Along Cameroon’s coastline, a battle for once-rich waters is taking place, pitting artisanal fishers against huge industrial trawlers
Words and photographs by Alexander McMaster and Sarah McArthur
At the heart of Youpwe market sits a catacomb of dried fish. Scorched and stacked by the thousands, they keep for weeks under tin shades and faded canopies. Patricia Wandou, a rollicking woman in her 50s, sorts them into baskets. Born in Youpwe, she inherited her mother’s business; buying fresh fish from the boats and then drying, smoking and selling it. She has seen the place expand from a fishing village to the largest artisanal market in Cameroon, engulfed by the industrial city of Douala.
Progress here has seen living standards improve, but Patricia worries about the rising cost of fish and its withering abundance. ‘When [fishing] is not done well, it kills everything, and after years, people will suffer, like we are suffering now,’ she says. Alongside fish sellers, mechanics tune oily outboard motors and weary authorities thumb the documents of a migrant fisherman. A pickup truck charges by with a gang of hard-hatted workers bound for the new market – a Japanese development project. Clusters of rusted trawlers decay on the mud. Beyond that, wooden fishing canoes weave through mangroves along waterways that reach for the open sea.
When Portuguese sailors arrived here in 1472, they conceived the name Rio dos Camarões, meaning ‘river of shrimp’. The title follows a colonial fashion of naming places for what could be extracted, most clearly illustrated by the Ivory Coast and the Gold Coast. Looking at a map of Cameroon, the tiny shoreline pales in comparison to its vast interior. Fishing isn’t as significant here as it is in other West African nations, but there are long-established coastal communities that base their income, food security and spirituality on the sea and its harvest. It’s a way of life now threatened by an onslaught from the high seas – industrial trawlers entering coastal waters illegally, with destructive and sometimes violent consequences.
The strongest wins
Hand over hand, shimmering nylon passes beneath the slack tide. Omotala Felix stands, bare feet poised on a wooden thwart, untangling a kilometre of the wide-meshed lattice. Floats and weights drop over the side. Ekolo Koum David holds the throttle at a steady purr, inching the canoe forward.
After an hour or so, Felix tosses a single jerrycan to mark the position of the net and we motor to a nearby fishing camp. ‘My great-grandfather was a fisher, my grandfather a fisher, and me: a fisher. I am in the family; I am coastal. I have the right to fish,’ says David. He usually puts to sea for two days at a time, throwing and hauling his nets for a catch valued at £400–£600.
An outboard motor and onboard freezer make all this possible in a way that it wasn’t for David’s forefathers. But mechanisation has also made these waters appealing to huge, industrial trawlers, indiscriminate in their approach to fishing. ‘They catch even the tiny fish, then they sort the big from the little, and throw the small fish, which are already dead, back into the water. Us, with our nets, we only catch mature fish,’ David says.
David and Felix use nets that rest on the seabed, trapping fish on the tide. They sort the catch by hand and while some fish are lost, the process is generally scrupulous. Industrial trawlers use powerful motors to drag swathes of ocean with colossal nets, not only capturing fish, but any fishing gear, or even fishing crews, that stand in their way.
‘When I was sleeping, my colleague woke up to take some water out of the boat,’ says David, describing an incident that took place in 2019. ‘That’s when he saw the boat was already opposite us. Before turning around, the boat touched us, it broke one side of the canoe, and in knocking us, it gathered up our net and left with it.’
David’s story isn’t exceptional. Almost every fisher to whom we speak has their own version of it. Felix has replaced several nets. Laurent was threatened at gunpoint when he chased a trawler that swept up his net. Gladys tells us of the debts she has accumulated buying new nets. She doesn’t know how she’ll repay them. And in Londji, a fisherman was drowned – knocked from his boat by a trawler, tangled in his own net and dragged to the next port.
Many of the trawlers are owned by Chinese companies, but David is convinced that the problem lies with Cameroonian businesspeople and government officials, who are often one and the same. ‘Behind these fishing boats we find that there are people in government who own them,’ he says. ‘They are big men and we are little men. Here it’s the law of the strongest wins.’
He’s frustrated that despite being subject to government fees, local fishers are left high and dry by authorities. ‘They say that the naval police support us at sea, but that’s a lie,’ he continues. ‘It’s us fishers who look after ourselves. Even if I tell them the ID number of the boat, the naval police will never come, or they will go and take the fine from the boat and pocket it themselves.’ After the 2019 incident, he went to the authorities. ‘They said, “Leave it. Just be grateful you’re not dead.” So I let it go. I let it go.’
The sandy coast is unbroken for kilometres, lined with forest and the occasional fishing camp. On the high tide, David surfs the canoe into the mouth of the Londji River. Mangroves shroud the banks, arched in the brackish water, closing overhead as we move upstream. Back onshore, Felix’s wife Cathy exchanges the bucket of fish for one of freshwater and we rinse the mud from our feet and the salt from our faces.
When Felix goes to sea, Cathy looks after their three children and smokes fish from the last trip. On his return, the couple sells their catch, fresh and smoked, side by side in Londji market. Perched on a stool between the kitchen and the palm smokehouse, Cathy guts and prepares a sole from today’s haul. Scales flash out under the blade of her knife. ‘At the beginning of our relationship, there were fish, oh la la there were fish, but now, everything has changed,’ she says. For Cathy, life at sea and its dangers carry a universal justification: the need to feed your family. That goes as much for the foreign fisher as it does for Felix. ‘Each person has to earn their daily bread.’
It’s a broader, more nuanced view of the conflict and, to build on it, we speak with Noella Mbotiji, a researcher specialising in illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, and Pierre Soung, who leads a project with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization to stimulate sustainable growth in fishing. ‘The Chinese have been notorious for coming into, and overexploiting, our waters. And when that is done, there is a depletion of our fish stock,’ says Noella. She explains that the government of Cameroon has been enabling these incursions through loopholes in international maritime law.
‘Cameroon’s navy is notorious for issuing flags of convenience to foreign vessels,’ she adds. Globally, all vessels are required to register with a ‘flag state’ that is responsible for enforcing international rules and standards, from working conditions to environmental protection. The flag state is typically the vessel’s country of origin, but flags of convenience, such as a Chinese boat declaring Cameroon as its flag state, allow boat owners to avoid international laws that haven’t been ratified by Cameroon. This avoids stringent regulation in their own country and minimises expenses. It’s the boat-owner’s equivalent of moving clothing factories to countries with lax employment regulations.
Beyond the issue of regulation is one of enforcement. Foreign vessels in Cameroonian waters must still, technically, abide by national laws. The law designates the first two kilometres from the shore for artisanal fishers, and the rest goes to industrial boats. It’s when trawlers enter the two-kilometre zone that clashes occur.
As an intergovernmental official, Pierre has a balanced viewpoint that could be frustrating for those on the front line. ‘You should not forget that fishing is a business, an economic activity,’ he says. ‘It’s obvious that when a trawler spends three hours, four hours fishing without catching anything in the net, that he may decide to go in the easy places, which are bays or estuaries, and to fish there very fast.’ He adds that the economic consequence of destroying artisanal nets falls on both sides. ‘Usually the net will go into the turbine and the fishing vessel will have to stop for one or two hours to remove it. So this results in delays for the fish trawler.’
Pierre may have a point. It’s easy to romanticise the traditional fisher as a noble custodian of the sea. In some ways, such a view is justified. Fishers possess generations of cultural knowledge that’s often ignored in decision making over maritime and conservation issues. But in this discourse, we can be guilty of failing to humanise the industrial fisher. We seek out narratives with villains and heroes, but the line isn’t so clear. There’s widespread documentation of mistreatment among industrial crews, extending in many cases to abuse and indentured labour. Flags of convenience are one of the key facilitators of such crimes. The hush that surrounds industrial fleets makes it difficult to construct a narrative for the individual fisher, at sea for months at a time. Even more opaque are the captains and owners who reap the profits from a safe distance.
At dusk, the foothills of Mount Cameroon are painted violet. Lights blink from nearby Bioko Island, and on the dark sands at Limbe, there’s a spark of commotion. ‘Quick! Here! Bring that!’ Bare feet tear the beach and dash to the water, a canoe is heaved and loaded, paddles beat as the net runs out.
The fishermen have to act quickly, explains Mensah James. They work to encircle the shoal before it moves on. The method is opportunistic, watching from the shore and reacting in just a few minutes of frenetic activity. It’s also illegal – ensnaring the shoal catches juvenile fish, reducing its capacity for repopulating. Just as the industrial fisher is imperfect, artisanal fishing is multi-faceted. But it’s also built on an understanding rooted in place and cultivated over time.
James has lived on this coast for more than 50 years and describes himself as having ‘grown up in the sea’. He’s part of the many generations of hands worn by the quick run of the net, the families and communities catching, smoking and selling fish. Methods have been allowed to evolve, working within the confines of spaces where they’ve long existed. The needs of communities are balanced with reverence for the ocean.
Traditional knowledge isn’t static. James, David and Felix all talk of the Mami Wata, a water spirit venerated in West, Central and Southern Africa, of sirens and haunting tales of the sea, all while possessing ecological knowledge to match that of biologists. They are all engaged in a data-gathering programme with a Cameroonian NGO, the African Marine Mammal Conservation Organisation, work that has led to the legal protection of five marine mammal species. They’ve shifted the paradigm on turtle hunting, empowered through the NGO as bastions for conservation in their communities. Information is gathered through a mobile application that’s now being developed so fishers can report illegal activity that threatens their livelihood.
Just as knowledge evolves, methods change to accommodate new challenges. Fishers near Kribi in southwestern Cameroon are addressing the decline of shrimp through artisanal aquaculture, installing small community tanks with technical support from Cameroonian specialists and institutions. Holding their position in a changing environment demands adaptability, something that’s much more difficult to achieve for the transient industrial fleets.
So why do authorities ignore artisanal fishers when they have much to contribute to maritime decision making? Perhaps it’s because too great a portion of political interest lies in private profit. Casting a blind eye keeps the money rolling. ‘The government gives them limits, but they come in the night,’ says James. ‘I can see it from my home! They took my net, not one time or two time, maybe ten time. The government has to do something, because we cry here. We continue to cry.’
Like other fishers, James has been turned away by the authorities. Afraid to confront the trawlers himself, he’s infuriated. ‘I cannot go and tell them no, this is your limit,’ he says. ‘If I go there, they will kill me. Last time, they shoot one boy, so lucky the bullet touch his shoulder. They already took his net and he went there and said – “Why have you done” – and, pap, they shoot him.’
James says the authorities did respond initially, but there was no prosecution. This is a drastic threshold for action. Several sources indicate that government corruption is a key enabler and protector, but are reluctant to offer specifics. Access to the port in Douala, and to the ownership of fishing fleets, is highly restricted. Our attempts to make contact were turned down or ignored.
The players in this conflict aren’t as dichotomous as might be presumed. The noble artisanal fisher, unchanging throughout generations, doesn’t exist. Neither does the heartless industrial fisher. In reality, the wrestling grounds of Cameroonian waters are occupied by a variety of individuals trying to earn their daily bread. What the artisanal and industrial fisher really have in common is that neither has the power to change their circumstances. Their voices aren’t heard at the table and even less so in the back-corridor conversations where deals, at once political and business, are often made.
It’s this that makes the work of the observers – the researchers, NGOs and intergovernmental projects – so essential. The artisanal fisher has a familiarity that facilitates adaptability, something that can’t exist for the pawn of an industrial machine. Their profound understanding of the sea and the organisms within it means that they can play a valid part in providing real solutions to a variety of ecological and societal challenges. In an ideal world, this would already be recognised, but in the current system, the strong, impartial voices of the observers are needed to empower and galvanise this expertise.
‘Not a big catch tonight,’ says James, noting two carp, three bar and a few small bream as he lays them out on the sand. Even in the dark, he knows each species intimately. These fishers have a knowledge of the sea shared by their community and woven through identity. They also know the political ecosystem all too well, as summarised by one fisher to whom we speak: ‘I can’t size up to a lion, I’m just a bee. The lion will step on me. It’s the big fish who eat the little fish, even at sea.’
Alexander McMaster is a freelance journalist, marine ecologist and professional diver. Sarah McArthur is a social science researcher who works with humanitarian organisations in the Central African Republic