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Last Updated:  Wednesday, 19 March, 2003, 01:40 GMT
Fishing for a future
By Sarah Simpson
Elmina, Ghana

Across West Africa, fishing communities are under mounting pressure as fish stocks are depleted year by year.

The traditional canoe fishermen of Elmina blame the large commercial operators, but the government says they need to look at other ways of earning a living.

Red fish, known as Yeki
Communities rely on their catches of yeki fish
The Portuguese, the Dutch and the British have all used Elmina as a base for trading operations in West Africa.

For hundreds of years, Elmina was a linchpin for the trade in gold and later slaves.

But despite this trading history, Elmina is first and foremost a fishing community.

About 500 brightly painted canoes operate out of the lagoon which serves as a natural harbour, making Elmina the second largest community of traditional fishermen in Ghana.

We are suffering
Eric Therson, fisherman
At this time of year, the smaller canoes go out in the dark of night.

Other, larger canoes are fitted with iceboxes and outboard motors and these can be out at sea for up to a week to catch the small red fish locally called yeki.

No fish, no money

Over the last 10 years, the fishermen have seen their catches decline.

Despite staying at sea for longer, the fishermen are catching less. The fish they are catching are also smaller - too small to be fit for human consumption, they complain.

"We are suffering," complains Eric Therson who owns three canoes in Elmina.

A Ghanaian fisherman
Fishermen do not want to diversify
He is worried that the bank could take away his canoes as he is struggling to make repayments on his loans and manage his overdraft.

Things are so bad that the fishermen cannot even afford to eat the fish they catch.

And it does not stop there. In a town like Elmina, when there are no fish, there is no money and that affects everyone.

The net makers, boat builders, shop keepers are suffering too.

Isaac has a kiosk on the lagoonside. He makes his money renting out table-tennis equipment and a bicycle.

As fish are scarce, few have enough money to spend on leisure pursuits, and Isaac has seen his income plummet.

Particularly worrying is the fact that children are being pulled out of school as parents cannot afford the fees.

It is ironic that all young boys have left to do now is fish. Boys as young as seven are going out to sea instead of getting an education.

Depleted stocks

The Chief Fisheries Officer at the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), Alhaji Jallow, confirmed the fishermen's observations.

According to him, studies conducted with the assistance of the Norwegian Government have shown that the demersal, or deep-sea fish stock, has been significantly depleted.

Fishermen's boats
Too many fishermen are chasing too few fish
There are a number of reasons for this.

Ghana is a big market for fish - and demand for fresh or frozen produce outstrips supply.

This has encouraged many to take up fishing, increasing the number of canoes and leading to over-fishing of the accessible coastal shallows.

Unlike some of its neighbours, the problem in Ghana is not with illegal trawlers but that licensed trawlers are using illegal practices.

Trawlers have to operate according to strict regulations, but the Ghanaian Government does not have the necessary capacity to enforce them.

Breaking with tradition

In theory, trawlers are barred from using small-mesh netting to prevent the catching of small young fish which ultimately leads to a weakening of the fish stock.

Trawlers are also limited to operating in waters deeper than 30 metres.

Women wait on the docks
Fishing is a way of life in Elmina
However, the fishermen in Elmina complain that most nights the trawlers fish in shallower waters.

According to the Minister of Fisheries, Ishmael Ashitey, plans are in place to improve policing of the trawlers using electronic equipment, which will enable the authorities to monitor where the trawlers are operating.

The minister also wants to diversify the local economy, but the fishermen are solidly opposed.

They have little faith in the capabilities of electronic tracking devices and as for "diversification" - it is unthinkable.

For them, fishing is a way of life.

Country profile: Ghana
12 Mar 03 |  Country profiles
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20 Feb 03 |  Business
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