U-turn on Fisheries Commission decision to allow tuna boats to use light fishing

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The Fisheries Commission has reversed a decision that would have allowed tuna vessels to use lights to attract fish after an uproar from canoe fishers, who are prohibited from using this fishing method. The decision to grant an exemption for tuna vessels is against Ghanaian law in the first place, says the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF); and the fact that it was only rescinded after the canoe fishers voiced objections raises questions around the transparency of fisheries decision-making.

In April, the Fisheries Commission granted an exemption allowing tuna vessels to engage in light-fishing, following pressure from the Ghana Tuna Association. The vessels were permitted to use the method to catch tuna in the waters off Saltpond in the Central region, and Keta in Volta Region. Tuna vessels use live-bait fish, such as anchovies and sardinella, in their pole and line-fishing operations.

However, in the wake of this decision tensions grew with canoe fishers who are not allowed to use this fishing practice. As well as being the staple catch of the canoe fishers, populations of fish such as sardinella – known as small pelagic fish – are under severe strain in Ghanaian waters. Landings of sardinella declined by approximately 80% between 1996 and 2016, and the UN FAO has recommended a complete closure of the fishery to prevent total collapse.

Ghana’s navy, which is responsible for enforcement at sea, emphasised in a letter to the Fisheries Commission that light-fishing is prohibited and expressed concern that the exemption for tuna vessels could result in tensions between the navy and fishing communities. On 8 May, the navy proceeded to arrest two tuna vessels for light-fishing in the waters off Keta despite the exemption.

The decision to allow industrial vessels to use light – which makes fish easier to catch – has no basis in Ghanaian law, and has come at a time when canoe-fishers are already facing severe threats to their livelihoods and food security, says EJF.

In addition to light-fishing, tuna vessels benefit from an exemption that allows them to fish for bait in the inshore exclusion zone, which is reserved for canoe fishers. Again, the details of this decision have not been published, nor is there a clear legal basis: Section 81 of the 2002 Fisheries Act prohibits industrial vessels from fishing inside the zone, except in limited circumstances which do not appear to include bait fishing.

The livelihoods of local fishers are already under threat from ‘saiko’, wherein trawlers licenced for bottom-dwelling fish illegally target species which local fishing communities rely on. This fish is transferred to smaller boats out at sea before being landed and sold back to those same communities for profit.

Executive Director of EJF, Steve Trent said: “The Fisheries Commission made the right choice in reversing the decision to allow light-fishing by tuna vessels, but the case raises grave concerns. Why was the decision made in the first place without consultation with the affected fishing communities and without basis in law? Transparency and inclusiveness in fisheries decision-making is crucial to protect fish populations, livelihoods and food security in Ghana”.

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