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Cameroon:Fish Production, Corruption and Crime In A Depleting Coastal Ecosystem

Thursday is a very busy day at the Mabeta Smoked Fish Market in the coastal town of Limbe in South West Cameroon.

On this market day in September 2021 Agbesse Kodjo, a Togolese woman fish monger welcomes  a customer  to her smoked fish stand as she arranges and displays  her stock of smoked fish  in preparation for the day’s business.

With a grim look she tells the customer “Business has not been easy because the fish catch this year has been very disappointing. We have to struggle harder to get fresh fish to smoke and sell. That is why fish is very expensive now. But you are my customer, I know you will buy some fish from me”, she concludes, expecting the client  to place my order.

As she continues to display the smoked Sardinella maderensis and Ethmalosa Fimbriata; also known locally as “strong canda” and “bonga”, she tells the customer  “ It is 7 bonga for 1000 frs($1.76), but you are a regular customer, I will give you 8 for 1000frs” she responds while already preparing non biodegradable paper to package it.

After  package and selling  for 5000 frs($8.8),she bids  the  buyer  goodbye ,with a smile on her face and a promise to offer  a better quantity the next time the customer calls.

Crustaceans on sale in Limbe ,South west cameroon(Photo credit:Aminateh Nkemngu)

Further inside the market , several other women  are seen negotiating sales of smoked fish ,especially “ bonga” and “ strong canda”. Huge packaged quantities of the smoked sardinella and Ethmalosa Fimbiata  , are being packaged and loaded onto buses outside the market.

Mirabel Ngwiseh ,who collects market toll  for the Fisheries Department explains that Sardinella and Ethmalosa Fimbriata  (Strong Canda and Bonga) are the most consumed fish species .She says people come from as far as Ngaoundere(1,140km), Yaounde(311 km),  Bamenda(349km) Bafoussam(295km) and other parts of the country to buy smoked sardinella from Limbe because it is highly sought after.

She adds that smoked Sardinella is tasty, rich in protein and  is prepared in a variety of ways in traditional Cameroonian dishes including but not limited to  “eru”, ”Ndole”,”Bekang” “ekwang” “kpem” “kwacoco”” Nangtare” “esuba”.

Several hours later, in the early morning, scores of women at the Beach front, anxiously wait for artisanal and semi industrial l fishermen to return from the ocean with their catch.

Industrial fishing vessel off the coast of Cameroon( photo creddit_fisheries department)

Semi-industrial fishing  is practiced mostly by  fishermen from Nigeria,Togo,Ghana and Benin and extends a bit further into the sea. The fishing vessels are large size canoes  called the “Awasha”. driven by 40HP engines. Main fishing camps are Idenau, Yoyo, Bekumu, Cap Cameroon and Limbe. The fishers are migratory.

There are other types of fishing practiced in Cameroon. Small scale artisanal fishing is done exclusively within the 3 nautical mile limits and within estuaries. The vessels are small size and dug out of a tree trunk. They are mostly hand pulled or sail driven. It is practiced in almost all fishing camps along the coast of Cameroon.

Artisanal shrimp fishing is also practiced in estuaries and creek zones mostly in the artisanal fishing camps of Mabeta and Mboko in Fako Division  as well as Mokala and Bamusso in the Ndian Division. Only one type of net is used for this purpose – the “ngoto”.

The appearance  of the fishing boats from a distance in the ocean is greeted with joy. As the small fishing boats anchor along the beach that is visibly polluted ,the women tussle to have small quantities .

Suzan Agbor who  has struggled to have two basins of fresh Sardinella and Ethmalosa Fimbriata  this morning worries that the fish harvest is dwindling. She says she and her daughter will have to smoke the fish and sell  to make a small profit. She adds that as a “ mukussa”, the local appellation for widow, she  will have to gather her fish earnings to ensure all her children  are able to attend school.

Nardege Martah a Veterinarian from the Fisheries Department working at the Beach Front explains that the peak harvest season for the Sardinella and Ethmalosa Fimbriata is between July and September when rainfall is at its peak.

Illegal fishing, corruption and crime

Cameroon’s Ministry of Finance says that the fisheries sector contributed 3% of the country’s  US$39 billion gross domestic product (GDP) in 2019. It is projected to stay the same in coming years. Marine capture fishing operations account  for 83% of fish production in the country. Nearly 80% is from marine small scale fisheries.This supports the livelihoods of millions of Cameroonians especially women who mostly depend on fish trade for their livelihood.

Fishing equally constitutes an important part of the socio-cultural system in coastal communities building social cohesion. But the fishery sector faces numerous challenges.

Lack of data on fishing stocks, industrial fishers from other countries, subsidy-driven overfishing and illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and fisheries crimes.

New research findings  by The Pews Trust  indicate steadily increasing fishing capacity along the coast of West Africa, promoted by harmful fisheries subsidies and ineffective management. This has driven overfishing of the sardinella fish species.

Oil spills off the coast of Cameroon(Photo credit ,fisheires department department ,Kribi)

The  Report of the FAO/CECAF Working Group on the Assessment of Small Pelagic Fish revealsthat “because the sardinella stocks move across national boundaries during their migrations .No one coastal state can claim full jurisdiction over any particular stock.”

Similarly, about 80% of the documented 34 355 artisanal fishers in Cameroon are immigrants from Nigeria, Ghana, Benin and Togo. They operate around 300 artisanal fishing ports along Cameroon’s 402-kilometre coastline

Illegal fishing and fisheries crime leads to depleting fish stocks. Illegal catches by foreign industrial vessels alone rose from 2,300 tons in the 1980s to 95,000 tons in the 2000s. These estimates mask the true scale of the problem especially as the number of industrial vessels fishing illegally has increased in recent years.

The same is true for the economic cost of illegal fishing and fisheries crime.It is  estimated that illegal fishing leads to a tax revenue loss of between US$9000 to US$14000 per. A group of artisanal fishermen from West Africa( Nigeria,Togo ,Benin,Ghana) resident in the West coast district of Idenau in South East Cameroon  who opt for anonymity disclose that the greatest challenge they have comes from Chinese fishermen carrying out industrial fishing along the coast of Cameroon. For fear of being routinely arrested by security officials if they dare raise a finger against some unsustainable fishing techniques used by the Chinese,they conclude that Chinese have used their twin  trawlers to catch all the fish in the oceans.

Zachee Nzoh Ngandembou ,Director of  the Centre for Sustainable Development, CESUD, a local NGO operating in the area explains that the  issue of Chinese Industrial fishermen is complicated and mired in a lot of corruption and lack of transparency.

He identifies corruption and excessive bureaucracy in the issuance of fishing licenses and permits as key factors in the management of the marine resources.

“ They make the issuance of licenses so competitive that our local fishermen cannot afford.In the case of Cameroon where fishing  has not been a major preoccupation for indigenes, the business  is largely controlled by foreigners  from Nigeria,Benin,Togo and Ghana. So they spend a lot of money to get fishing permits at the regional level since they are into semi-industrial and artisanal fishing”

“ The Chinese and Greek with big money get Industrial fishing licenses that are issued directly by the Minister of Livestock,Fisheries and Animal Industries.”

Sardinella underoing smoking in Limbe(photo credit_AMINATEH NKEMNGU)

He continues that “ the problem  with industrial fishing is that it is not in the norm and does not belong to sustainable fishing harvest techniques. They do not respect the limits where they are supposed to fish at sea. Cameroonians who get fishing licenses sublet them to these Chinese fishermen because they do not have equipment and resources to carry out industrial fishing. They target sardinella, are not selective in the sizes of fish they harvest and since their licenses come from Yaounde ,they think and know they do not owe anybody any explanation  on what they do.These Chinese also use sophisticated fishing technology ,which most of the time is not accepted under Cameroon law”.

Folefac Mary ,Chief of  Service for Fisheries in the Southwest Regional Delegation of the Fisheries ministry outlines a series of actions that are  routinely carried out to check illegal activities and crime along the coast of the south west region.

Amongst these are routine checks of the different species harvested by industrial fishermen especially shrimps. They also control net sizes, fish licenses, cold chambers, quantity and quality of fish harvested, fish sizes ,fishing sites and locations which should not be within three nautical miles from the coast as well as use of GPS to track down the fishing vessels.

Folefac however regrets that “ since they get their licences from Yaounde and sometimes move with the military to protect them, there are situations where we cannot get the audience required from the captains, a lot of their activities also go unchecked.”

She however admitted that in some cases defaulters have been brought to book and obliged to pay fines as provided by the law.

There have been endemic problems of corruption, fraud and the illegal exploitation of and trade in endangered marine species, especially in the issuance of fishing licenses.

Fish Production And Regulation

According to  Dr Guy Irene Mimbang, Director of  Fisheries, Aquaculture and Fishery Industries in Cameroon’s Ministry of Livestock, Fisheries and Animal Industries, the fishing sector in Cameroon  basically produces local fish that is  consumed by the local population. He acknowledges that  industrial fishing is being developed in Cameroon coastal waters and artisanal fishing in the maritime regions as well as in the continental water bodies.

Hear him ”we are producing roughly 300,000 metric tons anually.The artisanal  fishing sector is producing almost 90 per cent of this quantity. The Industrial fishing represents just about 5 per cent of the production while aquaculture is also about 5 per cent. Aquaculture amounts to about 10,000 metric tons but we think that if we want to increase the production, we have to work hard in promoting aquaculture”. This is consistent with World Trade Organisation(WTO)findings that  most industrial and artisanal fishing activities that target sardinella would not be economically viable without subsidies.

Smoked fish ready for the market in Idenau distrcit(photo credit_Aminateh Nkemngu)

Dr Otang Paul of the local services of the Fisheries Ministries in the south west region of the country  further explains that Law No 94/01 of  20 January 1994 identifies three categories of legal fishing in Cameroon coastal waters. The first category, he says ,is Industrial fishing. Licenses for this category of fishing are issued directly by the Minister of Livestock Fisheries and  Animal Industries for a period of one year renewable. Owners of Industrial Fishing licenses,who are mostly Chinese and Greek foreign fishermen are not allowed to fish within three nautical miles of the coast.

The second category are the Semi Industrial Fishing permits  that are issued by the Regional services of the Ministry of Livestock, Fisheries and Animal Industries and owners of the permit are allowed to fish within three nautical miles from the coast.

Finally there are permits issued for artisanal fishermen  who use canoes and other local means to fish along the coast. They are allowed to fish shrimps and lobsters .They fishi mostly along the coast and estuary and do not have the technical capacity to catch fish n huge quantities .Dr Otang reveals that of the people carrying out artisanal fishing along the coast of Cameroon are foreigners from Nigeria,Ghana Togo and Benin Republic. He concludes that defaulters of fishing regulation ,by law are required to pay fines that range from 50,000 frs($88) to about 5 million frs.($8800).Defaults usually include but not limited to use of unauthorized fishing nets, using of unauthorized fishing technology, like twin trawlers by industrial fishermen and non respect of fishing limits within the ocean.

Consequently, there is  need for more effective regulation of who fishes, where and when in Cameroon’s maritime area. Regulation of how fish is processed either for local consumption or export is equally important. Ensuring transparency along the Cameroon fisheries value chain – from vessel registration to market – is also essential. To achieve this the Ministry of Fisheries and Animal Industries must ensure transparency in matriculating licensing fishing vessels and in monitoring control and surveillance of fishing operations.

Government Subsidies

Dr Guy Irene Mimbang outlines a series of actions taken by government to subsidize the fisheries sector, boost production and create jobs for young people.  He says “Government has an objective to produce more fish and we are trying to involve Cameroonians in fishing activities especially in areas like in the South West Region where there are many foreign artisanal fishermen.”

He reveals the government through the Bakassi Development Programme(BADEP)  has put at the disposal some Cameroonian artisanal fishermen fishing materials and   equipment in the area which is very rich in fish products.

“ At  Isangele, the government has built 60 houses  to host those artisanal fishermen that are being installed in the area. The government is also supporting other fishermen in the continental area (Dams) where we are giving them fishing materials to make them more effective in the fishing activities. The government is supporting them through various projects like the Livestock and fisheries Development Project( LIFIDEP)in the  North West Region which is also trying to help artisanal fishermen and aquaculture producers. We are thinking that doing so, we are going to increase the production in a sufficient way.

Smoked fish ready for transporatation to major cities of Cameroon(photo credit_Aminateh Nkemngu)

He says this is part of government policy to encourage young Cameroonians to seek jobs in the Fishing sector which till now is largely in the hands of foreigners. This further explains why artisanal fishing is not illegal in Caameroon. The LIFIDEP project for instance is installing producers at the level of Lake Bambalang where the project is promoting aquaculture in cages. The LIFIDEP project has producers that are already doing it. To make fingerlings available at the level of the local producers, the LIFIDEP project is acquiring fingerlings and feed and giving them out to the local fish farmers.”

“ We think that the actions of government will be more effective if we have a lot of private investment coming into the sector. The main problem in the sector is that there are not many investors. That is why the government through the Ministry of Livestock and Fisheries, last year launched an appeal for private operators to get involved in aquaculture. We were lucky to have more than 100 persons willing to invest in aquaculture and some have already started with  their different projects on the field. What we are doing now is to facilitate the installation of these producers”. However, he did not state the extent to these private investors can go in investing in the sector in Cameroon.

“That is why the Prime Minister has given the greenlight to the Minister of Livestock and Fisheries to create an inter-ministerial committee to follow up the activities of these producers who are involving in aquaculture production. We think that by doing so, we are going to effectively increase the global production.”

Dr Mimbang  added that  in the 2021 State budget, the government has provided tax exemptions on the importation of different equipment being used in aquaculture. Many producers have taken advantage of these incentives and have imported equipment to start their own farms, materials to produce fish feed locally because feed is also imported. “

In terms of training Mimbang  said  “ the government is training fishermen through many other projects. We have the AFOP project which is training young Cameroonians in fishing activities”

“We have a centre in Bonamatoumbe in Douala, Debunscha, in Limbe, Lonji, in Kribi, Maga in the Far North and Belabo in the East. All of these centres are training young Cameroonians who at the end of the training receive engine boats and other fishing equipment to start their own production. From the reports we have received from the field, they are doing well. We equally have another project that is starting now known as PRODESVER ( Project for the Development of the Fisheries Values Chain).

Smoking of Sardinella in Idenar District(photo credit_Aminateh Nkemngu)

As far as donations are concerned,he noted thatWe have another project known as  PPEA (projet de promotion d’entrepreneuriat aquacole)    at the disposal of young  producers a financial line to fund their business plans. Still in PRODESEVER, there is a budget line of about 2 billion frs (about$3.3 million)  reserved to finance projects submitted by producers”,Mimbang concludes.

Disagreement with World Trade Organisation

Subsidies paid to the global fishing industry amount to $35 billion per year, of which more than 60% meets the WTO definition of harmful subsidies, according to WTO figures.

New WTO Director-General Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said in her maiden speech that she wants the WTO to reach an agreement on fisheries subsidies this year.

However,Business In Cameroon reports that “During a recent videoconference with the World Trade Organization (WTO)’s Trade Negotiations Committee (TNC), Cameroon, through the Minister of Commerce Luc Magloire Mbarga Atangana, expressed its opposition to some parties pushing the WTO to classify artisanal fishing as illegal fishing.

“As Cameroon does not consider artisanal fishing as part of the agreement being elaborated, this type of fishing should be excluded from the scope of the said agreement because, artisanal fishing contributes to food security, fights poverty, and” provides jobs, the Minister said.

Under international law, artisanal fishing is illegal. For instance, earlier this year, the European Union Commission issued a yellow card to Cameroon for facilitating the development of artisanal fishing.

But for Mbarga Atangana, “instead of flagging artisanal fishing as illegal, the text should include four notable points,namely the effective prohibition of some subsidies to large industrial groups operating in the sector, the recognition of state primacy when it comes to the ascertainment of water boundaries infringement under the international laws in force, guarantees for effective sanctions against operators guilty of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing as well as the inclusion of the polluter pays principle in the responsibility and obligations of the involved parties”.

Depleting Coastal Ecosystem

A research on the Potential Impact of Fish Smoking on Mangrove Resources in Southwest Cameroon points out that” In Cameroon, mangrove forests cover approximately 250,000 hectares and are among the most extensive stands in Africa. Fishing camps have been widely established throughout them, and mangrove wood is harvested for many purposes, but most notably as fuel for fish smoking. As most rural areas do not have electricity, local people use smoking as a way to preserve fish.”

He  points out that  “Fish smoking is one of the key activities impacting on the  disappearance  of characteristic mangrove species. For many people, it is their sole livelihood. As it cannot be prohibited, strategies need urgently to be introduced to regulate mangrove wood consumption. To introduce regulations, it is first necessary for legislation to be passed to protect mangrove forests. At present, the implementation of law is an issue in Cameroon, and people are able to freely harvest as much wood as they want”.

Zachee Nzoh Ngandembou identifies a series of factors leading to this perilous situation. He says” mass clearance of forest over the years for huge infrastructural projects has made the search of fuel wood a lot more serious. Local people have no other source of energy. The issue is made more complicated by the increased surveillance on forests. So, poor local people fall back on the mangrove.”

Cameroon’s coastal mangrove zone stretches 400 kilometers from the Equatorial border of Guinea to Nigeria.When the Atlantic Ocean tide is low, the forest extends inland for about 30 kilometres, but there has been a progressive loss of about 1,000 hectares of tree cover in the country over 43 years — seriously impacting resources and biodiversity.

That, in turn, affects livelihood opportunities. Mangroves are sources of such highly-valued commercial products as fuel wood and — as key spawning grounds for fish fish. They are also sites for a burgeoning eco-tourism industry, vital to local and national development.

Zachee Nzohngandembou adds that “community people are very aware that the fish they need to harvest  before smoking breed in mangroves, adding that a reduction in rainfall and deforestation have left the local people with no other option that to fall back on the mangrove where the fish  breeds”.

Phillipe Akoa ,an expert in the fisheries sector with over two decades of experience working in the coastal areas of the Littoral and South Regions of Cameroon explains that the construction of the Kribi Deep Seaport ,petroleum spills,illegal trade in fuel across borders, disposal of non biodegradable plastic papers are amongst the factors leading to environmental degradation along the coast of Cameroon.

Control of fish stock on board an industrial fishing vessel(photo credit_fisheries department ,Douala)

Bathelemy Tchepnang of the Youth Centre for Animation In Development(CAJAD) opines that “ people who live only on fish have a right to food and a right to energy” .

Quizzed on possible solutions to the reducing fish harvest along the coast of Cameroon, a group of artisanal fishermen in the Small fishing locality of Idenau who opt for anonymity say the biggest threat to sustainable fishing along the coast of Cameroon is the Industrial fishermen especially the Chinese.

According to them ,Chinese industrial fishermen use sophisticated equipment like twin trawlers that are not permitted, f ish within three nautical miles when they are not supposed to and even reach mangrove forests where fish spawn..

They worry that because these Chinese fishermen have capital, they are able to bribe their way through government  circles, reason why they act with impunity.

Cameroon’s minister of Trade,Luc Magloire Mbarga Atangana has also reiterated that artisanal fishing will  remain legal especially as it provides food security and livelihood thousands of people.

*Aminateh Nkemngu is a Cameroonian Development Journalist and Founder of The Community Initiative for Development Communication(Codec-Cameroon).

He is currently a Ph.D/Mass Communication Scholar at The University of Buea-Cameroon


*This Report has been produced with the Support of Internew’s Earth Journalism Network/Fisheries Subsidies Story Series.



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