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18th Apr 13Managed by Chatham House
Financed by DEFRA
Cameroon: fishermen buying fish
Cameroon got its name from the Portuguese who, upon arriving on the coast in the 1400s, found seafood in such abundance they decided to call the main estuary Rio dos Camaroes, or River of Prawns. Yet today the people of Cameroon import most of the seafood they consume, while local fishermen are going out of business.
The fishermen say the reason is clear: "Foreign fishing vessels are overfishing our waters," one of a group of fishermen sitting by their wooden canoes in the fishing town of Limba in Western Cameroon told IRIN. He said his first name was Baba but, like the rest of the group, said it was too risky to give his full name.
Why would the government allow most of the fish in Cameroon to be exported and most of the fish that Cameroonians consume to be imported?
Import taxes and licensing fees is the answer, according to fisheries expert at the agricultural non-governmental organisation Service d'Appui aux Initiative Locales de Dveloppement (SAILD), Mbilla Valerie. International fishing companies pay the federal government large sums for the right to catch and export the fish.
"The Chinese have a cooperation agreement with Cameroon which allows Chinese fishing trawlers to pretty well fish how they like," Valerie told IRIN. "The trawlers use huge nets that sweep up everything in their path."
International fishing vessels are only supposed to trawl on the high seas and leave local fishermen to fish along the coast.
But the fishermen in Limba told IRIN that the foreign vessels come at night to trawl by the coast and go into bays and estuaries where fish are spawning.
"The nets they use have such small gaps that they catch even the tiny fish," said Emos, another of the fishermen who did not want to give his full name.
"We often see two trawlers moving in parallel with a giant net strung between them," Emos said. "Nothing is left behind."
After trawlers have combed an area there is no use trying to fish there for at least a week, another of the fishermen told IRIN. "You'd have more chance catching a fish by climbing a tree," he said.
Many fishermen have given up trying to catch fish at all.
"Now some of us have found a way of making a living by buying fish from the foreign fishing trawlers," said a fisherman, pointing to several large canoes moored in the bay.
"Those boats are the ones that go up alongside the trawlers which then dump fish into them," he said.
"But the trawlers only sell what they have rejected for export and a lot of the fish they give us is just rotten."
Government officials told IRIN local fishermen are disgruntled and ignorant. "We make sure the foreign vessels do not fish outside authorised zones," Alphonse Ateba Ndoumou, spokesman for the minister of commerce, told IRIN.
He also gave a different explanation for why the local fishermen were no longer catching fish. "Oil from the pipeline [between Cameroon and Chad] is spilling along the coast from Kribi [one of Cameroon's main fishing centres]. That is why the fish have moved away," he said.
He and other officials also blamed the oil refinery near Limba. A journalist in the area told IRIN that government officials have frequently suggested to him that the sand there has turned black and sticky because of oil pollution but "we are not in a position to verify the claim", he added.
Fishermen in Limba scoffed at the suggestion that pollution was to blame. "The sand was black here long before there was an oil refinery," one said. "Limba sits under Mount Cameroon which is an active volcano and which has been spewing out black lava for millennia."
The fishermen said they have tried to send representatives to the capital Yaound to explain their problems to the government but they cannot find anyone there who will listen.
"We have given up trying," one said. "And the foreign fishing trawlers can see we are powerless to do anything and they are increasingly blatant and provoking us."
Mbilla Valerie, from the NGO SAILD, also said he has sent requests to various government officials to discuss local fishing issues "but none of them ever responded."
"There is no forum in this country through which such problems can be resolved," he said.
The mayor of Limba Daniel Matute Lyonga told IRIN he too was concerned. "It's obvious that it is now almost impossible for the local fishermen here to subsist," he said.
But, he added, there is little he can do as the federal government is responsible for international fishing rights issues. "We would like to see a national monitoring system of the trawlers and ensure they use nets with gaps big enough to allow small fish through," he said. "That way more fish can grow a bit before getting caught."
Officials in Yaound told IRIN that the real problem is that local fishermen are not adapting. "Their fishing techniques are antiquated," said Ndoumou, the spokesman for the minister of commerce. "They are trying to stand in the way of modernity," he added.
"If they can't compete then they need to find a different way of making a living," he said.
Some local fishermen in Limba have indeed given up and now work for foreign fishing companies, although such jobs are hard to come by.
Most just sit on the beach and stew. "If nothing changes we have vowed to attack one of the foreign vessels," said one fisherman as others around him nodded their heads excitedly.
"One dark night we will sneak up on a vessel and board it," another in the enraged group said. "We'll kill the crew and sink their boat. Then they'll think twice about stealing our fish."
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