Travelling in Africa is bittersweet. I always appreciate the warmth of fellow Africans, the humanity that characterises daily life and the untold stories of Ubuntu. But there is a dark side. If poverty and quality of life are measured by access to clean water, basic health care, roads and infrastructure, most African countries are poor and likely over 50% of Africans live in abject poverty.
Guinea reserved no surprises for me. It was dusk when we landed in Conakry and as the sun set over the rusty roofs and muddy roads, I instantly knew that this was another country where people, though warm and kind, reel through the daily challenges of bread and butter and longed for access to basic services. I hoped the state of fisheries in Guinea would be the ray of hope for a visibly impoverished population with a vast coastline.
The next morning, I was anxious to board the Esperanza. It was 9:00 am local time when I arrive at the port. I was greeted by a kind Marine commander. The Esperanza was not alongside. I waited patiently in the company of my new friend. We talked about economics, politics and the state of the nation. He bragged about the wealth of his country:
“Guinea you know is the first exporter of bauxite in the world. We have gold, diamonds, name it, and we have it”. Every word was packaged in the lovely tint of French arrogance. He spoke highly of the fisheries sector too. “We have chased away all pirates and illegal fishing vessels,” he said. I enjoyed every bit of our conversation and the rare opportunity to speak French.
After over four hours of good talk and an intense conversation, I finally boarded the Greenpeace ship. Along with me, three officials from the Guinea fisheries authority. Currently the vessel is on an expedition in West Africa to document the threat from overfishing to the marine environment and food security for millions of Africans depending on fish. For the next nine days we were set to carry out joint surveillance with local authorities.
As we left port, I hoped I would find marine life and fisheries in this country in a good condition. Just half as great as the commander had told me. For the first 48 hours everything seemed fine, officials and the crew boarded a few vessels and they were compliant with local laws. But just as I started to believe this rich ocean could indeed be Guinea’s ray of hope, we came across the first case of illegal fishing, then the second, then the third and a fourth. There were mainly Chinese vessels transporting shark fins, fishing in areas they were not allowed to fish, or using nets that were smaller than legally allowed. The smaller the nets, the easier it is to catch the smallest fish, think of it as “baby fish”.
Quite a few vessels are fishing illegally in West African waters, but the number of vessels operating legally is at the heart of the problem. Senegal has 110 licensed trawlers in its waters, Guinea 70, Guinea Bissau 160, and Sierra Leone 143. Putting this in perspective, there could be well over 500 licensed fishing trawlers fishing legally in the West African coast.
The competition with small, local fishers means very little fish is left for the millions of Africans, who depend on fish for a living. This has pushed many local fishermen to resort to ‘fishing from the sky’. I use this phrase to describe the practice whereby artisanal fishing boats wait for trawlers to discard dead fish, as the fish are thrown overboard, they scramble for it, jumping out of their boats to catch the fish flying from the deck of the trawlers and down into the water. This is such a painful thing to watch, and tells a story of empty nets and dead fish and the livelihoods of many artisanal fishermen that is fished away.
But the troubles of artisanal fishermen go way beyond that. During the expedition, we interviewed artisanal fishermen sailing the high seas. We heard stories of how fishing nets of local fishermen are constantly being destroyed or dragged away by trawlers (big vessels), how these destructive vessels fish in areas originally reserved for artisanal fishing and how it had become impossible for them to get any fish. This pushes them to venture far out at seas, farther than you would expect to see such small boats.
We also spoke with African seamen on board the fishing vessel and their stories were even more heart-breaking. Their living conditions were deplorable, some had one meal a day, we heard stories of water rationing and cardboard beds. In one of the interviews, a labourer explained how they will separate the day’s catch. The best fish goes to export and the rejects marked for Guinea. We also spoke with an on-board fishing observer with a 20 year career on foreign fleets. His job, to monitor that practices by foreign vessels at sea comply with local legislation; he decried the gross irregularities at sea. He told us he had written tons of reports in his two decade long career but nothing gets done.
The chaos in West African waters goes to show that governments in the region have very limited capacity to monitor their waters. Driven by economic ambitions, they have dished out numerous licenses to foreign vessels that plunder the seas mercilessly, leaving locals with the scraps. Can it really be true that these governments really don’t care? Why would countries with so little give away so much at the detriment of their own people? I pondered on so many questions, none of which I could answer. The truth is corruption rules in most of Africa but the facts here go beyond the daily reality of corruption that has plagued most African countries. It is a pure war of egos and the unwillingness for collaboration between West African states that is jeopardising the ability of countries in the region to protect their seas and food.
If countries in West Africa work together, they would be able to provide a stronger monitoring system, they would be able to assess the volume of their stock and agree how much fish is reasonable to let fishing fleets catch while at the same time ensuring there is enough food for the local communities. And until this happens, we will hope that someone does the job.
As I disembark from the Esperanza, I bid farewell to my commander friend and tell him about the findings out there at sea. The ride to the airport was another solemn and painful reminder of the despair of fellow Africans. But I leave the Esperanza with an immense feeling of hope, there are many more fishing vessels in the West African waters than the ocean can support. There are many vessels breaking the law and fishing in grounds and zones not reserved for them, and there and many more carrying out illegal fishing, but as I leave this country, I know that for every vessel we intercepted, for every arrest that was made, a fish shall sleep tonight.