Out of Africa: Fish versus fishing

I spent last Sunday morning on the beach in West Africa. To be precise, I spent last Sunday morning observing Fante fishermen, bringing in their catch in the shadows of Cape Coast Castle, an old slaving fort that stands as a bleak reminder of human cruelty.

The Fante men fish four or five men to a wooden boat. The boat is essentially carved out of a long long. For nets, the men use manufactured nylon things, and most days, either before or after going to sea, men repair the nets themselves, stitching holes with their own hands.

The outboard motor is another technology that, along with nets, revolutionized West African fishing some 50 years ago. These motors are considered so important that government continues to sell them to fishermen at subsidizes prices.

Little has changed lately, however, so the fishermen of Fanteland face a crisis. High birth-rates have transformed the demographics of the Atlantic coast of Ghana (and elsewhere in Africa). Youth flood the beach, helping to pull to the shore the heavy wooden boats and then sort the dayâ''s catch, which is quickly transferred to women fish mongers seated in front of plastic bowls set on the sand.

The younger men dream of running their own boats, but older men occupy the positions on board and launching new fishing boats is costly. A single hand-made boat, without an outboard motor, can cost nearly $1,000.

The Internet is a distant echo for the fishermen of Cape Coast. Neither does the mobile phone â'' now owned by one in five Africans, according to the World Bank â'' shape their working lives. The sea remains dangerous. Every year some number of Fante are lost in the choppy waters. The fish catch, meanwhile, grows smaller, at least on a per fisherman basis. Less fish per fishermen means less money.

Nevertheless, fishing remains economically important in Ghana.

Fish farming ought to ease the burdens of the Fante fishermen but to fish farm they would have to move inland and they do not wish to do so. They are married to life on the coast. And Africaâ''s small but growing number of fish farmers face their own constraints, notably the cost of feed for farm-raised fish.

In the abstract, fish farming seems like a panacea, but the cost of feed has risen alongside the cost of food for humans. The same corn that people eat, fish eat too. So fish farmers in Ghana find themselves competing for resources with human consumers.

Ultimately, the solution for both ocean fishermen and aqua-farmers turns on technological change â'' and the openness of tradition-people to adopt not only new tools but also new ways of life.


Tech Talk

IEEE Spectrum’s general technology blog, featuring news, analysis, and opinions about engineering, consumer electronics, and technology and society, from the editorial staff and freelance contributors.

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the Tech Alert newsletter and receive ground-breaking technology and science news from IEEE Spectrum every Thursday.