The vanishing: Ghana’s defenders face new perils in fight against overfishing

Date: November 18, 2019

Source: The Guardian

Illegal fishing by Chinese-owned trawlers is costing the country millions – and one of the officials trying to stop it has now been missing for months

In his cramped living room in an Accra backstreet, Bernard Essien pulls out a sheet of paper – a statement signed by his elder brother Emmanuel and addressed to the Ghanaian police. Two weeks before 28-year-old Emmanuel vanished at sea, his handwritten account and accompanying video footage alleged illegal fishing by a trawler he had been working on. If the allegation was proved true, the ship’s captain faced a minimum fine of $1m.

Emmanuel Essien was a fishing observer, one of Ghana’s frontline defenders against an overfishing crisis that is among the worst in west Africa. Illegal and destructive practices by foreign-owned trawlers are draining the Ghanaian economy of an estimated £50m a year. Along its 350-mile coastline, overfishing has driven small pelagic species known as “people’s fish”, the staple diet, to the verge of collapse.

In 2015, as part of a $55m World Bank project, Ghana placed an observer on every industrial trawler, to collect data and report violations of fisheries law. Around the world, the work of these observers is becoming ever more dangerous. In 2017, a report by Human Rights At Sea found six cases of disappearances of observers in the Pacific. It concluded their work was hampered by “inadequate legal protection” and “physical danger”.

Essien’s diligence made him popular with the fisheries commission, according to his brother. His report on the penultimate vessel he worked on, dated 24 June, ended: “I humbly plead with the police to investigate further.”

But his disappearance on 5 July from a trawler called Meng Xin 15, and the failure of the authorities to find out what happened, has devastated his family and shocked Ghana’s fishing community.

An Observer investigation has found serious allegations of violence, drug-taking and bribery aboard the industrial fleet that trawls this part of west Africa. Interviews with fishermen, observers and sources in the commission suggest criminality is ignored, raising questions over whether the lives of observers are being put at risk.

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