Friday, August 3, 2012

La Peche

Looking at Lake Zowla from afar is like looking into an impressionist landscape – curving canals bordered by purple flowers are separated by islands of tall grasses swaying in the breeze. Fishermen navigate the canals like gondoliers in Venice, standing at the far end of small wooden canoes and deftly guiding them with bamboo poles. Swallows, red bishops, and other birds add flushes of color to a sea of green as they take off from thickets into the salty air blowing from the coast.

When the sky is Carolina blue and the clouds lazily roll their outlines over the open side of the lake, the beauty is breath-taking. The day I met with a group of men from the nearby village of Boko to go fishing, however, was gray, overcast, and chilly: monsoon weather. A young professor from the Anfoin high school, Monsieur Ago, decided to study fishing during the long rainy season vacation asked me to assist him with conducting a survey and gathering information. After reviewing the survey and inputting data, we decided to meet with an unofficial fishing cooperative in Boko to get an on-the-ground perspective.

The end of the canal we followed – the sides are lined with adako while the middle is clogged
with ‘kavi,’ a free-floating plant whose sharp leaves cut skin

Moments after being introduced at that first meeting, the leader of the cooperative solemnly told me about the gravest problem plaguing the local fishermen’s trade – ‘les herbes,’ a word that includes both weeds and grasses. Specifically, he was referring to the plant locals call ‘adako.’ Adako is a tall grass that stretches roots deep into the lakebed and grows even in areas where water is over head high. Adako grows quickly, but its’ inter-locking crescent-shaped stalks are weak, spongy, and full of water. While women in Boko dry these grasses and tie them into mats to sell at the market in Anfoin, they pose some serious problems for fishermen. First off, they take up space that could be occupied by fish and decrease the area of the lake accessible by boat. In terms of lake ecology, these grasses prevent sunlight from reaching the water’s surface. This decreases phytoplankton growth, which in turn harms the zooplankton that the fish depend on for food. In the end, this means a smaller harvest for fishermen.

In the next breath, the coop leader described the history of failed attempts to eradicate ‘les herbes.’ At some point in the past, the World Bank opted to finance the removal of the grasses by having a giant machine come in and uproot them all. I was told that funding to pay for the project was sent first to the head of the district, who proceeded to ‘boof’ (embezzle) the money so that it never took off. In the fading evening light of our first meeting, this man told me that the fishers were tired of foreigners coming in, asking questions, and leaving without anything ever getting done. Was I going to help them or not? Not expecting any of this, having come on an invitation from M. Ago, I felt more pressure and pairs of eyes on me than usual. So I replied that I would listen to what they had to say and think about it.

Boko is about 2 kilometers from Anfoin on the road west towards Vogan. The road plunges downhill through the village and then runs over a bridge and across a marshland before climbing another hill. Fresh water flowing under the bridge feeds Lake Zowla to the south, which is in turn connected to the Lake Togo system and to the ocean. When the co-op members were children, they would take off from this bridge with their fathers to fish on open water. The day I went, the bridge was surrounded by a sea of grass and we had to take motorcycles 4 kilometers further downstream to find a lifting point.

Eventually we plunged out of the brush and into a coco tree bordered clearing near the lake. M. AGO and I stripped down to our skivvies, left our clothes and shoes with a farmer, and followed the young man guiding us towards the water. We walked downhill past an enclosure housing emaciated village cows, then through a field studded with cow pies. I was a bit bothered by this as we waded through muck and then waist-high water further downhill, but my environmental conscience was somewhat appeased afterwards when I learned that animal waste is one of the most important additions to ponds when fish-farming because it encourages phytoplankton growth.

Fishermen steering their pirogues

We slogged across a field of short, thick ‘djesikovi’ grass before we reached a canal that the young man had built for his ‘pirogue.’ (small wooden canoe, called ‘aklo’ in Ewe) There are two different kinds of pirogue used by these fishermen: one made from wooden planks bent to create curved sides and another formed from a carved out tree trunk. Men use long bamboo poles to steer them: they plant the poles at an angle into the water, shove behind them overhand until finally pushing off the end with their palm, and then use the steeper angle and a twisting motion to free the pole from the mud. With the same hand they slide the pole up, swing it over the surface, and repeat. Always pushing off on the same side, they appear to maneuver the boat effortlessly through narrow canals. Often two men can stand in and steer one pirogue, an amazing act of balance and coordination. Shallow depths make it possible to navigate the whole lake with these poles.

M. Ago holds a tofla flower

M. Ago and I struggled into the pirogue at the end of the canal. We pushed out through clusters of beautiful free-floating ‘tofla’ flowers into the canal and headed away from the open lake towards the marshland. Opportunities for fishing vary widely from rainy (March - September) to dry (October – February) season. At the moment, strong monsoon winds create currents over the open section of the lake, both of which make it difficult to balance on a pirogue. Weather is most conducive to fishing in September, when the open lake will be full of fishermen. The lake level begins decreases steadily during the dry season as less freshwater comes flooding in from tributaries. This decreases the surface area of the lake, concentrating the fish into a smaller space and making for an easier catch. Further on in the dry season, the cool harmattan winds blowing south off the Sahara make going out on the lake a chilly experience. Standing up wet in a cool breeze is a sure way to get the ‘palu’ (fever). The connections with Lake Togo also play a part – in the rainy season the abundance of fresh water decreases overall salinity in the lake, but as the floods depart brackish water begins to make its way more often to the lower reaches of the tributaries.

Net strung on a stick

We wound through the channels and joined up with two other pirogues steered by men from the co-op. At a clearing in the grasses we all stopped and I watched as each team laid out their nets. The man in front slowly guided the pirogue while the one in back reeled the net off a stick. There are two words in Ewe for fisherman: ‘todzito’ (‘eto’ = river, ‘dzi’ = on, and ‘-to’ = one who) and ‘topodela’ (‘-la’ = one who and ‘pode’ can be roughly translated as the sound a stick makes when it thwacks the water). With the net in place along a border of the clearing, the men began heartily striking at the surface of the water and then the side of the pirogue to drive the fish out of hiding and towards the net. After doing a thorough job of it, they passed back by to string the net back onto the stick and pick out the fish. They let out a whoop of joy every time they found a big one. Our fishing was further complicated by the clear water, which enabled the fish to see the net and react before it could entrap them, but by the end of the day we had nabbed almost 40 fish!

The vast majority of the fish we caught were tilapia. While my papers on fish raising in rural communities focus completely on tilapia because of their wide dietary preferences, quick growth, and resistance to changing environmental conditions, they are not among the principal fish species listed in my 30-year-old atlas. They escaped into the waterways, likely from flooded fish-culture ponds, and either or were seasonally abundant at the time we fished. Apart from fish, the fishermen also catch and consume turtles (‘eklo’), alligators, alligator eggs, and crabs (‘aglo’), all of which I hope to try before the end of my service.

A fisherman holding a recently caught eklo

Crab caught in a trap made from a tin can, rubber band, and nail

This time of high water is also when fish reproduce. After the females grow and lay thousands of eggs, the males stay behind to guard them until they hatch. Thus, because the females are more mobile and likely to take off out of hiding they dominated our catch.

One of the common quarrels between fishermen is over what size net to use. The two main types contain lines spaced with one- or two-fingered holes. The one-finger size traps juvenile fish while the two-finger allows them to pass through. Leaving the small fish behind is important to maintain stock in the lake, but that might be a difficult choice to make for a poor village fisherman. Fishing is best at the start of the dry season. As the months go on and harmattan rolls in, the catch brought home each day goes down. If the fingerlings are caught there are less fish to grow and reproduce before the next harvest. I don’t think the concepts of mass balance or tragedy of the commons really sunk in with the fishermen, who simply noted that ‘there are thousands of fish!’

Fisherman picking fish from a net

Heading back, a high school student almost capsized his pirogue while enthusiastically leaping into the water to prove to me he could swim. This is one skill, in addition to superb balance and coordination, separating fishermen from all the other Togolese. Farmers rarely go near the river, and swimming is impossible on the beach because of strong currents. After handing my shirt to M. Ago and jumping in myself, I found that after clumsily trying to steer a pirogue and staring jealously as the men skillfully wound in nets this was one thing I could do better than them! They stayed on the surface with awkward doggy-paddle strokes that made them look like dying turtles, more used to swimming with a calabash tucked under them for buoyancy. I thoroughly explained and demonstrated free style and breast stroke before letting my feet sink into the muck and watching them thrash about.

Fisherwoman laying traps

After climbing back into the pirogue and casting the nets one last time, we wound our way back to the canal we started from. We passed a group of fisherwomen on the way back fully immersed in water and wading into the reeds. They wedged traps in between clumps of adako and tofla plants, then waded to the other side of the clearing and made a horrible ruckus to scare fish out of hiding and towards the traps. Each trap is made of wire-mesh shaped into cylinders with an inward facing conical entrance for the fish. I shouted ‘miadogo’ (we shall meet) to the women from the pirogue before we docked the boat and slogged back up to the motorbike.

I took a bucket shower back in the village and spent the rest of the afternoon talking with the fishermen in the shade of a palm-thatch apatam. We ate a delicious ‘cataplasm’ (cassava flour mixed with sauce composed primarily of animal juices) made from the tilapia we caught and took a lengthy siesta before attending another meeting of the co-op that evening.

Tilapia, pre-cataplasm

Tilapia, post-cataplasm

Rejoicing before eating some fresh fish, SO much tastier than dried or smoked fish

These fishermen seem dead set on remedying the invasion of adako by direct means. Along with the ever popular World Bank project, we discussed a few other solutions for destroying the grasses. ICAT, the national institute for agricultural advising, has suggested that the villagers should organize to cut the grasses themselves with machetes. On the level of community-organized grassroots projects I wholly support this, except that doing it all by hand would be a massively difficult task for villagers whose lives are already difficult enough. Another proposal was to kill the grasses with insecticide, with likely negative consequences on the fish and the food chain. I even saw some scorched islands along the canals where villagers had lit fires to try to burn the grasses down.

Looking back on my experience studying river restoration, the root cause of problems at a specific reach in a river is often found further upstream. The past 30 years have seen a large increase in demographic pressure in the Maritime region, which in 1980 was already the most population dense area of Togo. Land use has undergone dramatic changes: along with a greater expanse of land being cultivated, farmers are increasingly using chemical fertilizers to sustain harvests on already degraded land. Run off carries eroded soils and the waste of urban areas (see previous blog post on trash) downhill and down river. My theory is that the explosion of grasses in the last few decades is encouraged by nutrients and pollutants flushed down a degraded water shed, and that physically removing all of the grasses will never permanently solve the problem. Members of the co-op promised that they will be able to perform maintenance after the grasses have been cut back, but if the same water keeps running into the lake I doubt this will be possible. Out on the lake I tried to pull up a few adako plants on my own. The blades came out easily, but the roots broke off in the mud promising to re-sprout later.

Back at my village market, it is easy to tell which fish are local and which are imported. Women selling piles of dried tilapia and small sardines from Lake Zowla sit next to large smoked fish imported from neighboring countries. These large fish are frozen and brought across the border on a semi or on a ship through the port. A woman next to the market thaws and smokes these fish on a giant stove to preserve them, then sells them to other women who sell them from dirty tables and basket tops at the market. In 1978, Togo was already importing twice as much fish as it produced (30,000 tonnes compared with 15,000), and this has likely increased due to advances in technology and transportation. Fish is the major source of protein for people in my village, but the future of these animals and the culture built around harvesting them remains uncertain.

I’ve begun constructing a seasonal calendar with the co-op in Boko to help them get a better idea of when might be the best times to launch campaigns against ‘les herbes.’ Come September, I’m hoping to go out on the open lake and really learn how to steer a pirogue. While I may not hold the key to solving their problem, I learned a lot out on the lake and I’m glad I made the plunge.