbe Naval Base, Lt Col. Emmanuel Sone Ngonge.
Like its West African neighbours, Cameroon’s fish stocks are being destroyed by an unprecedented global threat: illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) pirate fishing.
“The scale of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing activities by Chinese vessels in West Africa is quite important,” Greenpeace Africa Oceans campaigner, Ahmed Diamé told IDN in a telephone interview from Dakar, Senegal.
“Investigations done by Greenpeace, and published in May 2015, had recorded about 84 cases (demonstrated and potential) of IUU activities that involved 74 vessels owned or operated by Chinese companies only in four countries (Senegal, Guinea Bissau, Guinea and Ghana). These cases occurred between 2000 and 2014.”
He said at least 5 cases of IUU activities involving Chinese flagged fishing vessels have been reported along the west coast of Africa in Guinea, Sierra Leone and South Africa in 2016.
But illegal fishing in West Africa is not only the preserve of Chinese flagged vessels. Other fishing nations – including Russia, Korea and EU countries – have often had vessels involved in IUU activities, according to Greenpeace.
While there is widespread condemnation of Chinese fishing activities along the West African coast, corruption could also lie at the base of lack of success in stemming the tide.
“Corruption and lack of transparency in the management of fisheries resources is a huge challenge in West Africa,” according to Greenpeace campaigner, Ahmed Diamé. “One of the consequences of this situation is that in many countries officials and fishing companies, not only Chinese, are in collusion.”
He noted that “the example of tonnage fraud by some Chinese owned fishing vessels in Senegal, revealed by Greenpeace in 2015, is a perfect example of this collusion. How else can you understand such fraud still existing in 2015 in the country despite the fact that an audit commissioned by the Senegalese government (the Fisheries Ministry) has reported this practice since 2006?”.
He went on to explain that IUU fishing is particularly encouraged by outdated regulations and the existence of various fishing access conditions and disparate sanctions, depending on countries.
“This weakness can be waived by harmonising the fishing laws in the region, with more stringent laws and their effective implementation,” he said.
In addition, West African coastal states could make efforts to improve transparency in the fisheries sector, he added. This transparency should cover the publication of all information related to fisheries, such as fishing licences, fisheries agreements, vessels registers, IUU vessels lists and fines) and access to this information by citizens.
According to Diamé, “rolling back the spectre of such abusive fishing could also be contingent on the capacity of coastal states to maintain sincere sub-regional cooperation through pooling their logistical, human and financial means and the creation of a regional body which will monitor or coordinate the fight against IUU fishing, with a single harmonised information system capable of publishing reliable information in real time.”
“But all these will boil down to governments’ political will to mobilise the necessary resources to enable their services to combat IUU fishing … and it is also important that governments take firm action against corruption that promotes these activities and then work to promote transparency in the fisheries sector,” Diamé concluded.
As Cameroon’s maritime stocks continue to dwindle, the country’s ministry in charge of fisheries is encouraging Cameroonians to turn to aquaculture as the battle to combat unregulated maritime fishing continues.
“Various techniques are available for those who want to do fish farming,” says Divine Ngalla Tombuh, the sub-director in charge of aquaculture in the ministry. Besides fish ponds, he also talks of the tank culture where “concrete, plastic or even wooden tanks can be used to grow fish.”
With four million hectares of inland water, Tombuh believes aquaculture is the way to go for Cameroon, even more so given that the country imports 200,000 metric tonnes of fish every year to offset the shortfall.