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Illegal fishing by foreign trawlers is destroying Ghana’s fish populations and costing the country tens of millions of dollars a year, researchers say.

Illegal fishing by foreign trawlers is destroying Ghana’s fish populations and costing the country tens of millions of dollars a year, researchers say.

An investigation published on Monday by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) claims that “saiko” fishing ‒ whereby trawlers target the staple catch of Ghanaian canoe fishers and sell it to fisherfolk and on local fish markets at a profit ‒ landed approximately 100,000 tonnes of fish in 2017. This would have been worth US$50 million if sold at sea, or up to $81m when sold at port.

EFJ’s executive director, Steve Trent, said the practice is causing the collapse of Ghana’s staple stock – small marine fish such as sardinella, a crucial protein in the local diet. Scientists have warned that stocks could be destroyed completely by as early as 2020.

“This is corporate, organised crime,” Mr Trent said. “ ‘Saiko’ is facilitated precisely to operate undercover. If you have trawlers coming into port and landing fish they are not licensed to catch, government agencies have no option but to act.
“But by using fewer, smaller boats to bring the frozen fish to shore, the catch is claimed as being legitimate and legal when it patently isn’t,” he said.

Destroys jobs

The EJF publication showed that more than 90 per cent of Ghana’s industrial trawl fleet is linked to Chinese owners who depend on Ghanaian “front” companies to bypass national laws forbidding them to operate.

To gauge the scale of “saiko” catches, the UK-based charity filmed illegal trans-shipments as they took place at sea and monitored port landings.

In 2017, 76 industrial trawlers caught the same amount of fish as 12,000 artisanal canoes. The trawlers also use illegal nets to catch fish closer to the coast which are normally reserved for artisanal fishers.

They tranship this catch at night on to specially made “saiko” canoes, a single one of which can land as much fish as 450 artisanal canoes, the report’s authors estimate.

Because artisanal fishing offers employment to more than 100,000 fishers across hundreds of coastal villages, “saiko” is also severely affecting local jobs and consolidating power in the hands of the few. Based on 100,000 metric tonnes of fish caught, “saiko” provides only 1.5 jobs, 40 times less than artisanal fishing, the EJF claims.

With most of any “saiko” catch consisting of juvenile fish, the report warns that Ghana’s fish populations will face difficulty replenishing themselves.

China crisis

China is now Ghana’s top trade partner (bilateral trade was worth an estimated £6.7bn in 2017) as well as its primary source of investment. China recently pledged nearly £20bn in an “agricultural and industrial transformation” of Ghana.

China’s distant-water fishing fleet is the largest in the world and it sails more vessels in West African waters than any other nation, but operations are notoriously below board.

Roughly two-thirds of all the Chinese fishing vessels on West African waters are fishing illegally. Their activity sucks up billions of dollars in lost revenue and is rapidly depleting fish stocks.

China was recently ranked as the worst offender for illegal fishing in a global index of 152 countries, yet Beijing continues to provide subsidies and licences to its distant-water fleet.

Observers have questioned how the Chinese vessels are able to operate when the effects are so devastating to Ghana’s fisheries and population.

Danger on horizon

“There is a general perception that public officials [in Ghana] are neck-deep or complicit in illegal operations of some [of the] industrial fishing vessels,” said Kwame Adu Agyekum, Ghanaian fisheries officer for the EU-supported Global Monitoring and Security – Africa project, which monitors coastal vulnerability and fishing traffic.

“The challenge with our inability to reduce or prevent pirate fishing has a lot to do with inadequate human capacity, and the weak institutions that are mandated to enforce laws,” Mr Adu Agyekum said.

As local fishermen attempt to catch what is left behind, they have turned to illegal methods, with use of lights, dynamite and poisonous chemicals increasing exponentially and causing further environmental destruction, the EFJ says.

“This does not protect the sea,” said Nana Kweku Ansa, chief fisherman of Gomoa Mankoadze. “But if that’s the reason why we should stop these practices, then the government must send the Chinese home.

“The sea belongs to us. So why do we allow them to destroy it like that?”

Ghanaian officials’ failure to act can spell imminent disaster, Mr Trent said. “We’re rapidly reaching a situation where people will be forced to migrate because of a lack of local economic and food alternatives. It’s tragic and totally unnecessary.”