Artisinal fisherfolk in Ghana increasingly worry about the impact of transshipment on the industry / Credit: Mary Ama Bawa
"We didn’t have a lot of these vessels in our waters formerly, but they are too many now and huge," says Still Good Man, a fisherman at Tema since 1986. "They have sophisticated gadgets that spot fish even in the rocks and under the weeds. They can even instruct us to remove our net from the water so they can trawl. They can sometimes be ruthless and ran over your nets or boat. They do this with impunity. Nobody will hold them responsible for their actions. These Chinese vessels abuse us greatly at sea," he continued.
Still Good Man attributes this show of bravado by the industrial vessels to the lack of political will by the government in enforcing the fisheries law, which in turn creates a climate of impunity and allows these large-scale industrial vessels to target the same species that local small scale fishermen have traditionally caught.
"We travel to Togo and Liberia, such actions are non-existent, and if you violate the law they will arrest you," he says. "The laws work. But here in Ghana, infractions are committed right in front of enforcement officers and no action is taken."
Still Good Man is not the only fisherman facing the same dilemma - the too-common tale of dwindling fish stock and increased boats out at sea. Isaac Dadzie and Papa Afodu, who have fished for the past three decades, also bemoan the plight of fishermen across Ghana. They helplessly look on while their fish is stolen from them by the industrial trawlers and sold to non-fishermen called by-catch collectors. The vessels that sell or tranship the by-catch or Saiko fish at sea are all Ghanaian registered or flagged vessels; however, a recent report by an NGO-Environmental Justice Foundation notes that "around 90% of Ghana’s industrial fishing fleet is linked to Chinese ownership."
Imoro is a crew member of one of the industrial trawlers at Tema. He tells me some of the fisheries officers (observers) who are detailed to be on board such vessels are easily bribed and therefore unable to give accurate accounts of what happens at sea. According to him, "the observers are compromised by the Chinese on board. They get on board when we take off from Tema, but they join available small canoes off Elmina and go ashore. When we are done with our expedition and ready to go back to port, they are recalled to come on board."
Before the officer leaves the vessel, Imoro says, he negotiates how much will be given him. This could be up to 5,000 Ghanaian cedi.
Papa Afodu and his colleagues recount the many years they have spent fishing and never dreamt a time like this would come when they would go to sea and come home with empty nets. They now beg for fish instead of dashing fish out. Fish, once a common commodity all over the beach, are now a rare commodity for them. They struggle to pay their children’s school fees.
A 49 year old fisherman, Egya Abokonyowa, at New Amanful in the western region gazes hopelessly at the sea and wonders if the nightmare of the presence of these large vessels at sea will ever come to an end in Ghana. He says the operators are very powerful and it appears government cannot control them. According to him, their presence has impacted negatively on traditional fishing business. Abokonyowa tells me, these big vessels "wait till 10pm and then they invade our territory and take away our fish. As we speak, my nets have been swept away by these industrial vessels."
He says naval officers are strict at enforcing the law on local fishermen and adds that "yet our government is unable to stop the big vessels from other forms of infractions."
Ghana has ratified a number of international fishing agreements including that of United Nations Commission on the Law of the Sea, and is therefore obliged to guarantee that fishing fleets in the country’s waters are controlled. However, the ability of the government to supervise foreign owned fishing vessels has been called into question by fishermen, NGOs and scientists.
Can the authorities effectively monitor and supervise these activities which are taking place at sea far from prying eyes? What kind of attractions or inducement do these operators have vis-à-vis the paltry financial remuneration and corrupt tendencies of some officials working for the country in this sector?
So, what is happening at sea?
Ghana is an important fishing nation and has a high per capita consumption of fish, more than twice the world average. According to the Fisheries Enforcement Unit (FEU), about 10 percent of the Ghana’s population directly or indirectly depends on the sector, which produced about 450,000 metric tonnes of fish in 2017 worth about GHC 2.2 billion.
However, the small-scale fishing industry is in danger of being completely wiped out. Prof. Kobina Yankson, a fishery scientist at the University of Cape Coast, fears the small pelagic stock would completely be exhausted from our seas by 2020 if conservation and serious management measures are not put in place.
"Our projection is that if by 2020, the status quo remains, the small pelagic fishery is going to collapse and when it collapses, we cannot revive it," he warns.
Many reasons have been repeatedly identified by scientists as key contributing factors for the depletion of fish stock in Ghana's once highly fertile waters. Among the local fishers, the many years of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing methods such as light fishing, the use of explosives and other poisonous chemicals like dynamite to increase yield have been cited as factors.
Common infractions carried out by industrial vessels include but are not restricted to fishing in the IEZ, use of fraudulent documentation, transshipment at sea, targeting of juvenile catch as well as tampering of electronic monitoring devices called Vessel Monitoring Devices. The Director at the Centre for Coastal Management at UCC, Prof. Denis Worlanyo Aheto, says these infractions, especially targeting of juveniles as main catch, has wide-reaching implications. He discloses that a "recent research" conducted by the department of fisheries "clearly shows that at least 51% of the catches are small pelagics and out of that, 70% are juveniles. So how do we sustain the fisheries if we are landing this quantum of juveniles?" Prof Aheto asks.
Historically, by 1984, there were only 13 Chinese vessels in West Africa. Fast forward to 2018, and there are about 100 of them in Ghana alone. Many have attributed this to the loose nature of the country’s laws.
Sources within the sector hint that almost all the about 100 industrial fishing trawlers operating in Ghana marine waters are involved in fish transshipment (popularly called saiko fishing). The practice involves large fishing vessels, fishing in the Inshore Exclusive Zone (IEZ), an area in the sea reserved for artisanal fishers, andthen transferring and selling part of the catch to local vessels. These vessels, which are only registered to legally fish demersal in deep waters, have been fishing in the zone designated for artisanal fishers, catching stock such as sardinella, anchovy and mackerel -- which are the main targets of canoe vessels -- and thereby depleting the fish stock in Ghana’s waters and impacting local livelihoods. The Director of Hen Mpoano, a fisheries and coastal governance Ghanaian NGO, Mr. Kofi Agbogah, describes the entire business as a "social and ecological disaster."
What began as batter, he states, "has become a very big business and everybody is afraid to talk about it because people are benefiting from it."
He affirms, "the practice pushes genuine fishers out of business and makes fishing communities poorer."
The saiko business therefore gives these vessels an unfair advantage over the local fishers who operate with smaller fishing vessels and implements.
So, has government taken any action in this regard?
In its 2015-2019 National Fisheries Management Plan, the government said it would set up a closed fishing season, cancel the licenses of repeat IUU offenders and cut the size of the licensed fleet to address overfishing.
As part of management measures to reverse the current rate of reduction, government attempted implementing a temporary ban on all fishing activities this year in order to check the illegal practices. However, the closed season could not be carried through for a number of reasons.
Prior to the implementation of the policy, there were concerns from artisanal fishers with the timing of the closure and criticism by some stakeholders that consultative process leading to the implementation of the policy was narrow and discriminatory. Additionally, some key stakeholders in the sector were of the view that government was targeting the wrong set of fishers, the artisanal, when the fishing stock was actually being reduced by the incessant activities of trawl vessels that engage in saiko.
Some fishmongers at Abandze in the Central Region affirm that the practice has been perpetuated unchecked for a number of years, thereby attracting a higher percentage of patronage of foreign vessels. They accuse the foreign trawlers of destroying their business, asserting that "immediately the Chinese got involved, they aggravated the situation. Don't they have the sea in their country?" the fishmongers asked.
Despite the setbacks, the FEU with a mandate to enforce Ghana’s fisheries laws has intercepted a number of common infractions carried out by small-scale fishermen, including the use of monofilament nets, use of artificial light to aggregate fish and the landing of small-sized fish.
In August this year, the Marine Police and the Fisheries Enforcement Unit arrested some fishermen in the company of two security officers in a canoe loaded with about 250 parcels of frozen fish which were allegedly caught illegally. Each parcel of fish is estimated to sell for 150 cedis, an equivalent of $30 which makes the total cost of saiko fish in a single vessel to be approximately $7,500. According to the Fisheries Enforcement Unit, an average saiko trip lands 26 tonnes of fish, the equivalent of around 400 traditional artisanal canoe trips.
So, what is the implication of this development on global statistics?
The Looming Danger
IUU fishing is a worldwide phenomenon with significant environmental, economic and social consequences. The global losses due to IUU fishing alone are estimated to be between US$10 billion and US$23.5 billion per year with West African waters deemed to have the highest levels of IUU fishing in the world and representing up to 37 percent of the region’s catch.
The Scientific and Technical Working Group and the Ghana Sustainable Fisheries Management Project (SFMP) 2017 report revealed that there is a significant and imperative threat from saiko fishing. The investigation by EJF showed that an estimated 100,000 metric tonnes of illegal and unreported saiko catches were made in 2017, worth US$34-65 million. The figure represents a huge loss of state revenue from tax and fishing license fees.
As part of measures in curbing the menace, human observers were assigned on board all industrial trawlers to enforce a requirement for the vessels to land their catch at authorized ports. To this, Mr Kofi Agbogah tells me the observers on board the trawlers are not a license for these vessels to transship.
"The spirit and letter of section 132 of the Fisheries Act 2002 is not about moving the fish from one boat to the other when there is an observer, but it is predicated on something which when you don't do, something will happen to your boat or to your fish, but not to consciously go out there and catch what you are not supposed to catch," he explains.
Prohibitions and Penalties
Saiko is illegal under Ghana’s laws, and therefore attracts a fine of between US$100,000 and US$2 million. My sources within government say there are some vessels that have been licensed to tranship and have been given the mesh size to use in order not to trap the small pelagic. However, these vessels defy every rule because they see saiko as a fast business and since transshipped fish is not accounted for, the money goes into individual pockets. Though Ghana’s laws take a firm stance on the practice, management measures for the country do not factor in transshipped fish and are therefore not recorded because they are regarded as illegal. This explains further whe the country is unable to declare the exact tonnes of fish that are landed daily except those that are declared at the ports of entry.
Though the law has made a number of provisions to sanction transshipment at sea, it is largely not adhered to because of patronage by politicians and others who are to enforce it. The government is soft on those who perpetuate such infractions due to the support it receives during elections and the fear of losing political power.
In spite of these setbacks, the practice of saiko is a big conversation in the Ghanaian media, as a result of its telling effect on the sector. Prof Aheto says the impact on the country makes it extremely difficult for it to be ignored by any government.
"We are talking about almost three million people who have employed themselves in the sector," he says. "Can we imagine the economic impact on these people if the sector collapses? It will become a national security issue."
According to Prof. Aheto, Ghana’s "maximum sustainable year was in 1996 when the country recorded the highest catch of about 50,000 metric tonnes of fish."
He bemoans that "presently we are talking about 20,000" and adds that the "models are clear that in the next three years we are going to lose these stocks." Prof Aheto further calls on government "to show commitment to the industry."
In the streets of the country, there are the huge billboards warning fishers against saiko. In October 2018, however, comments made by the Minister of Fisheries that Ghana’s laws allow transshipment if it is done under supervision, sparked a renewed debate, with some fishermen accusing the government of not showing enough commitment in dealing with the issue.
Acting President of the Ghana National Canoe and Fishermen Council, Nana Jojo Solomon, told me that government by its action is signalling an end to artisanal fishing in the country because the local fishers can in no way match the competition by these larger vessels at sea if transshipment at sea is given official assent.
He points out that when "IUU defaulters are arrested by the relevant agencies" there are "people sitting at the top issuing directives," that such people should be released.
Nana Joojo Solomon adds that when such people are released, "they go back into our marine waters with the same infractions. And then in another breath, you tell the artisanals who form about 10% of the entire population of this country, to close their season for one month and then you allow certain things to happen under their watch."
He accuses the government of shelving the perpetrators of these infractions and coming up "with other management tools, when the existing ones that are practiced in the open have not been dealt with."
He also indicts government of carrying out measures that are contrary to the fisheries management plan.
"For the past two years, about 20 more vessels have been licensed, when in actual fact, the five-year management plan seeks to reduce the number of fleets in our marine waters," Nana Jojo Solomon says.
He also emphasizes that, "it is not canoe fisherman who buy" the saiko fish.
"Every fisherman goes out there with gear. You don't push empty canoes and land frozen fish and you call yourself a fisherman. I don't want a situation where it will be like the same atisanal fishermen are collaborating with the Chinese to land these as bi-catch."
A major issue that has widely been discussed in the saiko conversation is the use of illegal fishing nets by vessels and the need for government to prosecute offenders.
However, Imoro, says those who deal in transshipment of fish at sea have developed a clever means of outwitting fishery officers who go on board at the port to inspect their nets.
"At the harbour, they hide these nets so even when the inspecting officers come, they won't find them. The only way to catch them is when they are trawling at sea and that is also when officers choose to take money and go to sleep."
In the midst of the alleged high handedness of these foreign vessels, local leaders say the inaction and the lack of support by government for local fishers rather emboldens operators of these vessels in such illegality. Fisherman Nana Kofi Ehureng, chief of Ekumfi Otuam and Gomoa Amanful, who doubles as the leader of the Fante caucus at Tema, says local leaders are helpless in salvaging the problem.
"When the Chinese are having meetings, they call us," he tells me. "We make contributions of how their activities are affecting the sector. They clap for us but in the end, they continue in their old ways. That is the pathetic aspect."
At the saiko market at the Tema port, business is rife, with women showcasing plenty of catch, mostly juveniles. The women are doing good business but they say their husbands get nothing when they go to sea so they have resorted to buying fish from the vessels. They say they are aware that their continuous patronage destroys the fish at sea but claim they have no alternative.
The call to ban saiko is very loud among local fishers and some fishery scientists in Ghana who have taken to local radio stations to register their disapproval; however, some saiko operators at Elmina have also been defending their business. These fishers say government, instead of arresting innocent citizens, has to consider the kind of fishing nets that these trawl vessels send to sea.
Kofi Duker, second Vice Chair of the Saiko Operators Association at Elmina, explains that "we have all sort of fishing, the ring net, the trawling, hooking, but the major factor is the net. Government shouldn't allow them to bring in small nets," he advises.
For the aged in the Ghanaian society who witnessed the glorious past of the small-scale fishing industry, what is happening currently is frightening. The views of 78 year old Maame Agyim are a summary of where the country has been and where it is going.
"When I was about 30 years, canoes from other African countries came to fish in our sea," he says. "My family hosted fishermen from other communities who came to do business here. In those days, the sea yielded its best. Things have changed now. There’s no good news coming from any of the fishing communities."
Fisheries' contribution to GDP has dropped from 4.5 in 1998 to 0.01 in 2017-2018. The sea is loaded with vessels with monies getting into the pockets of few, and most especially foreigners. Per the country’s management plans, it is clearly stated that between 2015 and 2019 we should reduce the industrial vessels from 103 to 47. According to the plan, permissible number of canoes in the sea should be about 9,000. Presently, the available number of canoes in the sea is over 15,000. Again, the policy stipulates that the over 300 semi-industrial vessels should be reduced to 100, but the figure is still high.
The odds are certainly against us regarding this plan. With all this in mind, Ghana, with the leadership of the ministry and industry players, should advance innovative and sustainable solutions that will be embraced by consensus of the stakeholders in the sector. The contributions of artisanal fishers, as well as protagonists for saiko should be considered and decisions taken in the best interest of Ghana.
If saiko does not stop, then we should as well forget about 2019 close season.
The article was supported by Internews' Earth Journalism Network as part of the West Africa Fisheries project.