Young fishermen sat at Elmina Beach with confusion written on their faces, jaws resting in their palms. The quiet atmosphere on the once busy shore at this time of the year, their bumper season, echoes the gloomy story of the fishermen and their communities.
They have been at the beach for days and gone on several fishing expeditions, but their nets have come back from sea continuously empty, sometimes destroyed by activities of recalcitrant vessels that invade their space.
Many others depend on these young men for their livelihoods. Now, Emmanuel Cobbinah and Meshach Amos Bassaw would rather not go home.
“I have a wife, two children, aged parents and seven other siblings who depend on me one way or the other. I cannot go home with empty hands and excuses. The sea is indeed dead, and our lives hang in uncertainty,” Bassaw said.
Others would rather not speak. They mend their torn nets in a silence that echoes the woes of a dying fishing industry.
They are not alone. About two million Ghanaians depend on the sea for their livelihoods. Now many of these fisherfolk suffer the same fate; the outcome of a dying and over-exploited sea. The tatters it has left behind in the communities that depend on it resonates along Ghana’s coast.
In interviews, fishermen express their helplessness as a heritage left by their fathers and which has kept families sustained for years gradually becomes endangered.
Cobbinah and Bassaw lay the blame for the bad state of the fishery industry at the doorstep of saiko, or transshipment.
They say the Ministry of Fisheries and Aquaculture Development must rise to redeem the fishing industry from the grip of the saiko dealers.
The growth of Saiko
“Saiko” is a term used among fishing communities to refer to the transfer (or “transshipment”) of frozen blocks of fish from industrial vessels to canoes at sea.
The business has grown over the years from something insignificant to a calculated, well-organized illegality.
Despite rumors of its anticipated legalization, officers of the fishing enforcement unit say they have not received a directive saying saiko has been legalized. “We are doing our work and would arrest anyone found to illegally transship at sea,” one of them said.
The lucrative nature of saiko has attracted a new kind of “fishermen” who go to sea with no nets. These new fisherfolk take large canoes – designed specifically for the saiko trade – to transact business with trawlers on the sea. They buy large quantities of by-catch from these vessels, often comprising illegally caught small-sized fish.
This by-catch business has gradually grown into a main trade and as the market has developed, so has the motivation to continue.
The vessels come too close to shore destroying the nets and gear of artisanal fishermen taking fish from their space and depriving them of their catch.
Saiko is prohibited under Fisheries Act 625 of 2002 (Section 132), and the Fisheries Regulations 2010 LI 1968 (Regulation 33), but the business has grown due to its lucrative nature.
The Ministry of Fisheries and Aquaculture Development in years past has, on several platforms, expressed worry about vessels venturing into the fishing space of artisanal fishermen and destroying their gear in the process.
Since the start of this year, the ministry asked all vessels to declare their by-catch under special supervision at the Tema port as a measure to control the activities of the vessels.
It has also deployed observers on board trawlers to help curb the saiko business on the high seas.
Indeed, if vessels use the right gear and do what is lawful they are not likely to get these by-catches.
But fishermen at Elmina and other fishing communities say the vessels do not stick to the rules of the game.
“How do we get fish when these vessels come so close to shore and into our fishing space for fish?” Cobbinah asked.
Fishermen acknowledged that the ministry had drastically reduced transshipment at sea, but said it must be careful not to legalize the business.
In August 2018, a vessel carrying slabs of illegally transshipped saiko was impounded at Apam in the Central region. The impounded goods included 215 slabs and 15 sacks of fish, mostly juveniles, clear evidence that illegality is happening.
The business is a dreaded area. In some communities it is discussed in whispers. Indeed, the Deputy Minister of Fisheries, Ato Cudjoe, alleged that some people purporting to be engaged in the saiko business had threatened him to stay away from investigating it.
Impact on the Country
As the saiko business has grown, so has its economic impact on the fishing industry.
According to a report by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) and Hen Mpoano, an estimated 100,000 tonnes of fish were landed through saiko, 80,000 tonnes of which were landed in the Central port of Elmina alone in 2017.
The estimated value was between US$34-65 million.
But saiko fish go unreported and represent a loss of revenue to the state.
Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing disrupts protection and management actions presently in place in many countries.
Indeed, IUU is noted as a grave threat to the sustainability of capture fisheries due to its adverse effect on the ecosystem of the oceans and economy of fishing nations.
Huge quantities of juvenile fish are caught and iced by these industrial vessels and transshipped for sale, affecting fish stocks significantly and particularly artisanal fishing.
So what happens is artisanal fishermen invest in fuel and other fishing inputs and go to sea, but they catch virtually nothing because industrial vessels now compete with artisanal fishermen for catches of small pelagics such as sardinella, anchovies and mackerel, the staple food of local communities.
The Fisheries Scientific and Technical Working Group also indicated that the small pelagic stocks could collapse entirely by 2020 if nothing is done to restore them.
Global losses due to IUU fishing alone are estimated at between US$10 billion and US$23.5 billion per year, with West African waters believed to have the highest levels of IUU in the world, representing up to 37 percent of the region’s catch, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Much of the IUU fishing in the region is believed to be conducted by foreign vessels fishing in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of coastal West African states, including Ghana.
The Consequences for Communities
The consequences of saiko have been particularly enormous for artisanal fishermen.
So artisanal fishermen go to sea and come back with empty nets, leaving them poorer.
“Officials should do more to totally stop saiko," Cobbinah stated.
“Usually at this time of the year I would not be here. I would be at sea and when I come I will come back with fish. Now I sit here not knowing how to get my life going. I don’t know what the future holds, this must stop somewhere,” he added.
“We took loans to repair our canoes in anticipation for the bumper season but this has not been so in the past few years. There is no bumper season," Bassaw said. "It is worrying for us and the people who depend on us.”
Fishermen are not the only people affected.
Drivers, petty traders and many other businesses in fishing communities are linked to the fishing trade, and its collapse directly impacts all these other activities.
Papa Kweku Yao repairs outboard motors used on canoes for fishing at Moree. His business is collapsing, he says.
“My business is now down. I was repairing outboard motors consistently and earning some good money but now there are virtually none to repair. Canoes are not being used. No spoilt outboard motors to repair. Life has just become too difficult for us in the fishing communities,” he stated.
Fishing is a tradition, and elders in these communities fear for their livelihoods and the future of the young ones.
In Moree, elders who had fished in times when the sea was healthier and magnanimous with the people that fed on it sat and reminisced about the “good old days” under a shed at the beach.
Opanyin Kwadwo Krampah spoke on behalf of the retired fishermen.
“We are worried. We didn’t know about saiko in our days. We did things right. We don’t have long to live, but I am afraid for these young fishermen. It’s a bad story now."
Many young men are leaving for the Ivory Coast where fishing is now more lucrative, Krampah added.
"Once the sea is dead, the communities are also gradually dying."
Agnes Thompson, a teacher at Apam, said migration was affecting families and the education of young pupils in fishing communities.
Emmanuel Eric Quaye, a retired pharmacist who lives at Apam in the Central region, said his investments in fishing had gone down the drain.
A Fresh Fight
With a renewed mission to restore fishery stocks, the Ministry of Fisheries and Aquaculture Development and the Fisheries Commission are working extra hard to nip the practice in the bud.
In addition to the fisheries ministry deploying observers onboard trawlers to help curb transshipment at sea, the Ghana Navy has launched regular sea patrols to check on these activities, said the head of the Marine Fisheries Management Division of the Fisheries Commission, Matilda Quist.
The Fisheries Enforcement Unit (FEU), she noted, was also working to seize and arrest saiko fish and offenders.
“Complaints from communities that they are not getting saiko fish is an indication there have been some successes,” she stated.
The ministry planned to adequately support the FEU with needed resources to curb the practice, Quist added.