“I was breathless. Suddenly I felt like I could not swim. I was drowning. For some minutes I didn’t know whether I was alive or dead. My body felt lame.
In minutes somebody drew me up above the water. I almost died.”
His face wrenched from the agony of the painful memories.
In a little smoky room in Moree in Ghana’s Central region, Tawiah recounted his ordeal working as a fisher hand in Liberia many years back.
Suddenly he paused and sighed, ostensibly to gather the strength needed to continue the story of his years as a trafficked child in a strange land.
Tawiah is the only ne negatively affected by the dwindling fishery stocks. The downturn in Ghana’s local fishing economy is having serious ramifications in fishing communities across the country.
Fisher communities in Ghana are getting poorer. The fishery stocks are at a frighteningly low level and experts say they are nearing a state of collapse. To make things worse, the government is essentially helpless in its efforts to control the continued practice of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing on the seas.
Hooked on the fear of losing the favor of the fisherfolk, successive governments have failed to address and alter the realities of the criminalities of the fishery industry. They have succumbed to the demands of fisherfolk for the supply of premix fuel and other fishing inputs at subsidized prices.
This is in the end worsening the plight of the people not helping them.
Unsustainable practices, heavy losses
And with an unregulated boat entry system it’s a free for all to catch whatever remains. As a result, fleets of canoes are often left to chase after pitiable baby fishes, thwarting any chance for them to breed and increase stock.
At a fishing port in Elmina, juvenile fishes filled several basins. Some fishermen admitted in interviews that carbide and dynamite were used to catch them. Some also confessed during interviews that they relied on the infamous practice of light fishing.
Here and at many fishing ports around the country, nobody checks what type of fish comes in. Dr. Isaac Okyere of the University of Cape Coast Centre for Coastal Management, a fisheries and aquatic science lecturer, said many of the catches at these fish landing bays were juveniles; fishery stocks which have not had the chance to breed even once, he explained.
The women buying the fish know with just a glance the method used to catch them. Dynamite, washing soap, carbide, and the lighting system are some of the infamous but trending methods employed by the fishermen.
As a result of these IUU practices, fishery experts estimate that Ghana is losing over 100,000 United States dollars a day. The West African region combined is said to lose about three million dollars per boat per year to these illegal and unregulated activities.
There’s no doubt about it, the sea is being over exploited.
Dr. Wisdom Akpalu, a development economist at the University of Ghana, observed that the government’s practice of continuously subsidizing the fisheries sector could have disastrous consequences on the stocks and the industry. He calls them “harmful” subsidies.
The subsidies get more people attracted to the industry and continuous the cycle; more fleet chasing after decreasing fish stocks.
At the center of this debate, the fishing communities, and especially women and children, are the hardest hit. As sources of income dry up, child labour, trafficking, and prostitution are on the rise.
“Nobody has money for anything,” said Mr. Abedenego Otoo, who sells electronic materials in Moree. Business, he said, is on the decline.
In Elmina, Comfort Otoo, a fishmonger who is married to a fisherman shares the same sentiment. With her eyes filled with tears, she admitted that it has not been easy taking care of her two daughters. “Our livelihoods are in trouble,” she said. “Our lives depend on [fishing], something must be done fast.”
Fisher communities are made up of people with families not just numbers. The consequences of all of the confusion bedeviling the fishery sector touch the lives of real people and change them forever.
A vicious cycle
The impact that IUU is having on the fishing industry has real consequences for these communities. Depleted fish stocks give way to rising poverty and desperate families are forced to seek alternative ways to generate income. Tawiah, now 18, is one such person whose life has been changed by the dwindling fish stocks along Ghana’s coast.
“I was trafficked to Liberia when I was about eight years old,” he began after regaining his composure. “My mother had sent me off with two other older siblings because the livelihoods were worsening with dwindling fish catches. I remember I was afraid most of the time I was in Liberia.”
He was kept on boats to help remove stuck nets from under sea.
His family, heavily involved with the fishing industry, had been struggling to make ends meet. Finally, his parents agreed to send the children away.
The person who paid for them had agreed to buy land and help them construct a building in exchange for the children’s services.
According to Tawiah, he and his siblings starved while doing the work. Most days they were hungry. His sister got pregnant seeking help from men to eat and was sent back to their parents, leaving the two boys to stay. One day, Tawiah nearly died at sea when he was thrown into the ocean to release a net hooked at the seabed. “I came face to face with death and survived,” he said.
He nearly lost his life in Liberia and was able to return home with the help of a neighbor.
Now a fisherman in the Western region of Ghana Kweku, Tawiah better understands the issues affecting the country’s fishery stocks. “There are a lot of issues,” he said. “The fishermen are using light and other chemicals to fish. They fail to allow the baby fishes to grow to breed and that is why the stocks are being depleted.”
As fish stocks fall and poverty increases, exploitation of the country’s marine resources is also on the rise. Desperate fishermen resort to any and all forms of illegal unreported and unregulated methods of fishing, worsening the already-taxed fishery resources.
With lower returns on investment, the fishermen seek cheaper workhands in the form of children to help them fish, which keeps them out of school. Others resort to trafficking their children to ease the economic burden on their families. “The situation is a serious one; one that needs urgent attention especially by government,” Tawiah stated.
And experts agree. The sea is dying and with it, the local economy. In Elmina, women sit behind empty basins waiting for catches that rarely come. Those that do reflect the critical state of the fishery stocks.
Tawiah returned to Ghana after seven years as a fishery hand in Liberia. The catches, he said, are better in Liberia where fishermen do not practice most of the IUU methods. “We had a lot of fish at sea in Liberia,” he said. “You even found large quantities of fish sometimes deposited at the shores with the waves.”
In Ghana, it’s a different story. “The laws governing the sea do not work,” he said sadly. “We really have a big problem. Everybody does what he wants on the seas.”
Tawiah vowed to not partake in the IUU fishing methods that are rampant along Ghana’s coast. “My family and I have suffered enough because of the dwindled sea resources. I can’t use light or any of these bad practices. My conscience will not allow me,” he admits.
Instead, Tawiah called on the government to take drastic action to help restore the fishery stocks. In a position similar to the chief fishermen of Elmina, Nana Duncan, he said the government must ensure that the laws on fishing are enforced and that perpetrators are brought to book. Disorder on the part of saiko (the business of illegal transshipment of fish caught at sea by trawlers), trawlers and fishermen using IUUs in the industry, he said, required strong political will to stop it.
Ray of hope
Tawiah stands at the shore and looks into horizon. Like him, there are fisherman who believe it’s still possible to replenish the fishery stocks and are ready to be part of the solution. He currently works with organizations that work to educate the fisher communities on the need to help rebuild the fish population.
Experts indicate that this is entirely possible. But like Tawiah, the country’s fish stocks face an uncertain future.
“I could have been in school. I could have pursued my dreams,” he says quietly. “Who knows.”