Fish vendor Mercy Allotey waits at the beachfront in Ghana’s capital Accra for customers to buy the freshest catch brought in by the brightly-coloured dugout canoes plying the coast.

But she complains the local fishermen are now netting less and less as a combination of illegal techniques and unscrupulous trawlers have devastated stocks.

“It is spoiling our fishing,” she told AFP.

“Many times when they go they don’t get the fish.”

The fishing sector is crucially important to this West African nation.

It provides support for more than two million people, up to 10% of the population, and the produce it generates accounts for about 60% of the protein in the diet of Ghanaians.

But the figures are startling. United Nations data shows that production fell from almost 420,000 tonnes in 1999 to 202,000 tonnes in 2014.

To blame are both the mainly Chinese-operated boats trawling offshore and the damaging practices employed by artisanal fishermen as they scramble to make up for losses.

Last month a report from Ghanaian NGO Hen Mpoano and the European Environmental Justice Foundation said the trawlers cost the country’s economy some $50 million a year.

In a practice known locally as “saiko”, they illegally target the staple catch of local fishermen – including sardinella and mackerel – and sell it to the communities on shore via middlemen.

The report estimated some 100,000 tonnes of fish were scooped out of the water in this way in 2017, drastically reducing employment opportunities for Ghanaians reliant on fishing.

Ghana is looking to crack down on saiko as well as illegal practices employed by local fishermen including using bright lights to attract fish, poisoning them with chemicals or even tossing dynamite into the water.

In a bid to replenish stocks the government banned artisanal fishing for a month from May to June and will forbid trawlers in August and September.

But even those in charge admit a lot more needs to be done to rectify the situation.

“The big challenge is a complete understanding of the system by policymakers and everybody down the line down to the fisherman,” said Emmanuel Kwafo, who is in charge of fisheries law enforcement at Ghana’s navy.

He said there needed to be a more fundamental shift in Ghana from a mind-set where illegal methods are seen as permissible to make ends meet.

“When we do the right thing, we rather enhance our chances of survival,” he said.

Kwafo was part of a major maritime conference held last week in Accra that brought together naval chiefs from around West Africa and abroad to discuss tackling issues including illegal fishing and the scourge of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea.

Illegal fishing has a devastating cost on the region – the UN estimates that nearly 40% of all fish caught in West Africa is done so illegally, resulting in a loss of $2.3-billion.

Kamal-Deen Ali, director of the Accra-based Centre for Maritime Law and Security Africa, does not hold back when talking about the need to fix the fishing sector.

“Fisheries (are) linked to food security, the national security and the survival of Ghana as a country,” he told AFP.

He insists the first scourge to focus on are the saiko trawlers.

But he said existing laws also need to be enforced for the local fishermen – with politicians often pandering to their communities and turning a blind eye to wrongdoing.

Few know the threats better than Nii Quaye, a former fisherman who now works as a spokesman for the local trade in the Accra district of James Town.

Among his duties is checking the catches coming in to ensure they have not been caught using chemicals or dynamite.

He said that fishermen had not seen an increase in stocks following the artisanal suspension and that success will come with law enforcement.

“When you arrest a person using chemicals or illegal fishing if they go to jail maybe for three to six months when they arrest five people I think everything will be stopped,” he said.

But he fears that if nothing major is done, then in a few years there may not be any fish left to catch.

“Everybody in James Town will be hungry because there is no fish,” he said.

“We are begging, so (that) they stop it.”