JAMESTOWN, Ghana — The life of Ofori Muhammad, a 52-year-old fisherman in the port of Jamestown, would be idyllic if it were a bit more lucrative.
At dawn, the devout Muslim lands ashore, prays, spends his mid-mornings stitching an endless latticework of nylon net, packs in a few naps, then pushes out to sea at midnight to do it again, as he has for 38 years.
But out there, at night, he sees the enemy: enormous foreign ships trawling the ocean floor with eerie underwater lights that bewilder fish. Their nets — 200 meters wide — sweep the ocean floor cleaner than the hand-sewn nets the men at Jamestown spend their mornings mending.
With deep sea scanners, the trawlers hunt schools of fish across Africa's western coastline, hoisting new flags as they cross invisible borders.
“Wherever fish are in West Africa, they chase after them,” said Chairman Daniel Eli of Foodspan, a food issues advocacy group. “From Guinea to the Ivory Coast, anything goes.”
There are signs, however, that there's not much left to chase. Back in Jamestown, grizzled fishermen remember their glory years when they'd pass only a few days a week at sea. Now, most spend all seven days in their canoes, returning to shore with fewer, smaller and younger fish.
“Here we can't catch anything,” said Odartei Mills, a 47-year-old fisherman. “So we go as far as Abidjan.”
Others have been sailing outward, deep into West Africa's stormy Atlantic, which in rainy season tosses wooden boats through a spin cycle. This time last year, two of the men working Mills' dock sailed off into a storm like that.
“They didn't come back,” he said.
If there's a meat that binds together the hundreds of culturally and ethnically distinct societies in West Africa, it's fish, the major and most affordable source of protein for gastronomes as far north as the parched Sahel.
For millions of family businesses, it is also the primary source of income. Ghana's government estimates that 2.2 million of its 23 million citizens are directly dependent on fishermen. Another two or three million Ghanaians rely on fish traders, truck drivers, boat repairmen and manufacturers who work on the fringes of the fish industry.
Virtually all those Ghanaians are making do with less and less. Moba, a 30-year-old father who kicked off his fishing career at the age of 14, said he used to haul home boatloads worth $70 or $80 a week. Today, the fisherman, who said he has never gone by any name beyond Moba, feeds his family and fuels his boat on a weekly catch worth $15 to $25.
“That one, it no be money,” he said.
Moba's dock sits a few minute's walk from Jamestown's central market. But the fresh grouper he reels home are not what's selling at many of the stalls. Much of the fish Ghanaians and West Africans buy at markets like this has come back rejected from trawlers that sort their catches in the islands of Cape Verde, according to Foodspan research.
Well-fed, nutritious fish are selected and shipped to Korea, China and Taiwan. What returns to Africa is often undernourished, old, caked with dying white scales — in fish parlance, bleached.
“This is what we clamor to buy and pay for,” Eli said.
In the region's budding democracies, the scarcity of fish has become a salient political issue — swing votes from Ghana's central region, a coastal stretch of fishing villages, tipped the balance in favor of the opposition in last year's elections.
But even in the most accountable countries, it's unclear what West African governments can and are willing to do. In Senegal, the government cracked down on foreign trawlers and installed monitoring systems, after a fishing deal with the European Union turned sour for local fishermen. Fishing is banned in some breeding zones in Mauritania, where fishing accounts for 25 percent of the national GDP.
In virtually every other nation along the coast, however, corruption and loose oversight has limited government control over the seas.
For one, fish authorities know little about what swims below West Africa's waters. Ghana's government hasn't had a research vessel since its last one conked out in the mid-1990s. Most of what Ghana's Agricultural Ministry knows about its ocean comes from the Fridtjof Nansen — a Norwegian research ship that scoots down the coast every few years.
“We are managing something we don't see,” said Patricia Markwei, deputy director of Ghana’s Marine Fisheries.
Meanwhile, governments here continue to license new vessels. Civil servants like Markwei, and George Hutchful, deputy director at Ghana's Fisheries Commission, as well as outside experts like Eli, all suggest that the licensing process may be compromised by corruption.
“Giving out permits is done by politicians — let me put it that way,” Markwei said. “When a civil servant goes up, you have no say, because if my minister asks me to license and register a ship, I won't say no.”
Ghana's previous presidential administration placed a ban on the most devastating forms of trawling, but proved unable to enforce it. “I hear it's getting even worse now,” said Hutchful.
The fleet of speedboats sent to enforce the ban had a hard time catching up with the trawlers, so they turned their attention to canoe fishers like the men at Jamestown, whose undersized nets and child labor practices make them an easy, slow-moving target.
But the fishers say they are only employing illegal nets and pre-teen boys to stay in business.
Meanwhile, on land, government spokespeople have been traveling into fishing villages, urging sea-weathered fishermen to consider less strenuous day jobs.
“We introduce them to pastry making, kente weaving, tie-and-dye, any vocation,” Markwei said. “Like beads.”
“But we haven't been successful,” she continued. “They'll tell you its fishing they know best and that's what they want to do.”
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