A minute later we pass the last of the breakers, and my hosts settle down to an easy rhythm. Mustafa scans the horizon, looking for any signs of fish. He is lean and hard-muscled from a tough life of fishing and manual labour.
It is my first day in Africa after 3 flights starting in London 36 hours earlier. This country paid a heavy price for what has been a brutal civil war. Guns, violence and death wreaked havoc on this desperately poor nation. But today, there are glimmers of hope, despite obvious poverty and unrest amongst the population.
Fishing remains the lifeblood of this nation. It is the dominant source of animal protein, and employs tens of thousands of people up and down this coastline. People just like Mustafa and Mohammed, who today, have agreed to take me along on one of their fishing trips.
Half an hour later and Mustafa starts laying out net. It is over 400 metres long, and it is after dark by the time it is all set.
“Why do you fish at night”, I say to Mustafa finally.
He is bailing water from the base of his canoe – A never-ending task in old wooden vessels like this. He stops and looks up at me. His English is halting and broken, and scattered with bits of Arabic. “Fishing often be ques (good) de night. And de net, de fish not see dem.”
“The fishing is good these days?” I say slowly.
Mustafa snorts. “de fishing not be good for time long long.” He waves a hand out on the horizon. “Dis area been fished forever by man. But today all fish cabeer (big) been gone. Just small ones now.” There is an air of resignation in his voice.
“Why are all the big fish gone. Did you catch them all?”
“Ha. Not us. It is dem cabeer (big) boats. Day come in and take de lot.” Mustafa pauses for a few seconds as he considers his words. “Dem cabeer boats, we first see um sabah (7) years ago. And since den, each year more and more. But we no know what dem do. But den one day, dem boat net break, and der was fish all over da water. So much fish. We said dis was gift from Alah (God). Many many fish. But was not good. Mos dem fish day rot cos we neva see so much. We try dry dem but was wet season. Day rot…” His words trail off.
“So what did you do?”
“After dat day, we know dem cabeer boats is mush quess (not good). Day take so much. From dat day we know day take our fish. Dat net dat dem break was sign from Alah. But was sign so we know to stop dem.”
Sadly, the plight of Mustafa is not that uncommon in Africa these days. Foreign industrial vessels have wreaked havoc here for the last few years. Countries with little in the way of fisheries enforcement struggle to reign in increasingly aggressive and sophisticated factory fishing vessels. They come from many countries – China, Korea, Spain, Portugal, Greece… Sadly, people like Mustafa are at the sharp end of things.
Two hours later and the lads start hauling in the net. A thin sliver of moon sheds light on us. Almost immediately there are fish. Lots of them. Small herring like fish flapping around, their gills wedged against the small one-inch nylon mesh. The net is piled in heaps on the canoe floor.
Mustafa suddenly stops. “Der be dem cabeer (big) boat”, he says excitedly, pointing out to sea. Just emerging from behind an island, maybe a mile or so further offshore, are the lights of a large vessel. I grab my binoculars and take a look. It takes a while to work it out as the vessel angles closer to us. The navigation and steaming lights are off, but the trawl deck awash in lights is easy to make out.
I’ve been in this country less than twelve hours, and already I’ve found my first illegal vessel. Sadly, tonight we are not equipped to do anything about it, other than gather intelligence. But the days of these vessels having free reign here are numbered. Our unit is assembling here, and soon we’ll be fully equipped to bring these poachers in for prosecution.
It is several hours later that we are back onshore. Men labour with the canoes while women sort the fish – A community at work at the end of a long day. Our haul looked great in the net, but now, it is not so amazing. A few buckets of small fish. As Mustafa says, “cabeer (big) fish all gone. Only small fish now.” Mush ques (not good).