A group of fishmongers rush towards the dock at Freetown’s Funkia Wharf at the sight of an approaching boat.
The boat is one of about half a dozen that went to sea from this wharf in the west end of the Sierra Leonean capital in 24 hours, according to Santigie Kargbo, who is visibly happy at the prospect of getting his first job in two days.
Kargbo makes a living these days cleaning fish for people who come to the wharf to buy for home consumption. He had to sell his boat after failing to pay a loan he took to buy it.
Kargbo says many other fishermen have lost their jobs because those who owned fishing boats have been forced out of operation due to low fish catch.
The scramble for fish is a sad illustration of this perennial problem, so much for a country endowed with a vast reserve of marine resources.
From Goderich, where Funkia is, to Tombo in the outskirts of Freetown, to the southern and northern regions of the country, the complaints of Sierra Leone’s artisanal fishermen are the same — dwindling fish catch — and the anger and frustration is directed at the large industrial fishing trawlers.
They say the trawlers encroach into the forbidden 36 km Inshore Exclusive Zones (IEZ) to fish and, in the event, destroy their nets.
The IEZ is an area close to shore that is preserved for small-scale fishermen, and as a breeding and nursery ground for fish.
Most fishermen use paddle canoes and small boats with outboard machines. The size of these boats leave them vulnerable to the effect of the violent sea waves caused by the larger trawlers.
These trawlers are also accused of engaging in a host of illegal fishing practices, including “pair trawling”, that lead to overfishing and consequent depletion of the country’s fish stock.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that about 83,000 tonnes of fish is caught from Sierra Leone’s waters annually. But most of this quantity, according to campaigners, is caught by the foreign-operated vessels — mainly Chinese and Koreans — who sell to foreign markets around the world, particularly in Europe and the US.
Government data show that Sierra Leone loses about $100 million every year as a result of this phenomenon.