Fisheries sector on verge of collapse coastal economy in danger thousands of jobs at stake

The fisheries sector which once contributed about four percent of Ghana’s GDP is near collapse, unless urgent steps are taken to curb illegal ‘Saiko’ fishing, the trans-shipment of fish at sea from industrial trawlers to local canoes, a coalition of Civil Society Organisations and business associations have warned.

Historical data from the Ghana Statistical Services (GSS) show that the fishing sector has largely experienced negative growth since 2017, partly due to the activities of trawlers.

These trawlers, mostly unregistered from China, catch immature fish especially pelagics from the surface of the sea, despite the country’s laws forbidding them from doing so. Typically, registered trawlers are supposed to do deep sea fishing under supervision, while artisanal canoes do surface sea fishing.

But according to the coalition comprising Hen Mpoano – a fisheries and coastal governance NGO, Environmental Justice Foundation, National Fisheries Association of Ghana (NAFAG), with support from the Ghana Chamber of Telecommunications, although Saiko has been around since the 1970s, it has in recent years become rampant. This came to light during a meeting with the media in Accra.

They said most of the trawlers fishing the country’s waters are neither registered not regulated by the Fisheries Commission, as prescribed by law.

The coalition through a report titled; “Stolen at sea, how illegal Saiko fishing is fuelling the collapse of Ghana’s fisheries’, expressed fear that the phenomena might lead to a complete collapse of the coastal economy which is highly dependent on fish, depletion of the country’s aquatic and ecological resources as well as huge revenue losses to the state.

Implications on local fishermen and coastal communities

Frustrated by the activities of trawlers and their inability to catch enough fish, artisanal canoe fishermen now resort to illegal practices like light and chemical fishing. This, according to experts, does not only pose danger to the sustainability of the fisheries sector, but a health problem to consumers as chemical fishing is known to contaminate the catch.

Saiko also threatens the livelihoods of 300 fishing and coastal communities that depend largely on the sea for a living, if nothing is done urgently. For example, it is expected that about 40,000 people will be rendered jobless before the end of this year.

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Additionally, local artisanal canoe fisherman are left with no option but to buy the illegal catch of these industrial trawlers offshore for onward sale onshore.

While this may sound like a good business, it holds dire consequences for the country. For instance, one industrial trawler trip is equal to 450 canoe strips, which means that the damage a trawler can do to the lives of aquatic animals like fish, especially on surface water, far outweighs thousands of canoes.

Additionally, the proceeds from Saiko go into the hands of their foreign owners and sometimes their local collaborators, thereby further worsening the flight of artisanal canoe fishermen and the coastal economy.

Loss of revenue to the state

In 2017 for instance, an estimated 100,000 tonnes of Saiko fish was landed, four times the officially reported landings of small pelagic in the country. The 100,000 tonnes were unreported and did not contribute to management decision-making.

This translates to several tens of millions in revenue loss to the state, which otherwise would have been used to support development.

“If the juveniles (immature fishes) are allowed to mature and harvested by canoe fishermen, the landings recorded could more than double to 200,000 tonnes,” Kofi Agbogah of Hen Mpoano, told the B&FT.

While Ghana only recorded total landings of about 16,000 tonnes of small pelagic in 2018, the activities of the illegal trawlers are said to be on the increase.

As mentioned earlier, the proceeds from Saiko go to the foreign owners of these industrial trawlers, thereby leading to capital flight. It also worsens the plight of local fishermen who cannot compete with these trawlers.

In the absence of a booming local fishing industry, the country will also have spent more on importation of fish to meet growing demand. This increases the pressure on the cedi against its major trading currencies like the United States dollar.

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What does the law say?

The Fisheries Amendment Act 2014, Act 880 states that unless authorized in writing by the Fisheries Commission, fishing vessel shall be used for transhipment of fish in the fishery waters without the supervision of an authorized officer or under such other arrangement and conditions as may be approved in advance by the Commission.

The law also prescribes stiffer punishment for offenders with fines ranging from US$1million to US$4million, as well as, revocation of license and or forfeiture of a vessel arrested for transshipment. Despite existence of the law, implementation remains a challenge, according to the report.

Why is gov’t not acting?

According to the coalition, the fight to stop illegal Saiko has yet to yield the needed results mainly because of the involvement of politicians.

The report said illegal Saiko yields “quick money and is a big money business” for politicians who are determined to stifle the campaign against it.

It also highlighted beneficial ownership issues, political influences at many levels, as reasons the practice continues to be pervasive.

It further said there is little or no enforcement of the law, adding that even though some illegal trawlers have been caught before, there is no record of the law been applied to date.

Way forward

On the way forward, the coalition believes that eradication must begin with the control of trawler operations. It said the current arrangement where Ghanaians are the license owners and foreigners are the beneficial owners does not benefit the country. It also called for a review of operations of the trawl sector and their impact on fisheries conservation.

“Saiko eradication requires will, commitment, courage, fortitude and transparency. It will take a wide range of actors to successfully eradicate them; it requires political will and commitment, courage and fortitude as the many faces of Saiko go deep into the roots of families, societies and cultures and politics,” Mr. Agbogah lamented.

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