Chinese boats are decimating West Africa's fish stocks and fishing communities in the Gulf of Guinea, say environmental groups.
The Institute for Security Studies, a South African think tank, said the communities could be losing more than $2 billion each year to illegal fishing, mainly from Chinese-owned boats.
Beninese fisherman Geoffroy Gbedevi said it’s getting harder to feed his daughter and pregnant wife. He said the community is suffering and the number of fish being caught is much lower than it used to be.
"Nothing is going the way it used to,” he said.
Yaya Toshu Koma Benoit is a community leader in Grand Popo, a small fishing town in Benin close to the border with Togo, where houses are empty as community members have been forced to leave to find work elsewhere.
He blamed the problem in part on techniques that catch fish before the fish are fully developed.
"That's why there are no more fish," he said. "If we can ban this practice, that's good. There are lots of fishermen who use smaller mesh nets, so there are not many fish left.”
The Environmental Justice Foundation said illegal fishing boats in Ghana use Ghanaian flags, but 90 percent were traced to Chinese owners.
Steven Trent of the Environmental Justice Foundation called for "basic measures to introduce transparency."
"Cars have a number plate as an identifier," he said. "Put very simply, give each of these vessels what we call a unique vessel identifier to get rid of all these people who in many instances are simply stealing fish from some of the poorest people on our planet.”
China has repeatedly denied wrongdoing, with one article in the state-affiliated Global Times newspaper last year rejecting what it called “Western media rumors” of China's illegal fishing and saying Beijing had tightened oversight of deep-sea fishing boats.
Gulf of Guinea nations this year banded together to crack down on illegal fishing. Benin, Ghana and Togo agreed to joint patrols and information-sharing with support from the European Fisheries Control Agency through a center in Accra, Ghana.
But the agency’s executive director, Susan Steele, said more efforts are needed.
“Legislation, operations, training and cooperation," she said. "One of the key things you want to be looking for is to make sure there are consequences for the people doing illegal fishing.”
Some fishermen VOA spoke to in Benin said the joint patrols seemed to be helping, and fish stocks are showing signs of improvement.
Gbedevi just wants to feed his family. He said he lives in hope that things will get better.