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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.

Virtually all those Ghanaians are making do with less and less. Moba, a 30-year-old father who kicked off his fishing career at the age of 14, said he used to haul home boatloads worth $70 or $80 a week. Today, the fisherman, who said he has never gone by any name beyond Moba, feeds his family and fuels his boat on a weekly catch worth $15 to $25.

“That one, it no be money,” he said.

Moba's dock sits a few minute's walk from Jamestown's central market. But the fresh grouper he reels home are not what's selling at many of the stalls. Much of the fish Ghanaians and West Africans buy at markets like this has come back rejected from trawlers that sort their catches in the islands of Cape Verde, according to Foodspan research.

Well-fed, nutritious fish are selected and shipped to Korea, China and Taiwan. What returns to Africa is often undernourished, old, caked with dying white scales — in fish parlance, bleached.

“This is what we clamor to buy and pay for,” Eli said.

In the region's budding democracies, the scarcity of fish has become a salient political issue — swing votes from Ghana's central region, a coastal stretch of fishing villages, tipped the balance in favor of the opposition in last year's elections.

But even in the most accountable countries, it's unclear what West African governments can and are willing to do. In Senegal, the government cracked down on foreign trawlers and installed monitoring systems, after a fishing deal with the European Union turned sour for local fishermen. Fishing is banned in some breeding zones in Mauritania, where fishing accounts for 25 percent of the national GDP.

In virtually every other nation along the coast, however, corruption and loose oversight has limited government control over the seas.

For one, fish authorities know little about what swims below West Africa's waters. Ghana's government hasn't had a research vessel since its last one conked out in the mid-1990s. Most of what Ghana's Agricultural Ministry knows about its ocean comes from the Fridtjof Nansen — a Norwegian research ship that scoots down the coast every few years.

“We are managing something we don't see,” said Patricia Markwei, deputy director of Ghana’s Marine Fisheries.

Meanwhile, governments here continue to license new vessels. Civil servants like Markwei, and George Hutchful, deputy director at Ghana's Fisheries Commission, as well as outside experts like Eli, all suggest that the licensing process may be compromised by corruption.