The State of Artisanal Fisheries…How much time does Ghana have?

Small pelagic fish-infographic by Alistair Arthur-Don

Ghana’s fishing industry provides livelihoods for over 2.9 million people, 10% of the current total population. Employment and livelihoods based on the fishing sector covers the entire value chain from fishers, to processors, retailers, and consumers.

Most of the people who are economically dependent on fish live in coastal communities but people across the country are highly dependent on fish as the preferred source of animal protein. About 75% of the total domestic production of fish is consumed locally and makes up 60% of total protein intake nationwide.

The percentage of fish-based protein intake is much higher in coastal fishing areas reaching over 90% in some communities. According to a report by the United States Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Sustainable Fisheries Management Project (SFMP) on the ‘status of Ghana’s small pelagic stocks published in 2017, the marine fishing industry provides direct employment to over 120,000 artisanal fishermen and 100,000 fish processors and traders spread across 300 landing sites in all four coastal regions of the country. The report estimates that fish workers engaged in the processing and distribution of fish number at least 500,000 individuals.

Small pelagic fish –known as ‘The People’s Fish’ because of the importance of these fish across the country – consists mainly of three species. These three species – round and flat sardines, anchovies, and mackerel – make up 70% to 80% of the total marine fish landings in Ghana and are of major importance to the canoe fleet that lands more than 80% of the total small pelagic fish catch.

The canoe sector makes up the majority of the employment in the marine fisheries sector. These statistics demonstrate how important small marine fish and related fish products such as shitor, dried fish powder and other products, are to national and local economies. And, they are critical to the livelihoods and local economies of canoe fishers and small-scale processors.

Managed properly, coastal fisheries contributes significantly to employment, food security and poverty reduction, all stated objectives of the national government. However, to date these fisheries have been managed poorly and it is now a fishery in crisis. Without urgent action and leadership by the government, the collapse of this fishery is imminent. Loss of this fishery will have huge impact on direct employment, the economy, food security and poverty levels across Ghana, especially in coastal areas, and could result in mass movement of impoverished coastal resident and increased conflict as people compete for more limited resources.

However, the reality is that Ghana, once described as the preeminent regional fishing nation of West Africa, is watching this fishery collapse. Annual landings have been in decline for more than 30 years as fishing effort increased. For ‘the people’s fish’, that supplies over 60% of protein intake nationally, 2017 saw the lowest level of catch in the history of Ghana. Estimates by the Ghana Fisheries Scientific and Technical Working Group puts current stocks at around 14% of the 1998 levels. Fisheries stocks don’t slowly keep collapsing till the stock is down to zero. At a certain point, stocks become so low that male and female fish are so few that they can’t find each other to spawn and the stock simply and suddenly disappears.

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Recent findings from the Scientific and Technical Working Group

A 2017 study led by the Scientific and Technical Working Group (STWG) assessed information from the Fisheries Scientific and Survey Division (FSSD) of the Fisheries Commission and compared available data against previously established biological reference points and management indicators during an initial stock assessment in 2015.  Among other findings, the study revealed that 2017 levels of the people’s fish stock have reached the lowest point ever recorded in Ghana. The people’s fishery in Ghana is overfished with the Scientific and Technical Working Group predicting total collapse within 3-5 years with potentially disastrous results.

Over fishing to unsustainable levels has forced many fishers to use illegal fishing methods such as using lights at night to attract fish, illegally small nets, illegal transferring of small pelagic fish from trawlers to canoes at sea which is called ‘saiko’ by local fishermen, and many other practices that exacerbate over fishing impacts. Today, there continues to be an uncontrolled and alarming increase in the number of canoes on the sea combined with increasing numbers of days spent at sea fishing. Increasing sizes of canoes with increased horsepower of outboard engines combined with increased net length are major contributors to the rapid depletion of the small pelagic fishery.

Over capacity is a combination of the number of boats, length of nets, increasing fishing efficiency such as produced by larger engines, and subsidized fuel for fishers (premix). All these factors contribute to the current unsustainable levels of fishing for small pelagics on which people are so dependent. Ghana’s artisanal fishers are now caught in an unavoidable race to catch the last fish. The collapse of these fisheries will have far reaching economic and food security implications not only for fishing communities but for Ghanaians far from the coasts who depend on these fish for food.

Success in other countries shows that falling small pelagic stocks can be reversed with strong government action to reduce fishing pressure to sustainable levels. The report by the Fisheries Science and Technical Working Group projects that with the implementation of sustainable management measures Ghana can expect a potential 400% increase in landings from the present 20,000 metric tons per year to about 90,000 by 2030. This increase can account for as much as a 36% reduction in total annual fish imports in the country. If implemented immediately, this increase could exceed the projected benefits from the national aquaculture program which is projected to have a maximum increase of 40,000 MT over the same period. As a result, to meet local demand and reduce imports it is urgent that the government focus efforts on reducing overfishing of small pelagics in parallel with programs to develop aquaculture to provide a permanent solution for food security in Ghana.

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Towards a permanent solution

The argument for urgent action to sustain Ghana’s small pelagic fisheries for food security and economic sustainability is clear. But there are other supporting issues as well. Beyond serving as a major source of nutrition for Ghanaians and an employment driver for 10% of Ghana’s current population, small pelagic fisheries are important in the overall fisheries eco-system. The key sardine, anchovy and mackerel species occupy critical positions in the food web. In addition to providing food for Ghanaians, these species provide food for larger fish on which Ghana’s commercial and export industry depends. A loss of these smaller fish could lead to a domino effect that could reduce overall contributions to the economy through reduced commercial exports, while at the same time increasing the need for imports.

The STWG Fisheries Science and Technical Working Group, a non-political independent science-based group, recommended the Fisheries Commission focus on implementing measures outlined in the National Fisheries Management Plan (2015-2019) to rebuild small pelagic stocks and increase annual landings. In particular, the STWG advised ending open access to the fishing sector by completing registration of all canoes as required in the National Fisheries Act and, over time, reducing the number of canoes in the artisanal sector. As part of the national effort, the National Fisheries Management Plan also calls for the institution of an additional weekly fishing holiday that has already been agreed to by fishers in all regions, and reduce the number of days that trawlers fish by 50% of current levels.

Also in line with the National Fisheries Management Plan, the research team recommended a one-month closed season during a biologically important month during the year for all fleets to allow fish to spawn and reproduce, thereby helping to rebuild stocks. It is encouraging to see that the Ministry of Fisheries and Aquaculture Development (MoFAD) is taking steps in this direction by forming a high-level Closed Season Committee to provide options for instituting a 2018 one-month closed-season.

It is estimated that Ghana currently has a demand of close to 1 million metric tons of fish annually out of which the local industry currently is able to supply less than 40%. This results in fish imports averaging $400 million every year. The Fisheries Science and Technical Working Group projects a possible collapse of the main small pelagic species by 2020 without immediate action. This is a clarion call to government to speed up efforts to empower the Ministry of Fisheries and Aquaculture Development and the Fisheries Commission to implement National Fisheries Management Plan recommendations. It is also a wake up call for all in the fisheries sector to support the government in its efforts to save the people’s fish. Paramount among options is the implementation of a closed season in August 2018, although this is only one step a long walk to save Ghana’s people’s fish and ensure their food secure future.

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