By Nfor Hanson Nchanji, first published on Cameroon Web.
Fishing in Cameroon is guided by detailed regulations from the country’s Ministry of Livestock, Fisheries & Animal Industry that were modified in 2013 to suit the present environment. The regulations do not only regulate maritime boundaries but also limits fishing zones.
Article 8 of the Maritime law of 2013 divides fishing into three categories: Offshore fishing, coastal fishing and great fishing. Article 7 of the same law fixes four types of commercial activities in Cameroon’s waters: Coastal navigation or boundary marking, national cabotage, international cabotage and long coarse fishing.
Fishing off the coast of Cameroon is regulated by law to allow both small and large scale operators to carry out their activities without conflicts. The reason why trawlers managed by mostly Chinese fishermen are not allowed to carry out activities closer than three nautical miles from the coast, is because this area is reserved only for artisanal or for local fishermen.
Yet these local Cameroon fishermen are crying foul, accusing the Chinese fishermen of sweeping all contents in the water including fingerlings without mercy, be it ‘Awacha’, Mossubu, Trong Kanda, Crab or Njanga.
On a busy Saturday morning in Idenau, a locality in Fako division in south west Cameroon, a fishing boat has just arrived on the shore where anxious buyers are waiting with baskets in hand, each aiming to have the best selection from the catch. When fishermen approach the shore it is usually a free for all fight.
On this particular day the catch is not up to expectations. Abozo Romel, a fisherman from Benin, alights from his boat feeling disappointed. The look on his face speaks volumes; it was not a good day.
“You see today we are back from the sea, just take a look at the basket, it is almost empty. We don’t have fish in the water anymore, we don’t. I will tell you why, because Chinese fishermen have caught all the fishes including restricted ones. Our major problem here is that before we set out, those big trawlers controlled by Chinese fishermen had already fished in our own areas leaving us with practically nothing,” he says.
However, he adds, “I do not want them to be sent away like some fishermen think, I just want the laws to be strictly respected because if it is the case, we will not be lamenting today.”
Kofi Abogo, also from Benin, has a contrary view, standing under the rain with an umbrella in hand and watching how traders scramble for their share. He shakes his head as if to say life has ended for him in, narrating his ordeal in Pidgin English. “I have been fishing here for years now, I used to make good catches which could sustain my family and I could still have some savings but now it is different. Chinese fishing vessels are gradually kicking us out of business. They go deep inside the sea with their machines and gather everything, select what they want and throw away the dead fish inside the water.”
Another fisherman, Zavier Yanu disclosed that on some occasions, the Chinese fishermen use ‘gamaline’, a liquid which suffocates fish in the water. “Two years ahead we will not have fish in the water anymore because they use even chemicals to kill all the fish around them.”
A majority of the local fishermen in Idenau say there is an undeclared conflict between them and the Chinese experts, who fish even in no go zones, and use three mm nets to catch fish.
These local fishermen told me, they have made several complaints to competent authorities on the prevailing situation but have received no favorable answers. They now rely on civil society organizations and the media to expose such practices.
In Youpwe, a locality in Douala three, Littoral region of Cameroon, a small market operates daily where fish is sold. The transformation from wet to dry fish also takes place there. In fact Youpwe alone supplies fish to all six divisions which make up Wouri division. But just like fishermen in Idenau, those in Youpwe are also complaining of the scarcity of fish due to the activities of Chinese fishermen. The direct impact here is on retailers.
Ma Agnes, a fish trader in Youpwe is sitting with her right palm supporting her jaw as this reporter arrives; she gets up suddenly to meet me thinking I was a customer. She reveals that fish has become so expensive because the catch has also been reduced. “My son you see this Trong Kanda, it used to be available in huge quantities but today he who sells it has some luck, three smoked fingers are sold at FCFA 200 (US$0.37) which was previously FCFA 100 (US$0.19) and people are not buying,” she complains.
The first deputy Mayor of Idenau council, the local supervisory authority, Emmanuel Penda says though revenue collection does not depend entirely on fishing, they have received several complaints from the field on how fish is gradually disappearing.
Even though he blames the Chinese fishermen for some of the illegal operations, Penda says their presence in Cameroon has boosted the sector and fish that local men cannot catch is easily hooked by the foreigners hence boosting the economy, creating temporal employment, payment of taxes to the state by obtaining fishing permits, exploitation taxes and training of Cameroonian fishermen.
“It is true that the Chinese trawlers are gathering all the fish in the water but if you examine the situation critically, you will discover that they are contributing enormously to the economy,” he asserted.
In fact Emmanuel Penda laments the fact that Cameroonians are not interested in fishing as most fishermen in Cameroon are foreigners from China, Benin, Ghana, Nigeria and Togo.
To fight this scarcity of Cameroonian fishermen the Cameroon government has created schools to train interested Cameroonians to become experts in fishing. The Idenau Council Deputy Mayor Emmanuel Penda adds that, “The young fishermen training college in Debunscha is just one out of three including Douala and Maroua to train these men including some foreigners and entry is free. A student is entitled to a FCFA 1,000 (US$1.83) daily stipend for enrollment; by the end of the month, they are paid FCFA 31,000 (US$56.8).”
He regrets that despite this motivational factor the attendance is still very low as Cameroonians are shying away from the activity with 75-95% of fishermen being foreigners.“Everyone wants his child to become Divisional Officer, Mayor, Governor, Engineer, Minister; nobody wants his child to become a fisherman. So in the nearest future, foreigners will hijack this activity”, adds Penda.
Chinese fishermen would have had no particular issues with local fishermen in Cameroon if some of their trawlers did not violate fishing laws. Most of these vessels are caught at least once a month. The 2013 accord signed between Cameroon’s Ministry of Livestock, Fisheries & Animal Industry (MINEPIA) and the Ministry of Defense has reduced such activities off the coast of Cameroon. The MINEPIA patrol team is being boosted by another team of soldiers who help to secure and reinforce the law. In 2016 alone, six vessels fishing illegally (nearer than three nautical miles is meant for artisanal fishing) were caught in six months.
The Limbe Naval Base Commander, Lt. Col Sone Ngongeh, has been at the forefront of this surveillance but says most of the activities often go unnoticed.“If we can improve on our equipment, detection equipment, not just vessels but also raiders that can permit us to know even by staying on land, we can know how vessels are fishing in our waters. We also need good laws to completely eradicate the phenomenon,” he says during one of the operations.
When he talked about law, he didn’t want to go further but this reporter gathered on good grounds that the law is in place but some men in high authority have been bypassing it to invite corrupt practices. This reporter is reliably informed that once the vessels are caught by the Navy and handed over to authorities, the law is not completely implemented.
It is alleged that some vessels impounded are released sooner or later after a call from Yaoundé, the country’s political capital. The Divisional Delegate of MINEPIA for Fako Division in the South West region, Dr Rene Bissong Bissong, indirectly confirmed this allegation by revealing that most vessels at sea are manned by Chinese experts but owned by Cameroonians, men in top ranking positions or business moguls.
When clandestine fishermen are caught, they are taken to the competent service and once there sometimes the punishment varies from seizing what they have captured in their boats; they seize everything and auction it to the public and source the proceeds to the national treasury, but they can also ban them from fishing for a period of time.“I’m talking about suspension and sometimes it can be payment of cash varying from FCFA 5 million (US$9,160) to FCFA 100 million (US$183,216) depending on the infraction caused. Infraction means the different areas which they transgressed”, Bissong Bissong says.
“The boats that you see and call Chinese boats, they are not really owned by the Chinese, they are owned by Cameroonians, big business people. Now since we Cameroonians do not have the skill for industrial fishing, they have to go to China to look for workers who are experts in this type of activity; to the best of my knowledge most of them are owned by Cameroonians. When they are caught they pay their fines and are left to continue their fishing.”
It is alleged these businessmen force their workers to have a good catch to increase their income and in order to have a good catch; hence the Chinese fishermen are forced to use unorthodox means.
Far from the common perception that Chinese fishermen were wreaking havoc on Cameroon’s territorial waters in the Idenau, South West region and Youpwe in the Littoral region, revelations from key actors show that the matter is not about who is fishing off the coast but who has which trawler and how far can he go to bribe authorities for his boat to continue operating even after committing the highest infraction at sea.
Green Peace Campaigner Ahmed Diame has noted that aside from blaming the dwindling fortunes of the fishing sector on Chinese fishermen, “corruption and lack of transparency in the management of fisheries resources is a huge challenge in West coast Africa…One of the consequences of this situation is that many country officials and fishing companies, not only Chinese, are in collusion.”
He added that this state of affairs can be overcome by harmonizing the fishing laws with more stringent laws and ensuring their effective implementation. But the continued disrespect for fishing laws has plunged the sector into total chaos and according to the Deputy Mayor of Idenau Council, Emmanuel Penda, Cameroon will in the years ahead run short of fish in its waters.
This work was produced as a result of a grant provided by the Africa-China Reporting Project managed by the Journalism Department of the University of Witwatersrand University in South Africa.