Tonye Princewill

February 24, 2012

Trawler fishermen: Emerging from the mist

Trawler fishermen: Emerging from the mist

By Tonye Princewill
IF you ever need to conceal anyone from public view, and render them socially inconspicuous, there could hardly be a better hiding place than among the nation’s trawler fishermen. They are the senior, just as hidden brother of their sole trader brothers. My father and even the President were once fishermen.

Try, if you will, to identify a more unobtrusive and undemanding group of individuals: Or a more neglected sector of our economy. No matter how long I’m willing to wait, you’ll still probably ask for more time: Because trawler fishermen are just not people we think about.

At least, not until something goes wrong or until they’ve had enough of our callous indifference…As seem increasingly to be the case, because they’re starting to make their presence felt. They’re starting to make themselves visible.

And as well they should, because we take their immensely important contribution for granted. Indeed, it is more or less an article of faith, that at the end of a hard day’s work or when we walk into a restaurant we’ll always be able to delight in our favourite seafood.

But in their recent public utterances, the trawler fishermen of Rivers State, in particular, have been reminding us that this is a privilege rather than a right; and that this privilege is increasingly under threat, because of spiralling operational costs, overfishing, decades of pollution and general policy drift.

As a person with deep roots in the Niger Delta, and whose ethnic culture has evolved in the riverine reaches of an ancient Ijaw kingdom, I naturally have a very strong affinity and a deeply felt empathy for the fishing industry–including those who live and work with trawlers.

Government is not oblivious to the plight of trawler fishermen. At the national level, food security is a major policy thrust. This, of course, requires that attention to be firmly  focused on the problems of the fishing industry.

Likewise here, the administration of Governor Rotimi Chibuike Amaechi appears very sensitive to the needs of this strategic stakeholder in Rivers State. The doors to the Brick House have always been open to emissaries from the state’s trawling industry. Soon to be made announcements will reflect this.

Nor is it just “tea-and-sympathy” trawler fishermen have received. I will discuss, and assess, state and federal fishing policy, and their programmes, in a future write-up. Suffice it to say, in this introductory article, that while much has been achieved, a hell of a lot more needs to be done.

In fact, the Nigerian trawler industry ought to be the focus of a new policy initiative aimed at revitalizing and expanding the sector. This should entail not only legislation and policy formulation but also innovative programmes and a great deal of image-making.

Whatever may be the merits of the fishing industry, it has a serious image deficit that needs to be addressed. We all revel in the bountiful blessings of the sea, without any awareness of how the fish, clams, oysters, lobsters and other dishes we like reach our tables.

The trawler fishermen of Rivers State can do a lot to help enhance their own image and, at the same time, advance the interests of the industry politically. But this requires a lot more than merely to complain when something is amiss.

Trawler fishermen ought to have a permanent presence in our collective psyche. There is need for them to come out of the woodwork, so to speak, and take their rightful place as icon and heroes in film, fiction, poetry and other cultural media. My artistes friends, I trust, are reading.

Perhaps the first step should be for the organisation of Nigerian trawler fishermen to establish a speaker’s bureau and liaise closely with the appropriate government agencies as well as the organised private sector to get their spokesmen into the schools, churches and featured at public forums such as seminars and conferences.

In terms of public appeal, the trawler fishermen have some invaluable psychic assets that could be cashed in for political, and even material, gain. They range from the mystique surrounding the fisherman, to the powerful romance human cultures have always had with the sea. How else can you explain people who without technology and current environmental data can pinpoint where the fish are and what exact types lurk under the waters?

These psychological factors, if deftly exploited, could help drive a trawler-based domestic and educational tourism initiative. Tours could be arranged for biology, geography and art departments of schools and universities. We are not located at the edge of the ocean by accident.

After all, the photographic imagery and narratives of textbooks are derived from the world of the marine fisherman. Each time a trawler net is reeled in, and its content emptied on the floor of the ship, the textbooks and magazine images come to life.

There, dancing around at the feet of the tourists, are animals whose existence was heretofore only imagined, images from film, photographs, poems and classroom lectures: Moonfish, sharks, barracuda, tuna, octopuses, myriad and sharks.

That is not all. Whales, dolphins and porpoises, the legendary performers of the sea, are the daily companion of the trawler. He is the ring-master in a veritable marine circus, a spectacular world of beauty and drama.

Access to this world could, I believe, be shared—much to everyone’s advantage. Otherwise there is a more sinister side to this. Think about it. Their erratic movement patterns is unlike their cargo brothers and makes for brilliant camouflage for drug dealers and arms importers. Fail to harness this industry positively and somebody else will.