Senegal has rejected licensing requests for 52 new industrial fishing vessels, after Senegalese small-scale fishers and industrial shipowners raised the alarm. On World Ocean’s Day, June 8, the Minister of Fisheries rejected the requests, in a victory for sustainable fisheries. Attention is now on a similar case in Ghana, where three new Chinese trawlers have been registered to the Ghanaian flag and are awaiting licensing, despite a moratorium on new fishing vessels due to extreme over-capacity in the existing fleet.
The Ghanaian government’s own Fisheries Management Plan states that 48 trawlers are the most that the fishery can sustain, yet 72 trawlers are currently licensed. A government moratorium on fishing licences for new or replacement trawl vessels has been in force since 2012.
Opposing licenses for the new trawlers, Ghana’s National Canoe Fishermen Council stated in an open letter to the Fisheries Commission, “Our fish stocks in Ghana are in crisis and the small pelagic fishery – the lifeline of our artisanal fishing communities – is on the verge of collapse. […] As identified in the 2015-2019 Fisheries Management Plan, there are already too many trawlers fishing in Ghana’s waters.”
The new vessels – Yu Feng 1, 3 and 4 – were all built in China in 2016 and were all flying the Chinese flag before arriving in Ghana. To bypass Ghana’s laws, which prohibit foreigners from engaging in joint ventures in the industrial trawl sector, Chinese corporations operate through Ghanaian ‘front’ companies, using opaque corporate structures to import their vessels, register and obtain a licence.
The canoe council highlighted in its letter that the new trawlers are registered to local companies established in 2019, with only a PO Box as their address. “Respectfully, we ask how it is possible that a newly established fishing company in Ghana can suddenly acquire one or two trawlers of this size with the costs involved? Is the Fisheries Commission able to confirm that it has investigated the beneficial ownership of these companies to ensure that only Ghanaian citizens will be controlling and profiting from the operations?” says the letter.
Around 90% of Ghana’s industrial trawl fleet is linked to Chinese ownership, an EJF investigation revealed in 2018. Ghana has the largest registry of Chinese distant-water vessels outside China, according to a new report from the Overseas Development Institute, even though Ghana’s laws prohibit foreign involvement in the trawl sector. Despite the moratorium, new vessels have arrived in Ghana almost every year since 2012, when it came into force.
The shocking lack of transparency means that the true ‘beneficial owners’ of the vessels – those who take home the profits – are not held accountable. It raises the question: Who is ultimately responsible for these vessels’ behaviour? If beneficial owners are unknown, they are therefore protected and can profit from illegal practices with low risk of detection.
Ghana has a severe issue with a type of illegal fishing known as ‘saiko’. Small pelagic fish, known as the ‘people’s fish’, are subject to targeted illegal fishing by trawlers. They are then transferred at sea to specially adapted boats, and sold back to local communities at a profit.
Executive Director of the Environmental Justice Foundation, Steve Trent, said: “Senegal made the right choice in declining these licenses and thereby protecting its fisheries and the livelihoods and food security of its coastal communities. In Ghana, illegal and unsustainable fishing is already driving fish stocks to the brink of collapse. Approving new licenses now –when by the government’s own admission, the fleet is already over-capacity – would be a catastrophic, unjustifiable mistake. I firmly hope that the Ghanaian government follows the good example set by Senegal and declines these requests.”