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Plenty of fishermen, not so many fish

Ghana's fishermen struggle as large foreign trawlers scoop up fish along the ocean floor.

JAMESTOWN, Ghana — The life of Ofori Muhammad, a 52-year-old fisherman in the port of Jamestown, would be idyllic if it were a bit more lucrative.

At dawn, the devout Muslim lands ashore, prays, spends his mid-mornings stitching an endless latticework of nylon net, packs in a few naps, then pushes out to sea at midnight to do it again, as he has for 38 years.

But out there, at night, he sees the enemy: enormous foreign ships trawling the ocean floor with eerie underwater lights that bewilder fish. Their nets — 200 meters wide — sweep the ocean floor cleaner than the hand-sewn nets the men at Jamestown spend their mornings mending.

With deep sea scanners, the trawlers hunt schools of fish across Africa's western coastline, hoisting new flags as they cross invisible borders.

“Wherever fish are in West Africa, they chase after them,” said Chairman Daniel Eli of Foodspan, a food issues advocacy group. “From Guinea to the Ivory Coast, anything goes.”

There are signs, however, that there's not much left to chase. Back in Jamestown, grizzled fishermen remember their glory years when they'd pass only a few days a week at sea. Now, most spend all seven days in their canoes, returning to shore with fewer, smaller and younger fish.

“Here we can't catch anything,” said Odartei Mills, a 47-year-old fisherman. “So we go as far as Abidjan.”

Others have been sailing outward, deep into West Africa's stormy Atlantic, which in rainy season tosses wooden boats through a spin cycle. This time last year, two of the men working Mills' dock sailed off into a storm like that.

“They didn't come back,” he said.

If there's a meat that binds together the hundreds of culturally and ethnically distinct societies in West Africa, it's fish, the major and most affordable source of protein for gastronomes as far north as the parched Sahel.

For millions of family businesses, it is also the primary source of income. Ghana's government estimates that 2.2 million of its 23 million citizens are directly dependent on fishermen. Another two or three million Ghanaians rely on fish traders, truck drivers, boat repairmen and manufacturers who work on the fringes of the fish industry.