ABIDJAN — On a beach south of Abidjan, fishermen are spending the day sitting in the shade and playing cards. Normally, they would be out on their boats – long canoes known as pirogues hunting the seas. But this month, fishing was banned to help the country’s badly depleted fisheries recover.
“We can’t do anything, we can’t do anything at all,” said Patrick Ange Yao, a fisherman since the turn of the century. “We sit here, we chat,” he said. But “we don’t even know where to go – we just go around in circles.”
Overfishing compounded by climate change has left the waters off the West African state alarmingly void of a decent catch. In May, the government announced an “annual biological rest period” in the nation’s 200,000-square-kilometre Exclusive Economic Zone.
The measure entails a ban on trawling for a range of commercial species, including red tuna, sardinella, anchovies and threadfin. Artisanal fishermen are being banned in July and “industrial and semi-industrial” vessels in July and August.
But the halt has come without any aid, leaving families of small-scale fishermen in dire straits. Yao and other men in Aleya, a village wedged between Abidjan and the sea, said they came from the Alladian ethnic group, a community that for generations has lived from fishing.
They could not imagine doing anything else. “We do the fishing and our wives sell the fish, so when (fishing) stops, everything comes to a halt,” said Yao. Some of their spouses are buying frozen fish and hawking it to try to make a living, but “we earn nothing,” said Gladys Donco, the wife of a fisherman and a trader for 32 years.
Frozen fish brings in just 3,000 CFA francs ($5) per day, Donco and her friend Alice Koffi explained. By comparison, a successful month between July and December catching sea bream or a species called forkbeard can bring in up to 500,000 francs.
Ivory Coast is not the only West African nation with sickly fisheries.
Amnesty International reported in May that chronic over-fishing, especially by foreign-owned industrial trawlers, was having a “devastating” impact on the region, costing The Gambia, Mauritania, Senegal, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea and Sierra Leone $2.3 billion per year in losses.
Climate change is another threat.
According to the World Bank, warming oceans and rising carbon dioxide levels will cause catches off Ivory Coast to decline by 40 percent by 2100. Many argued that the impact of artisanal fishing on fish reproduction was far less than that of industrial fishing.
If the fish are there, a pirogue may come home with a catch of 500-600 kilograms on a trip lasting several days, said Yao. But trawlers can net tons over the same period, including juvenile fish that have yet to mature and reproduce. “It takes at least three months for the fish to come back” after an area is swept clean, Yao said, referring to the sometimes illegal practices by Chinese vessels.
The damage meant they had to venture farther out to sea, toward the border of Ghana or Liberia, and as much as 100km from the coast, they said.
“We have children – we don’t know what we’re going to do to feed them and keep a roof over our heads,” said Kouame Benjamin Kouakou.