[By Zubaida Mabuno Ismail]
Among Ghana’s fishing communities, there is a tradition that one day a week remains free from all activity, in order to protect stocks. For the rest of the week, the shore was generally bustling with those returning with their catch.
But this is no longer the image. On working days, fishermen now sit down to mend broken nets or nap in canoes. The depletion of fish populations in the waters of this West African country means that more than one day a week is a rest day.
According to data from the country’s Fisheries Commission, there has been a decline in the annual production of marine and inland fish – that is, fewer fish are being caught. Although there was an increase in 2020, catches were still more than 15,000 tonnes lower than 2017 levels. One of the reasons for this is the amount of fish lost to illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU).
It is estimated that more than one in five fish in the world are caught illegally, that is, by fishing that violates fishing laws and regulations or takes place beyond their reach. In hotspots like West Africa, it’s up to one in four fish. That’s about 26 million tonnes of fish a year, worth $10 billion to $23 billion, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
IUU fishing costs developing countries significantly each year, with Ghana losing an estimated $23.7 million in revenue annually. These activities have also decimated its populations of small pelagic fish, such as sardinella, whose numbers have fallen by 80% over the past two decades.
Illegal fishing is one of the most serious threats to the sustainable exploitation of living aquatic resources, undermining international efforts to promote better ocean governance, according to the European Commission. According to the commission, IUU fishing also leads to unfair competition for local fishing communities who play by the rules.
After concluding in 2013 that the country’s level of development and commitment against IUU fishing was insufficient, the European Commission issued Ghana its first “yellow card” warning. Although this was lifted in 2015 when the country instituted new legislation and a clear fisheries management plan, the lack of subsequent implementation allowed the situation to deteriorate. In June 2021, the EU was forced to issue a second yellow.
Ghana is the first country to be re-carded in this way. It must now work urgently to eradicate illegal fishing by vessels flying its flag and operating in its waters or face a red card. This would be accompanied by economic sanctions that could see the country completely lose access to the lucrative European seafood export market.
Concerns weigh on livelihoods
Kwaku Wangala was 25 when he first saw a foreign trawler in the central region of Ghana. Over the next 35 years, he saw things go from bad to worse.
“We could even catch fish with our hands until the first two trawlers landed on our sea. fishing cooperative on Abrofo-Mpoano beach, 166 kilometers west of the capital Accra. The community has around 5,000 fishers – mostly women, whose lives have been plunged into poverty. To stay in business, anglers began practicing “light fishing,” a method that uses lights above or below the water to attract fish to specific areas to catch. This method of fishing is classified as illegal under the Ghana Fisheries Act 2002.
“Those who introduced us to light fishing did not tell us how long we could practice it. It therefore became difficult to go back on this practice, until arrests took place. Some fishermen still use light fishing methods because they didn’t watch helplessly as foreign trawlers took over their seas,” says Wangala.
Kwame Amoah, 45, left school for the lucrative path of fishing some 30 years ago. Now he doesn’t catch enough and it has become difficult to pay his children’s school fees. For him, the second yellow card is both a blessing and a curse.
According to Amoah, the opinions of trawler owners are taken into account in decision-making because they pay taxes, while local fishermen are excluded because they do not. This situation means that the challenges faced by the country’s fishing sector are far from resolved, says Amoah, as the trawlers who pay taxes are the same ones who commit crimes at sea and jeopardize the survival of communities in fishermen.
Fishermen mend their nets by the sea in Cape Coast, Ghana. Dwindling fish populations in West African seas mean that artisanal fishermen are catching fewer fish and spending less time at sea. (Image: Zubaida Mabuno Ismail/China Ocean Dialogue)
While the yellow card is meant to push the government to put in place proper management by stopping transhipment – the transfer of fish from one vessel to another at sea – and “saiko” fishing, locals say they won’t should not be part of “general policies” because it affects their livelihoods.
Saiko fishing involves the transfer of fish from industrial trawlers to specially adapted canoes that outcompete smaller boats, and is a long-standing and critical problem in Ghanaian waters. It is estimated that it accounts for around 100,000 tonnes of fish each year, worth $51 million. Saiko is illegal under Ghanaian law and subject to fines of up to $2 million, but these have proven difficult to enforce and the practice remains attractive as it is so lucrative.
For the past three years, the government has implemented closed fishing seasons in Ghanaian waters, during which all activities in a certain area are halted for three months to allow populations to recover. But the local fishermen were far from satisfied. “How on earth can you ban locals from fishing during a closed season while allowing foreign trawlers to fish? asks Amoah.
Although the country’s fisheries regulators have imposed penalties on vessels engaged in or supporting IUU fishing activities (including ensuring that vessels with violations and fines pay before their licenses are renewed), critics say these sanctions are ineffective due to corruption and lack of oversight.
Fishermen must be part of the solution
In 2021, Abrofo-Mpoano Chairman Wangala insisted on improving consultations with fishermen after attending a meeting called by the Fisheries Commission on the EU yellow card. He believes that local fishers are best placed to complement government efforts in tackling IUU fishing at the local level.
“We are aware that the use of detergents [to improve water clarity while fishing] and other unapproved fishing gear are not correct. We have even hinted at the dangers to Ghana’s fish stocks, but we need an advisory plan that will ensure the trawlers are out of the seas,” he insists.
In 2002, Ghana passed a law prohibiting any foreign ownership or control of vessels flying its flag, in a bid to retain more revenue from its fisheries. But a 2018 survey by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) found that around 90% of Ghana’s industrial fleet is tied to foreign owners, who circumvent the law by using ‘shell’ companies to import their vessels. and obtain licenses.
The Ministry of Fisheries and Aquaculture Development (MOFAD) has reviewed policies that apply the regulation and monitoring of its seas, while a new national action plan on IUU fishing covering the period 2021-2025 was submitted to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in May 2021.
Last year, the government also established the Fisheries Enforcement Unit, an inter-agency team under MOFAD, comprising the Fisheries Commission, Ghana Navy and Marine Police. It has intensified inspections at sea and beach sweeping operations to monitor compliance with fishing laws and regulations.
As part of the action plan, the ministry also wants to place observers on all industrial vessels, who have a mandate to report any violations they witness.
However, one of the challenges that civil society and observers face is the lack of evidence to allow prosecutions. Help is hoped to come from a new app called Dase (meaning ‘evidence’ in the local Fante dialect), which allows anglers, watchers and even community members to submit geotagged videos or photos of violations at sea in real time. These reports are compiled by EJF, which then forwards them to the Fisheries Commission for appropriate action.
Ghana is also seeking transparency in the operations of foreign trawlers through shell companies, seeking to clarify hire-purchase agreements, in which local fishing license holders purchase foreign vessels, paying in installments while operating vessel. It is hoped that these measures, if properly implemented, can help restore best practices at sea and allow the country to redeem itself from the EU yellow card.
Zubaida Mabuno Ismail is a freelance journalist who reports on gender and climate change. She is editor-in-chief of Zami Reports, correspondent for Reporters Without Borders and Mandela Washington Fellow. She has worked with the Africa Calling podcast and Radio France International.
This article appears courtesy of China Dialogue Ocean and can be found in its original form here.
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.