Despite being one of the most important fishing nations in West Africa, Ghana's fisheries sector is confronted with extraordinary challenges due to decades of over-exploitation by both artisanal and industrial fleet. Fisherfolks say the government needs to improve outreach in decision-making and transparency to tackle problems plaguing the trade.
Fishermen gather on the beach on Ghana's southern coast to mend their nets / Credit: Afedzi Abdullah
Mending his light-green net on a hot Tuesday afternoon on the shores of Elmina on Ghana’s southern coast, Kweku Quansah, a 47-year old fisherman, says he regrets not having formal education, particularly as it has become harder to make a living from fishing.
“When I started fishing, things were better. We were getting a lot of fish,” said Quansah, who has been working in the sector for nearly three decades.
“Now things are bad because we are forced to use dynamite, DDT, light and are engaging in a lot of illegalities,” he said.
As it stands, many fishermen in Ghana believe the government has turned a blind eye to their challenges, including changes in fish migration patterns and growing competition from larger, commercial fishing trawlers.
Most recently, the government has proposed legalizing transshipment, locally known as “Saiko” fishing. “Saiko,” which is the transshipment of fish from boat to boat at sea (as opposed to them being brought into port), has had a particularly destructive impact on Ghana’s small pelagic fisheries. Since it involves juvenile fish, which are caught in monofilament nets, the practice of industrial vessels targeting small pelagic fish such as sardines and herrings, has greatly contributed to the disruption of the reproductive potential of the resource, further exacerbating the ecological crisis.
According to a report published by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) last year, the practice has had negative impacts on livelihoods and food security.
A vital industry drowning in challenges
As per the EJF report, Ghana accounts for about 11 percent of total artisanal canoes in West Africa, with small-scale fishing and employing around 80 percent of all fishers in the country.
The Ministry of Food and Agriculture (MoFA), estimates that over two million people in Ghana, or around 10 percent of the population, rely directly on fisheries for their livelihoods, with more than 200 coastal villages dependent on fisheries as their main source of income.
The EJF report further stated that widespread illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing and destructive practices such as the use of dynamite, monofilament nets, DDT and light, among other things, continually cause irreplaceable damage to marine ecosystems.
As a result, it said incomes of small-scale fishermen had dropped drastically in the last two decades, and the country is now forced to import more than half of the fish it consumes due to widespread illegalities on the Ghanaian waters.
Fisherman Kweku Quansah tends to his net in Elmina / Credit: Afedzi Abdullah
Kofi Agbogah, Director of Hen Mpoano, a non-profit organisation focused on coastal ecosystem, says that in the past two decades the fisheries sector has come to be associated with a lot of illegalities due to lack of transparency from government and industry players.
He says, “there are perennial concerns with regards to fisheries data collection and reporting, vessel ownership and licensing, the Fisheries Development Fund and the pervasive illegal transshipment on the sea.”
While access to credible information is needed for informed and meaningful fisheries management, Agbogah says it lacks in the Ghanaian fisheries sector.
What is needed
In a country where around 150,000 fishermen are dispersed across 500 kilometres of coastline, centralised, top-down forms of enforcement are not always effective.
When in July last year, the government proposed freezing fishing for a month, the fisherfolk rallied against the proposal because they felt they had not been properly engaged.
Immediately after the announcement, fishermen from around the country began a series of protests, insisting that the timing was wrong. The notice was too short for them to adequately prepare for the freeze, they said.
Currently, a greater number of artisanal fishers are aggrieved by the government’s attempts to legalise Saiko.
“The industrial trawlers come down to catch fish in the area where we are supposed to fish. They sometimes destroy our nets and other fishing gears. In fact, we want the Government to do something about it. The industrial trawlers are destroying our sea” said Mohammed Boateng, a fisherman from Moree.
“When we go for fishing, and we don’t get fish, we cannot come home empty-handed, so we buy fish from the industrial trawlers. Meanwhile, the fish we buy from them were caught from the area where we fish,” he lamented.
The Fisheries Transparency Initiative (FITI) Secretariat states that decentralisation and more openness and transparency from the government could help secure a broader base of support from all stakeholders, including the fisherfolks, increasing the perceived legitimacy of laws and policies and promoting smooth compliance.
Frank Paul Arthur, a fisherman from Anomabo, speaks in frustration, like many of his fellow fishermen, when he says the government has abandoned and belittled the plight of the country’s fisherfolk.
“We have been educating, monitoring and reporting our colleagues who go contrary to the fishing regulations, but instead of the security agencies to protect our identities, some of them often disclose our names to them, resulting in a series of attacks of retaliation,” he said.
Here, he also talked about a lack of remuneration, motivation or well-codified rewards package for fishermen who stand against the ‘norm’ and encourage others to engage in illegal practices.
“The Fisheries Enforcement Unit (FEU) cannot be everywhere; so I think we the fishermen should be empowered and encouraged to assist them to fight the sprawling menace and irregularities derailing the progress of the sector ourselves,” Arthur indicated.
“All attempts to persuade policymakers to support us has yielded no results,” said Jacob Abakah, a fisherman from Moree.
“We go deep sea as far as possible, yet to no avail. The heavy trawlers are making it impossible for us to get fish. The trawlers have destroyed all the plankton that serve as the feeding and breeding,” he added.
In Ababkah’s opinion, a centralised cold room where surpluses or unsold fish could be bought, frozen and later sold to the public would be of benefit to fishermen by preventing post-harvest losses.
Giving fishermen a voice in their future
Many fishermen interviewed for this story shared ideas about how changes to the sector could be of value. But most argued that they are often not effectively and efficiently consulted on the promulgation of laws, policies and programmes that affect them.
“We usually hear most of the issues on the radio, but the information is often scanty, unreliable and annoyingly very imposing on fishers without prior engagements,” Francis Mensah, an Accra-based fisherman with 25 years of work experience stated.
“The recent proposal by the government to freeze fishing for one month is a typical example. We were not adequately consulted before its intended passage that is why we resisted it,” he added.
“Tell me, which government has ever attempted to close the sea in Ghana?” asked Maeshark Bottey, a fisherman from Axim who has been in the fishing business for more than 30 years.
He says, given his experience, one month of no fishing by artisanal fishers would not yield any positive results if the trawlers continued to operate.
Fisherman Francis Mensah from Axim shares his challenges / Credit: Afedzi Abdullah
Many small-scale fishers say they would be willing to cooperate with the government and would abide by new laws if officials would consult them on the management and governance of the fisheries industry.
“To help solve the challenges in the sector, the government must effectively engage fisher folks in the communities but not be limited to their political or administrative heads who may not know the root of the problem,” Maeshark suggested.
“Government should not think we are illiterates. In fact, we can be encouraged to also initiate policies, programmes, laws and by-laws in collaboration with relevant agencies to govern our work,” Francis Mensah stated.
Godfrey Tsibu, Western Regional Director of the Fisheries Commission (FC), acknowledged that there are gaps in transparency and management issues regarding Ghana’s industrial fisheries that need to be addressed.
However, he said the FC and the Ministry of Fisheries were working on the problem.
Currently, the World Bank is supporting the FC to publish information on its website, he said, expressing hope that with fishermen, civil society organisations (CSOs) and government showing interest in issues of transparency, the situation could improve.
Godfrey backed calls for Ghana to sign on to the Fisheries Transparency Initiative (FITI), a global effort toward sustainable, responsibly managed marine fisheries. Being part of this initiative, he said, will help the FC increase transparency with its stakeholders, especially with issues relating to the one-month freeze on fishing proposed by government here information was not properly communicated
“The FC has been engaging stakeholders, maybe not enough, but it is up to the stakeholders to demand the information from us for the sake of transparency,” Godfrey said. “Also, the stakeholders have to comply with the fisheries laws and regulations and we also have to involve them in decision making.”
Thomas Insaidoo, a deputy director at the Ministry of Fisheries and Aquaculture Development, said, “addressing gaps in transparency and the management of coastal resources will require collaborative efforts from fishermen, CSOs and local government.”
He added that “it is also important that we build the capacity of fishermen to be able to understand and appreciate governance issues.”
“For the fisheries sector to be protected and effectively sustained, it is important to ensure transparency and accountability.”
Mr. Isaidoo says although Ghana has made progress in increasing transparency through the publishing of guidelines for the registration and licensing of fishing vessels and by publishing its fisheries management plan, which includes data on catch, further efforts are required from all stakeholders including the media, NGOs and civil society.
Fisherman Kweku Mensah in Axim / Credit: Afedzi Abdullah
The way forward
Hen Mpoano’s Agbogah, who also serves as fisheries advisor to the Sustainable Fisheries Management Project (SFMP) supported by USAID, thinks both the government and fisherfolks needs to exhibit higher levels of commitment towards transforming the fisheries sector.
“We need to be reminded that the fisheries sector is also an extractive industry whose renewable natural resources can be exhausted. We are all aware of the challenges in the fisheries sector. So we must be ready to address them holistically,” he said.
“In the fisheries sector, there is so much opacity, criminality and illegality just because of lack of transparency in the dealings. So transparency in the fisheries sector is very important. It is another form of getting our managers and regulators to ensure that issues with licensing, persecution are done right,” Agbogah stated.
“There should be openness and transparency with regards to conditions attached to fishing authorizations and contracts of fishing access agreements signed between fishing nations and coastal states” he added.
Mr. Agbogah says the government must move towards addressing the challenges in the fisheries sector by intensifying its engagement with fisher folks and empowering their leaders.
“If the government is able to address illegal fishing and over-capacity of the industrial trawl fleet, artisanal fishers would be encouraged to abide by the fisheries laws and support all efforts of co-management,” he said.
This article was supported by Internews' Earth Journalism Network as part of the West Africa Fisheries project.