It’s a slightly cloudy day here in Ga Mashie in the southernmost part of Ghana’s capital, Accra. Intermittently, the sun also slightly announces its presence and leaves.
Ga Mashie is one of the bustle communities in Accra with a predominantly Ga population, some of whom are trawlers. About a mile eastwards of the iconic red and white-coloured lighthouse structure are market women, set up just a few metres away from the pedestrian walkway and busily trying to catch the attention of potential buyers.
The place is a bit noisy, too, with all types of fishes lined up on tables for sale. Big. Small. Bony. Scaly. Salty. Slippery. Water-dwelling. Just fishes of all kinds.
Some miles further away, though – closer to the sea – are some men cheerfully chatting and mending their nets in preparation for a fishing adventure later in the day.
“I’ve been fishing for many years,” says Ataa Aklama, who has been a fisherman for over 40 years. The sexagenarian began his adventure as a trawler when he was in primary school. Dividing his time between school and fishing, Aklama switched to full-time fishing once he completed his Junior High School education.
The story is different for Alex Lamptey, who is younger and less experienced in the fishing business. Lamptey used to work with a company in Accra but turned to trawling after losing his job.
He has, however, learned a lot in the five years that he has been a fisherman and has no regrets whatsoever. “This is what I do to feed my family,” he tells Pulse.com.gh, nodding his head in self-aggrandizement to show how proud he is of his current job.
More time on the sea than with family
While these men have different stories to tell about how they became piscators, the interesting, yet overriding anecdote is that they are both family men; family men who spend more time on the sea than with their families.
Unlike the ideal 8:00am to 5:00pm jobs that many Ghanaians are used to, the fishing world is a totally different and unpredictable terrain. Fisher folk here in Ga Mashie prefer to set off for their fishing adventures at dawn.
At 12:00am every day, Aklama, Lamptey and other crew members set off for a day’s work. They then spend between four and six hours in the deep ends of the sea in search of a catch. Should things go according to plan, they would return home by 6:00am in the morning.
On days when things go south, they’d rather stay on sea for a day or two more than return home empty-handed.
“Often we depart for the sea at 12:00am,” Aklama discloses, letting out a wry smile as he sees the surprise on my face. “We head for the deep sea and we cast our nets in search of a catch.
“But on a normal day when we leave at dawn, we return between 5:00am and 6:00am in the morning.
“If we are quick to make a catch, we can even return earlier. On the other hand, if we make no catch, then we are likely to stay over for another day.”
Most fishermen in Ga Mashie are not in support of light fishing, which requires that they sit back and wait for an opportune time to trap the fishes. Rather, they prefer to ride their luck. As a result, their fishing expedition does not have a particular pattern.
The type of fishes they want to catch determines how far they go, and how long they stay, on the sea. The daily expedition is normal among many fisher folk, but there are times when they spend weeks and, sometimes, even months on the sea.
“The type of fishing method we deploy depends on the season,” Aklama articulates. “Each season has its own approach. In the fishing season, for instance, we could be on the sea for two to three months. It used to be like that.”
Lamptey wades in, saying: “Sometimes we spend five to seven days deep in the sea. If you want to catch fishes like redfish, you’ll have to stay longer on the sea. But we prepare very well for such journeys and we carry everything we need.”
Like every job that requires workers to stay on for long periods, these fishermen thoroughly prepare before embarking on journeys that would take days.
“On such journeys, we cook on the boat and we even bathe there – all this while deep in the sea. Often we end up cooking some of the fishes that we catch,” Lamptey adds.
Fear of the unknown
As the interview continues, it begins to drizzle. Aklama smiles, readjusting himself to sit under a shade. But there’s a story behind that smile. The drizzling rain reminds him of some of the harsh conditions he’s had to face as a trawler.
He calls it the ‘fear of the unknown’ when one is in the deep ends of the sea. The rainy season, he says, is one of the most challenging times for every fisherman, especially those without sophisticated ships.
“The rainy season is also very challenging for every fisherman,” Aklama concedes. “But we’ve been through it all our lives so we can cope. We usually go prepared by taking along rubber to cover ourselves when it rains.”
He is reluctant to admit that he has ever panicked while on the sea but, as I press him on the subject, he had another revelation to make. It’s a subject that many fisher folk do not like to talk about, but there are dangers to the job, just like in any other field.
“Of course, people sometimes fear when they go deep into the season. Sometimes the thickness of the darkness you face would strike fear into you. I’m talking about the type of darkness where you see absolutely nothing,” Aklama explains.
“There are times too when you are left stranded deep in the sea. If you are unfortunate and your outboard motor gets damaged, you’d have to wait and pray that another boat comes to your rescue.
“The fear comes when there is no network in that part of the sea and you are unable to contact anyone for help. In such situations, if you are lucky and the wind blows, it will carry your boat ashore. If not, you can only pray and hope.”
Nodding his head in approval of his colleague’s story, Lamptey also details his experience in the deep sea. “Sometimes we go so deep that you can’t even see any land. All we see are personnel from Ghana’s navy with their ships deep into the sea.”
The fishing jackpot
While the dangers of the job are evident, Aklama says it is also a rewarding venture. According to him, profits in the fishing business are not regular, but a good day on the sea is as good as a rewarding year for people in other professions.
He further explains that a bumper catch could generate up to GHc40,000 after the fishes are sold. “Sometimes you can go three months straight without making a bumper catch, but a good day on the sea could write off the three bad months.
“That’s how it works. A bumper catch, after the fishes are sold, can generate up to GHc40,000. And I’m talking about the money that a single boat makes.”
Lamptey totally agrees and claims sometimes the catch is so huge that a single boat cannot contain all the fishes. “Sometimes you catch so much fish at a spot that you’ll need to call other boats to come and help you gather all of them. Such days are rare, but when they do come, you could have 10 boats full of big, big fishes,” he said.
“When it happens like this, making GHc40,000 looks like chicken change. We make more money than that. There is money in selling fishes. A crate of fish costs between GHc250 and GHc400.”
If fishermen are making such amounts in a day, why then are many of them not rich? On face value, GHc40,000 is more than even the President earns, but the money these fishermen make is a gross income.
First off, the fishing business is akin to private commercial transport services. The only difference is that there are no passenger services. But, similarly, there is the owner of the ship, whom all the crew members seemingly work for.
“The fishing business is just like trotro or taxi business, the boats have owners who give them to us to work for them,” says Aklama.
So, after a day’s catch. The fishes are put in crates and sold for good money. It is the money accrued from these sales that Aklama and Lamptey are referring to. The interesting but predictable thing, though, is that the owner of the ship takes the largest share.
Part of the money is also used for the repairs of the ship and to refuel it for the next day’s work. The rest is then shared among the crew members who led the fishing expedition.
“After every catch, the owners of the boat take the largest share of the money generated from the sale of the fishes,” Aklama reveals.
“The bumper catch actually happens,” Lamptey concurs. “These are times when everyone takes some of the fish home and we sell the rest. Some of the money gotten is used to refuel the boat, the owner also takes his portion and the whole crew get ours, too.”
When fishermen get on a ship to begin their journey, many usually see it as an adventure. However, it is often not that simple. It takes a lot of intuition, experience and a bit of luck to succeed.
The strategy used to determine the direction of flow of the sea is also a matter of experience. “When we get on the sea, we then establish the direction of the water. We do this by pouring sand into the water. Whichever direction the dissolving sand heads, that shows us the direction of the sea,” Aklama notes.
He also opened up on how they are able to determine where to cast their nets to trap the fishes. His answer is simple this time: you need luck.
According to Aklama, the touch-and-go nature of fishing usually dissuades many from the job. This is because no matter how experienced a trawler is, he can’t always be certain of what to expect when he is deep into a fishing expedition.
If they can’t even tell where exactly to cast their nets, how then do they go about their job each day?
“In determining where exactly the fishes are, we usually do not know,” says Aklama. “But you need a bit of luck. Most often it’s guess work and if you are lucky your net may just get a bumper catch.
“After casting the net in the sea, you’re likely to feel the weight of it or otherwise. A weighty net means you are catching something. However, if you don’t feel anything, then it’s a loss.”
Then there’s the deep-sea experience, where sometimes the fisher folk go so deep and the layman wonders how they find their way back to the coast.
Aklama maintains that there is the God factor (hoping and praying for the best), but also admits the practical way of getting back home is dependent on the wind.
“There are times we go so deep that the only thing we see is the sky. But when you are experienced in the job, you’ll know how to find your way back. Here, we usually say it’s God that takes us and brings us back.
“But practically, we use the direction of the wind to find our way back home. There are also times when were are so deep in the sea that we see nothing but darkness. In such times, we just have to stop and wait for the atmosphere to have some light.
“So we put off our lights and sleep, and continue the journey in the morning. Unless you have a compass to direct you, it’s always good to stop when in such circumstances.”
Lamptey also revealed that the iconic lighthouse structure also serves as a landmark for trawlers looking to get back to the shore of the sea. “When returning from sea, the Lighthouse in James Town also serves as a marking point for us. Once we see it, we know we are closer to home,” he added.
Closed season wahala
In 2019, the Ministry of Fisheries and Aquaculture Development announced a temporary ban on inshore and artisanal fishing.
Referred to as the closed season, fishermen were barred from fishing for a one month period (May 15 to June 15).
The idea behind the Ministry’s decision was to enable the fingerlings to grow and to also make sure that there is heavy catch when fishing activities resume.
Many fisherman, though, hit out at the government over the decision. In fact, Lamptey believes it was “wicked” on the part of government to tow such a line.
“They claim the closed season allows the fishes to reproduce, but it doesn’t make sense because the fishes have been reproducing since time immemorial,” Aklama also argues. “They did it last year, but we don’t know if they’ll repeat it again this year.
“Imagine not working for a whole month. And it’s not as if they will feed us within that time. How do you block someone’s livelihood for a month? What do they expect us to eat during that period?
“I don’t know if the authorities are jealous of what we get from the job or whatever. I don’t believe such things happen abroad. But if you are going to stop us from fishing, then we deserve to be compensated.”
Over expensive outboard motors
Last December, government revealed plans to distribute more than 6,000 outboard motors at subsidised prices to fisher folks across the country.
Minister of Fisheries Elizabeth Afoley Quaye said this was going to happen through a collaboration with the Coastal Development Authority and the Agricultural Development Bank (ADB).
Despite the promise, not many fisherman in Ga Mashie have benefitted. Aklama lamented the expensive prices that outboard motors are sold for. The outboard motors are to the ships what engines are to cars.
According to him, the prices continue to increase with each passing year and that has run many fishermen out of business. “The outboard motors that run our boats are very expensive,” he bemoans.
“They used to be GHc6,000 during [Jerry John] Rawlings’ time, but now they are sold between GHc10,000 and GHc12,000. The price has been going up year after year.
“It’s really hurting most fishermen. As fisher folk, we receive very little help from government. People assume that fishermen make money, so we don’t need any help. But business is not always good. These outboard motors shouldn’t be this expensive.
“Then there is the problem of fuel. We spend about GHc5,000 on fuel alone for the year. Sometimes, we spend even more.”
More fishermen now than ever
As we approach the end of our conversation, Lamptey reveals that he’ll be quitting fishing to focus on fish sales. Aklama, though, has no plans of quitting anytime soon.
And he sees more young people embracing the fishing business than ever. “Fishing used to be done by the old men here, but things have changed,” says Aklama.
“They were using canoes, but machines have now been introduced and that has made fishing easier. I can say there are more fishermen now than ever, because people are beginning to realise that it is a very profitable job.”