I first met Solomon in the early 1980s on Sierra Leone’s Plantain Island, when he volunteered his canoe for a trial program modernizing sails to reduce dependence on petrol for outboard engines. Solomon soon became my friend, and I followed his fortunes and struggles as a fisherman working on Yawri Bay.
Solomon died before he could see the positive outcomes in sustainable fisheries management in West Africa. I especially wish he could have reveled in recent reduction in illegal fishing and large scale industrial trawlers that had taken away his livelihood. Instead, the narrative of his life captures the harsh existence of fishing communities and the added burdens they have had to bear as successive governments failed to manage the once limitless fishing on which they depend.
He grew up in the Sierra Leone of the 1950s and 60s on Plantain Island. Fish of all kinds were plentiful. The use of engines and larger ring nets transformed the fishery in the 1970s, allowing canoes to find larger stocks of small pelagic fish further out in Yawri Bay and beyond. Fish production increased, and Solomon’s community prospered. By the early 1980s, Plantain Island was a hub for fisheries and Solomon had become captain of his family boat, fishing with relatives and community members.
From dawn till dusk, the fishing day on Yawri Bay was the center of all social and economic activity. Fishers caught enough fish to sell, pay for fuel, feed their family and even enough for women to smoke and trade inland. This pattern of life made Solomon confident that he would be able to provide his children the education he was denied.
The arrival of large industrial trawlers, however, proved to be a silent catastrophe for Plantain Island and much of West Africa. The 1980s was defined by the increasing presence of legal and sometime illegal foreign industrial vessels—some as large as floating factories. These mostly Asian vessels operated offshore but steadily moved further into Yawri Bay in search of the smaller fish and shrimp their markets demanded. On many occasions, there was direct conflict between trawlers and canoes that sometimes ended in loss of life.
Fishermen also started to see the effects of trawling on fish resources. Successive governments allowed trawlers to multiply and the fish catches for Sierra Leone fishers were greatly diminished. Solomon and his fellow fishermen would often find large volumes of dead rotting fish thrown away by foreign trawlers, floating on the surface, fish that could have been processed for inland markets.
The national fishery was in decline by the 1990s, a period marked by the strife and turmoil of civil war, leaving all sectors without governance. Trawlers had returned in bigger numbers, fishing right up to the coast. With the loss of transport links, fishermen lost access to markets, spare parts and fuel.
Solomon’s life had not worked out as he had once hoped. By 2008, his surviving sons were working with him, having lost their larger canoe and using only a small paddle canoe catching only enough for family consumption. I met him again as part of a fact-finding exercise for the WARF program.
Only 58, he appeared so much older. The meeting was a sad affair as Solomon had little strength. But his story and his community’s plea couldn’t have been clearer: If industrial trawling could not be stopped, there would be no future for the fishermen of Yawri Bay. That same year, Solomon passed away, but his journey and the messages he gave us became the central objective of the West African Regional Fisheries Program (WARF-P). Since 2009, the program has been investing in sustainable fisheries management, community resilience and improved livelihoods for coastal communities.
If Solomon lived today, he would see the foreign trawlers better managed with the establishment of the 6-mile inshore exclusion zone for community fishermen and the increase in artisanal fisheries. By mid-2010, he would have seen the increase fish stocks and by 2014, more revenue for his community with support from WARF-P and partners. Solomon would surely have been an active member of the now established community management association for Plantain Island. Strengthening fisheries management for the development of a truly national industry is why the WARF program continues its commitment.
In recent years, we have delivered on our promises to Solomon to curb the invasive industrial trawlers. And we have still much more to do for the current and future generations.