Safety and Sustainability for Small-Scale Fishers in West Africa

May 16, 2016

Andrea Borgarello / World Bank

In a brightly painted cement hut on the beach near dozens of sun-bleached boats, a few dozen fishermen are huddled in a meeting.

The news isn’t great.

“The last time I was on the boat was two weeks ago,” said fisher Kofi Nyamegbo, who is in his fifties. “I don’t know anymore when the fish will come.”

“Some fishers are spoiling the sea,” he said, referring to those who use effervescent chemicals, like laundry detergent or bleach, as well as dynamite to stir the fish up and bring them to the surface.  “They have to stop the dynamite fishing or there will be no fish for the rest of us.”

The fishers say that Moree, an ancient village in Ghana of about 25,000 people and seven beaches, is where fishing was born. 

Today, West Africa’s artisanal fishers use the same kind of striking, wooden canoes they used hundreds of years ago. They can be up to 70-feet long, but these dug out canoes are highly vulnerable to the wrath of the sea.  But in recent years, there have been noticeably fewer fish.

, including some 135,000 fishers in the marine sector—92 percent of whom are artisanal fishers.  Africa’s artisanal fishing communities need solutions to cope with diminishing returns from an already perilous livelihood. And while technology is revolutionizing sustainable fishery management, safety and transparency, small-scale fishers have been mostly on the outside of this movement.

Now academics, fisheries specialists and development partners are cooperating to address the needs of small-scale fishers.

The World Bank’s West African Regional Fisheries Program (WARFP), financed by the World Bank's IDA Fund for the poorest countries, the Global Environment Facility, and other partners, aims to improve fisheries management and is already increasing fish stock and health in West Africa.  The program is also exploring innovative ways to keep fishers safe.  Recent efforts have been focused on one question: Can a battery-operated satellite transponder device smaller than a coffee thermos keep fishers safe at sea and improve fisheries management in the long run?

For the past decade, large vessels have been fitted with boat-to-boat and boat-to-shore communications. Regulations are in place that require boats of a certain size to utilize this technology. These systems have allowed ocean observers to track trends in Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing (IUU), leading to better enforcement of maritime laws. Recently, the EU scored a significant success in regulating European-flagged vessels in African waters.

Andrea Borgarello / World Bank

For Artisanal Fishers, Loss of Life at Sea

, capturing about half of the world’s fish production. In Africa and Asia, fish accounts for more than half of the total animal protein people eat.

Yet small-scale fishers are not fitted with any kind of equipment to allow them to seek help from a local coast guard or other vessels when they are lost or in danger. Fitting these small canoes with tracking equipment can save lives. It can also help collect data and make small-scale fishing sustainable and secure through data collection about where fishers are fishing and why. 

GPS, smart phone cameras and applications have helped small-scale fishers find each other as well as fight illegal industrial fishing. But most artisanal fishers quickly lose cell phone coverage.

“In one or two days, these fishers travel unbelievable distances, more than 70 miles out to sea,” said Milen Dyoulgerov, marine engineer and operations officer at The World Bank. “Under the best of circumstances, they run out of contact beyond 30-40 miles.”

In Ghana and Kenya, Bank funds and technical assistance are helping fishers use transponders – devices which receive and transmit radio signals. The transponder system, when SOS activated, automatically sends a cell phone text message to prelisted numbers stating, “emergency, lives at risk” and giving the coordinates of the original message.

Building Long-term Sustainability of Fish Stocks

“Of course fishers want someone watching their back, but at the same time many are suspicious of surveillance,” said Kofi Agbogah, a sustainable fishery specialist who works with USAID in Accra, Ghana. “They want support, not surveillance.”

Yet the lack of fish and the recognition of fishing’s dangers is changing attitudes.  The same technology that can save lives, when a fisher goes missing on a canoe, can be used to manage dwindling fish stock and protect fisher’s livelihoods in the long term.

A collaborative pilot effort to carry out monitoring for small fishing vessels in Ghana involved 20 inshore vessels fitted with a transponder. Initial results indicated that most of the vessels routinely fish from the same grounds. Mapping fishing grounds is critical for resource management. In addition, sampling the catch from these vessels can provide useful information for estimations of the stocks, areas of conflict with industrial fishing activities, as well as trends in seasonal catches.

In the next six months, the Bank will distribute transponders in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Senegal. According to Berengere Prince, Senior Natural Resource Management Specialist who leads the WARFP project, “with these new tools, we can offer safety of life at sea, as well as monitor and manage small scale fisheries in a way we never have before.”