Fish Production, Corruption and Crime in Cameroon's Coastal Ecosystem

Mabeta smoked fish market in Southwest Cameroon
Journal du Cameroun

Fish Production, Corruption and Crime in Cameroon's Coastal Ecosystem

On a market day in September 2021, Agbesse Kodjo, a Togolese woman fishmonger 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. 

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

dried fish
Smoked fish for sale at the market / Credit: Adam Cohn via Flickr.

After selling fish 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.

Further inside the market, several other women are seen negotiating sales of smoked fish, especially “bonga” and “strong canda”. Huge packaged quantities 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” and “esuba”.

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

Semi-industrial fishing  is practiced mostly by fishermen from Nigeria, Togo, Ghana and Benin, and extends a bit farther into the sea. The fishing vessels are large size canoes called “Awasha”, powered by 40HP engines. The 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 limit and within estuaries. The vessels are of a small size and dug out of a tree trunk. They are mostly hand-pulled or sail-driven. Artisanal fishing 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 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 it 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 beachfront, explains that the peak harvest season for Sardinella and Ethmalosa Fimbriata is between July and September, when rainfall is at its peak.

sardinella fingerlings
Sardinella fingerlings harvested from Cameroon's waters / Credit: Aminateh Nkemngu.

Illegal fishing, corruption and crime

Cameroon’s Ministry of Finance says that in 2019, the fisheries sector contributed 3% of the country’s  US$39 billion gross domestic product (GDP). 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 fisheries sector faces numerous challenges: Lack of data on fishing stocks, the entry of industrial fishers from other countries, subsidy-driven overfishing and illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and fisheries crimes.

New research findings by The Pew 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.

The FAO/CECAF Working Group report on the Assessment of Small Pelagic Fish states that “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 likely 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 year.

A group of artisanal fishermen from West Africa (Nigeria,Togo ,Benin,Ghana) living in the West coast district of Idenau in South East Cameroon disclosed that the greatest challenge they have comes from Chinese fishermen carrying out industrial fishing along the coast of Cameroon. Opting to speak anonymously, they said they fear being arrested by security officials if they dare raise their voices 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.

According to them ,Chinese industrial fishermen use sophisticated equipment like twin trawlers that are not permitted, fish 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, which is the reason why they act with impunity.

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 them. In the case of Cameroon where fishing has not been a major preoccupation for locals, 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 fishers with big money get industrial fishing licenses that are issued directly by the Minister of Livestock, Fisheries and Animal Industries.”

He added: "The problem with industrial fishing is that it does not follow 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 they do not owe anybody any explanation about 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 southwest region.

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

Folefac regrets that “since they get their licenses 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 go unchecked, she says. 

In some cases, however, defaulters have been brought to book and obliged to pay fines as determined by the law.

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

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.

"We are producing roughly 300,000 metric tons annually. The artisanal fishing sector is producing almost 90% of this quantity. The industrial fishing represents just about 5% of the production while aquaculture is also about 5%. 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.

inspecting fish catch from an industrial vessel
Inspecting fish catch from an industrial fishing vessel / Credit: Douala fisheries department. 

Dr Otang Paul of the local services of the Fisheries Ministries in the southwest 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; they are 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 issued by the Regional services of the Ministry of Livestock, Fisheries and Animal Industries; 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 fish mostly along the coast and estuary and do not have the technical capacity to catch fish in huge quantities. Dr Otang reveals that most of the people carrying out artisanal fishing along the coast of Cameroon are foreigners from Nigeria, Ghana, Togo and Benin Republic.

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 are not limited to the use of unauthorized fishing nets, unauthorized fishing technology like twin trawlers by industrial fishermen and operating beyond fishing limits within the ocean.

There is a 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 issuing licensing fishing vessels and in monitoring and surveilling fishing operations.

Government Subsidies

Dr Guy Irene Mimbang outlines a series of actions taken by the government to subsidize the fisheries sector, boost production and create jobs for young people. He says the “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.

“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 inland dammed areas 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."

He says this is part of government policy to encourage young Cameroonians to seek jobs in the fishing sector which till now has largely been in the hands of foreigners. This further explains why artisanal fishing is not illegal in Cameroon. The LIFIDEP project, for instance, is installing producers at Lake Bambalang where the project is promoting aquaculture in cages. 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 is that there are not many investors," said Mimbang.

"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 projects," he added. However, he did not state the extent to which these private investors can invest in the sector in Cameroon.

“The Prime Minister has given the greenlight to the Minister of Livestock and Fisheries to create an inter-ministerial committee to follow up on 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," he said. 

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

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

“We have a center in Bonamatoumbe in Douala, Debunscha, in Limbe, Lonji, in Kribi, Maga in the Far North and Belabo in the East. All of these centers 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 also have another project that is starting now known as PRODESVER ( Project for the Development of the Fisheries Values Chain)."

He noted that "We have another project known as PPEA (projet de promotion d’entrepreneuriat aquacole) at the disposal of young producers to fund their business plans. And 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 Organization

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 ascertaining 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

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.

Researcher Dongmo Keumo Jiazet points out that “Fish smoking is one of the key activities impacting 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 kilometers, 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 key spawning grounds for fish. They are also important to the burgeoning eco-tourism industry, vital to local and national development.

Zachee Nzohngandembou adds that “communities are very aware that the fish they need to harvest before smoking breed in mangroves... but deforestation has left them with no other option than to fall back on the mangrove where the fish breed."

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, and disposal of non-biodegradable plastic papers are among the factors leading to environmental degradation along the coast of Cameroon.

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."

“Unbridled corruption in the issuance of fishing licenses should not deprive the poor local people of their basic rights.” 

woman seated next to baskets in the market
Smoked fish packaged and ready to be transported to major cities from Cameroon / Credit: Aminateh Nkemngu. 

This story was produced with support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network. It was first published on 25 October 2021 in Journal du Cameroun and has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Banner image: Mabeta smoked fish market in southwest Cameroon / Credit: Aminateh Nkemngu. 

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