On the world’s first awareness day for illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, a new film by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) and Hen Mpoano revealed the true extent of the crisis in Ghana’s fisheries. In particular, the illegal practice of ‘saiko’ – where industrial trawlers sell fish to local canoes at sea – is driving the collapse of Ghana’s inshore fishery, on which millions of Ghanaians rely for food security and income.
Ghana’s fish stocks are in steep decline, with landings of key species for local consumption at their lowest recorded level since 1980. Traditional fishing communities have been hit hardest, with average annual income per canoe dropping by as much as 40% in the last 10 to 15 years.
The film, Ghana: A Fishing Nation in Crisis, which premiered on Ghanaian TV, was produced under the EU-funded Far Dwuma Nkɔdo Project, a partnership between EJF and Ghana-based NGO Hen Mpoano. After the screening, a panel, including academics and representatives from the Ghana National Canoe Fishermen Council and the Fisheries Commission, discussed the urgent need to protect Ghana’s fish stocks.
Ghana’s fishing industry has been plagued by illegal activities in recent years. Destructive fishing practices and over-exploitation by industrial trawlers have driven local fishers facing plummeting incomes to turn to illegal fishing with light, dynamite, and chemicals. These are quick fixes for fishers in a desperate situation that are causing irreparable damage to remaining fish stocks and, in some cases, risking human health.
One practice, referred to locally as saiko, is precipitating an ecological and human catastrophe. Originally an informal trading system, where unwanted industrial bycatch would be exchanged at sea for fruit and livestock brought by canoes, it is increasingly a part of targeted fishing for the trawlers.
This puts industrial fishing vessels in direct competition with small-scale fishers for catches of species such as sardinella that are a staple food for local communities. Having effectively ‘stolen’ fish from canoe fishers, saiko operators sell these back to the same fishing communities for profit.
Saiko is a highly organised and lucrative practice, accounting for an estimated 100,000 tonnes of illegal and unreported catches in 2017, with an estimated landed value of US$34-65 million. The statistics reveal the stark inequality of this trade: an average saiko canoe can return with as much 400 times the amount of fish as a canoe fishing trip.
EJF’s Executive Director, Steve Trent, says: “The implications of the imminent collapse of Ghana’s small pelagic fishery cannot be overstated. Over 2 million people in Ghana rely on fisheries for their livelihoods, with limited alternative sources of income or employment. Should the resource disappear, mass migration and social upheaval can be considered a very real prospect.”
It is not too late to save Ghana’s fisheries. Saiko remains illegal in the country, and robust enforcement of this law could effect real change.
Director of Hen Mpoano, Kofi Agbogah, says: “Transshipments of fish at sea are notoriously difficult to monitor, even with the most advanced systems in place. Instead, all catches should be landed in authorized ports and recorded in official statistics to inform sustainable management. This would also ensure that restrictions on fishing gear that prevent the capture of non-target species are complied with.”
Nana Solomon from the Ghana National Canoe Fishermen Council, who was also a panellist, says “The voices of small-scale fishers and fishmongers must be heard when it comes to designing Ghana’s fisheries management, to help create policies that are fair and sustainable.”