- “If saiko is happening on our waters, it is because the industrial vessels on our waters are using illegal nets to catch the small fishes,” said fisherman Kwame Amoah, 39.
Written By Zadok K. Gyesi - Under a brick-supported wooden shed at the edge of Cape Coast beach in the Central Region of Ghana, a group of fishermen gathered, some busily engrossed in draughts and other indoor games while others mended fishing nets.
Canoes with various inscriptions, colours and flags, were docked on the sand, and several fishermen sat on them staring at the gulf.
One bore the inscription "Gye Nyame," which roughly translates to “Except God or Only God.”
It is taboo in this part of Ghana for fishers to go to sea on Tuesdays. But as fish stocks have declined in recent years, some fishers here are spending more than just Tuesdays on dry land.
Killer nets: Depleting fish stocks in Ghana's waters
The fishing industry in Ghana is critical to the country’s economy and to meeting the food needs of its people. But destructive fishing methods, such as the use of illegal nets that indiscriminately catch juvenile fish before they can spawn, has become widespread, contributing to the depletion of fish stocks.
Kofi Agboga, Director of Hɛn Mpoano, a local NGO, said the practice could lead to an “ecological disaster.”
While authorities here say they have attempted to stop the use of such nets, fishermen say more has to be done.
For one, the fishers believe the use of illegal fishing nets by some industry players is fueling the practice of saiko, a form of illegal fish transshipment.
Saiko is a term used in Ghana to refer to the transfer or transshipment of fish at sea from industrial trawlers to local canoes, which then landed them at ports such as Apam and Elmina.
Initially, saiko arose as a form of informal trading system whereby the unwanted catch of industrial fishing vessels would be exchanged at sea for food, fruit and livestock brought by canoes. Many industry players have bought into the idea as a quick way of avoiding bureaucratic port controls and maximizing their profits.
“If saiko is happening on our waters, it is because the industrial vessels on our waters are using illegal nets to catch the small fishes,” said fisherman Kwame Amoah, 39.
"The trawlers were using bigger mesh size nets. But these days, they are using the same nets we are using," he said. “If they are not using illegal nets, how would they catch the small fishes and sell to the small boats as saiko?”
Fishermen say such activity by commercial trawlers has led to a decline in fish stocks and they’re feeling the impacts.
“The Chinese vessels even trawl the stones and the fauna in the sea so there is no place for the fishes to lay their eggs,” said Amoah, who has been in the fishing industry all his life.
Ghana’s 2015 to 2019 Fisheries Management Plan indicates that there are 403 semi-industrial (inshore) fleet, 107 industrial trawl fleet, 20 tuna bait-boat vessels, and 17 tuna purse seine boat vessels on Ghana’s waters.
The government, through the Ministry of Fisheries and Aquaculture Development (MoFAD), has set up a Fisheries Enforcement Unit (FEU) which monitors fishing activities. Yet Richard Kumah, 46, a Jamestown-based fisherman in Accra, believes the FEU is failing to address the problem of illegal fishing.
“They only sit in their offices, so they don’t really know how these illegal activities are pushing some of us out of business,” he said.
Kumah said many of the fishermen he sees who were not engaging in illegal acts have started to use light for fishing after realizing that the authorities were not punishing offenders.
“My brother, the sad truth is that, if you decide to do the right thing, you will go hungry because others will be using those illegal means to catch the few fishes left in the sea,” he said.
Nii Aryittey and Benjamin Okine, also fishermen at Jamestown in Accra, said the fishing industry is not only threatened by the use of illegal fishing nets but many other illegal, unreported and unregulated, or IUU, fishing activities.
“You go to sea and find people using lights, dynamite and other chemicals for fishing. All these [methods] kill the fishes, including the juveniles,” Aryittey said.
Sasu, 48, a Winneba-based fisherman, fears that the industry will no long be viable for future generations.
“I have been fishing here all my life. I learned fishing from my father, and through fishing, I have been able to take care of all my five children,” he said. “I sometimes get scared when I look at how the sea is gradually becoming dry. No matter the efforts we put in our work, we get very little catch or sometimes, nothing at all.”
Losses adding up
The Ministry of Fisheries and Aquaculture Development estimates that the fisheries industry in Ghana employs about 2.9 million people, representing about 10 per cent of the country's population.
According to figures from the Ghana Statistical Service (GSS), the fisheries sector contributed 2.5 and 2.3 per cent to Ghana’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2009 and 2010 respectively. But that figure has fallen significantly since 2011, with fisheries only accounting for 1.1 of Ghana’s GDP in 2016, according to available statistics.
Professor Wisdom Akpalu, a Natural Resource Economist and President of the African Association of Environmental and Resource Economists (AFAERE), attributes the poor contribution the fisheries sector makes to the national economy to dwindling fish stocks due to IUU fishing methods.
"Because we are depleting the stocks, we are potentially losing money," Prof. Akpalu said, estimating losses between 2012 and 2017 at “over US$200 million.”
Industry players, particularly those in the artisanal sector, have also complained of low catches in recent years.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Ghana’s production from marine fisheries has been declining since 1999, from almost 420,000 tonnes that year to 202,000 tonnes in 2014. One of the reasons for the decline, the FAO says, is overexploitation of marine stocks by industrial fishing fleets. Many of these industrial fleets, often illegally, target areas that are otherwise reserved for small-scale fishers and their communities.