It is January 12, 2022. On the shores of Prampram, a fishing community in the Greater Accra region near the industrial and fishing port of Tema, about 22 fishermen gather in a shed. They would normally be out in their canoes, but on this Tuesday morning, they are playing draughts while discussing their misfortunes due to the proliferation of Chinese-owned and run industrial trawlers.
Under the cover of darkness, fishing vessels take to the waters off Ghana’s coast close to Togo.
Chinese-owned vessels proliferate and now appear to control Ghana’s waters and its fishing industry, producing and supplying fish to cold stores in the country and neighbouring Togo, many of which are largely owned by foreigners. Ghana has no official or bilateral fishing agreement with China. But the Chinese fishing investors and companies come to Ghana via a “back door” – they use high profile Ghanaians who, for a fee, front for them. They go into hire purchase agreements under which the Chinese bring their vessels to Ghana, register them in the names of the Ghanaians and use the Ghana flag as if they are local vessels, but they are not. They are Chinese owned. The vessels are manned only by Chinese, who are the technical operators and instructors, a factor confirmed by the chief director at the Ghana’s Ministry of Fisheries.
Our investigations have ascertained that Ghanaians are fronting for the Chinese for an initial fee of between $1,500 and $2,000 in addition to about 5 per cent from the earnings generated by the vessels annually.
On its website in May 2022, the Chinese fishing company Shandong Oceanic displayed pictures of its large fleet of fishing trawlers on Ghanaian waters on the Atlantic Ocean clearly depicting their presence and dominance in Ghana’s territorial marine waters.
Of major concern is the use of unauthorised and unapproved methods by the Chinese fishing companies in trawling the fish from the bottom, mid and surface of the ocean. Our information is that they use nets with unapproved openings in a bid to “grab” all the fish. These Chinese-owned vessels are also accused by local fishermen of fixing huge lights in the sea at night to attract and easily capture large stock.
Unwanted parts of the catch are then sold on the high seas to local fishermen and foreign vessels in what experts describe as transhipment and is referred to locally as ‘saiko,’ which is illegal. Saiko is big business in places like Elmina and the Takoradi Fishing harbour. Fishermen fix refrigerators onto their canoes and wooden trawlers to store sardinellas and other catches bought from Chinese industrial trawlers.
At the Tema main Fishing Harbour in Ghana, vessels like AFKO 805 AFRICA PRINCESS, AFRICA STAR, ATLANTIC QUEEN, LONG TAI1, and LONG TAI 2 are operating as vessels owned by Shandong Zhonglu, according to information obtained from the Ministry of Fisheries. Other Chinese vessels like MENGXIN3 MENGXIN 4, LU RONG YUAN YU, 219 LU RONG YUAN YU 968, LU RONG YUAN YU 969 also operate in Ghana’s waters in the Gulf of Guinea and the Atlantic Ocean.
In June 2019, the LU Rong Yuan Yu 956, a Chinese trawling vessel was apprehended in Ghanaian waters with illegal nets and undersized small pelagic fish on-board. The pelagic fish form the staple catch of the local artisanal canoe fishers. The full fine of $1 million was imposed on the vessel by the regulatory agency but the vessel owners refused to pay. In May 2020 the vessel was caught again for similar offences and for using nets with mesh sizes below the legally accepted level. It was let off the hook again.
The people worst affected by overfishing and proliferation of Chinese vessels
40-year-old Beatrice Otoo has been processing fish through the traditional smoke fishing method at Chorkor in Accra for the past 20 years. But the fish processing business has shrunk in recent times. She narrates her story:
“The market has gone down. People don’t buy or patronise our fish as they used to because they claim they are expensive and that living conditions are hard. Besides that, fish is scarce to get nowadays.
Previously, we used to buy fish from the local artisanal fishermen but now the fishermen don’t bring (in) fish. What they bring are insufficient for the market. So we now rely on what the Chinese bring to the various cold stores in Tema. These days there are no bumper harvests … not even in the month of August when fish harvests are in abundance. Yes, it’s because of the Chinese heavy industrial trawlers that are taking all the fish in the sea. I went to the market today and made a profit of GH¢50 cedis ($5) which I am coming to spend with my kids, when it gets finished I will go again tomorrow and sell to make some profit. I really get tired and worried.
If nothing is done about curbing the situation (relating to the trawlers), our business may collapse. A carton of fish today is about GH¢450, a few weeks ago it was sold for around GH¢250, this increase is over 250 per cent and it keeps increasing. I really don’t enjoy doing this business due to the scarcity of fish and the escalating prices.
Mary Aku Allotey is 47 years old and has been processing fish for over 27 years now. According to her, the fish processing business has not been lucrative for some years now.
“Years ago we made profit from this business but not anymore. Things are hard nowadays. They (authorities) and the market forces keep increasing the price of fish and we don’t have money to sustain our business. We also don’t have good husbands to take care of us and our children.
“The entire burden has been put on our shoulders. Taking care of our children through this unprofitable fish processing business is like walking in hell on earth.”
She says that complaining does not help.
“The cold store operators tell us that the taxes imposed on them and the fish by the government are high, hence the high cost of the products. Also most of the fish caught by the trawlers in Ghana are sent to Togo. The authorities know about what I am telling you. So we sometimes go to Togo to buy fish when they become scarce in Ghana and this doubles the price due to the transportation cost and the cost of import duty. Sometimes when we go to the Tema fishing harbour and we don’t get fish, we are compelled to go to places like Takoradi, Elmina, and even Benin to buy fish.”
A carton of fish today (June 12, 2022) is between GH¢450 and GH¢500 cedis, something that was GH¢250 four months ago. The price of a carton of fish today is said to have increased to between GH¢600 and GH¢1,000.
“The fish processing business has become a debt-incurring challenge rather than a profitable venture. We are incurring debts every day because the local artisanal fishermen don’t bring fish anymore and we have to depend on the cold stores for the expensive fish brought by the Chinese trawler vessels. Now all our children have become thieves and robbers because when they eat at home and don’t get enough or get satisfied they resort to stealing and robberies”.
Years ago, only tuna and salmon used to be sold in cartons to the “high class” in society. “Today, they put everything in the cartons, both big and small, the juvenile fishes, the sardinellas and all in the cartons and sell at outrageous prices to us,” says Ms Allotey.
Oko Aryee, a 50-year-old fisherman is concerned about the use of light in night fishing.
“They are fishing in an unauthorised zone and use lights to attract the fish. In the process they extract juvenile fish that should have been allowed to grow more. I can say we are doomed if nothing is done about the situation. There is need for an urgent solution”.
Ishmael Aryee is a 42-year-old artisanal fisherman who has been fishing for 24 years. He says: “They use nets with mesh sizes below the legal standards of the Fisheries Commission and use them to harvest the small pelagic fish offshore.
“Many years ago when I joined my father in the fishing business, one wouldn’t come to the shores of Prampram without getting fresh sea fish of all types. We were catching and harvesting huge volumes of fish daily. Today, things have changed; and we don’t get them anymore because these Chinese trawlers use unauthorised fishing gear to trawl the depths of the sea and grab everything into their vessels to sell. They engage in transhipment and sell to all vessels they come across at sea both in Ghana and Togo. They sell to those who have money to pay (while on the) high seas. If I am not mistaken, over 60 per cent of fish stocks in our waters are gone as a result of their illegal fishing activities.”
Local fishermen operate out of canoes with small engines that are powered by fuel.
“We don’t get anything after spending money to buy premix fuel to power our canoes,” says Aryee.
Ishmael Aryee , expressing his frustration
Mike Abekah Edu, the Western Regional Secretary of the Ghana National Canoe and Fishermen Council (GNFCC) says allowing foreign trawlers onto Ghanaian waters has decimated fish stocks, in particular the small pelagic varieties usually harvested by artisanal fishermen. The decline has pushed the fishermen towards illegal activities.
“As a representative of the artisanal fishers, we support the suspension of all trawlers 100 per cent, we plead with the government to suspend them for about three or four years to help sanitize the fisheries industry. Their activities are the cause of illegal fishing in Ghana and even in the artisanal fisheries sector.
The government should suspend them for four years to see the revival or the resuscitation of the fisheries industries. For the pelagic and the small fishes to rejuvenate, there needs to be a period of transition for them. I don’t think these Chinese people are needed in our fisheries industry. Whatever you tell them they ignore and hide under the cover of darkness and do illegal and irresponsible fishing. Ghana is losing about $7 million every year by issuing fishing license fees and fines for trawlers that are far too low compared to the revenue they generate. Licence fees are low compared with other countries and insignificant since almost all the trawlers are owned by the Chinese
48-year-old Nii Asempa has been working as a fisherman for the past 28 years. He was also an aspirant Assemblyman at the recent District Assembly elections at Ningo Prampram. He told the investigative team that they have made several complaints on several platforms about the use of the Chinese fishing nets and vessels that are contributing to the depletion of Ghana’s fish stocks but there hasn’t been any tangible response by the government and the regulatory agencies.
Asempa and other fishermen have raised their concerns with the authorities several times and protested and demonstrated against the trawlers, but he says the transhipment activities had the support of some officials of the Fisheries Commission and is being done “undercover” at sea.
47-year-old Osa Sagbo, a fisherman accuses the authorities of “twisting and changing the figures to hide the truth.”
It is appalling and unfortunate. These kinds of attitudes towards us have the recipe to cause confrontation between local fishermen and the foreigners. It has the potential to trigger a major conflict between us,” he says.
Martey has been an artisanal fisherman for 40 years. The 55-year-old says he has never before seen the kind of destruction of the fishing industry as has been happening today due to the activities of the Chinese-owned trawlers.
“Before the mass arrival of the Chinese trawlers, we experienced bumper harvests of various fish types daily. Fish was in abundance and we fishermen could sell more to take care of ourselves and families. Today the situation has changed,” he laments.
Speaking in an interview, Kwadwo Kyei Yamoah, the Programmes Manager at the Friends of the Nations (FON), one of the NGOs active in Ghana’s fisheries sector said: “When these trawlers started operating in our waters many years ago most of them were not targeting the endangered fish species like the sardinelas because those were basically reserved for the local fishermen.”
Yamoah said the trawler operators dumped parts of the catches for which they had no use, back in the sea.
“Though this dumping was against the law, the fines for this practice, “were not that much to deter them,” he explained.
Local fishermen observed the dumping and would approach the trawlers and negotiate for the catch being discarded, thus starting the practice of transhipment.
“This became a competition among local fishermen who would sail out to sea just to collect the “unwanted” fish from the Chinese trawlers. Most fishermen then familiarised themselves with the industrial trawlers and started bartering with them. They would send vegetables, oil and other items to these vessels on the high seas in exchange for the unwanted fish which was also dubbed ‘seite’ in Chinese which means (what is bad must be discarded )”.
“The trade at sea morphed into a “By-Catch Association” an association of canoe fishers who are self-trained in the transhipment or “saiko” business. Now they purchase fish from the Chinese trawler vessels because of the illegal space that has been provided for them to operate. It is sad that a whole industry has emerged in Elmina out of this illegal business.”
“The system for industrial trawling allows for potentially powerful individuals with political connections to own fishing licenses. Getting a fishing license in Ghana is very difficult unless you are politically connected or led by somebody who is politically connected. The non-political ones will usually seek the support of the political ones in an attempt to secure licenses.”
“In fisheries the operators of the trawlers are not powerful, it is the weakness in the system that has made them powerful,” says Yamoah.
“Fish is the cheapest source of protein and Ghanaians consume a lot of fish. Almost every food goes with fish; yes even breakfast, and when there is fish available you will see the nutritional and health value. A few years ago when there were bumper harvests you will see fish in abundance, even in the regions far from the coast. So when fish harvests go down, it seriously affects food security. Not only that. It also affects employment, health and wellbeing and also affects the dependants of fisher folks . This sometimes affects their education, and they find it difficult to survive on three meals a day” when there’s a scarcity.
According to Yamoah, “Section 116 of the Fisheries Act deals with compounding offences and the introduction of an out-of-court settlement committee. The perpetrators or offenders, once they admit wrongdoing, then negotiate the amount to be paid in fines. The norm is that mostly the fines imposed under the out-of-court settlement committee is below the minimum threshold provided for under the law. For instance, the law says that when somebody engages in saiko the minimum fine should be $1 million, but sometimes they are far below the stipulated amount. So that raises issues.
Fines are also not consistent. For instance, someone (a trawl operator) commits an offence that requires a $1000,000 fine but the person is charged only $100,000 by the out-of-court settlement committee instead. Another person commits the same offence and is charged $50,000.”
“Furthermore, it is not mandatory for vessels operating in Ghana to have International Maritime Organization (IMO) numbers. These are numbers that enable regulators and monitors to track and trace vessels wherever they are in the world. The numbers indicate when they were manufactured and, the kind of fishing they are expected or licenced to engage in. The IMO number doesn’t change. So to help us track multiple offenders even along the shorelines, we need to make the operators display these numbers of their vessels. It must be included in the law.”
Illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing
The fisheries regulations give us the mature size of fish to be harvested, so once you catch any fish below that size, it is regarded as illegal fishing, explains Yamoah.
“Lack of political will”
Providing supervision of regulatory agencies to avoid omissions and commissions would help to address some of the challenges in the fisheries sector, says Yamoah.
“When we talk about regulatory omissions or illegality, it is the regulatory agencies rather looking the other way and refusing to do their job; sometimes there are incentives for them to abandon their duties and look the other way and find excuses,” he adds.
A lot of these activities can be stopped on land. Any illegality that happens at sea begins on land.
In the artisanal sector, the Minister of Fisheries, Mavis Hawa Koomson issued a directive under which any landing site found to have engaged in any form of illegal, unregulated or unreported fishing activity be denied supplies of premix fuel.
Once the government is unable to enforce the law it sometimes begins to shift the blame.
An entire industry has emerged in Elmina out of illegal business activities.
Glaring anomalies in the system:
“I am told that our security agencies and the system are firm but I don’t see that pragmatically on the field.
Our system for industrial trawling allows for potentially powerful individuals with political connections to own fishing licenses. Once that happens for instance, in cases where political financiers are owning licences, it becomes difficult for the political parties in power to handle such political financiers”.
In 2008 the Minister of State, ordered trawler operators to land at a designated fishing port and they obeyed. But that practice ended with a change in government.
Through saiko fishing or transhipment alone Ghana is losing over $50 million per year.
“We are losing huge sums also from importing about 60 percent of our consumption and also putting in subsidies that cannot be recovered.
For instance if you hear government appealing to fishermen to stop illegal fishing, it’s like government appealing to armed robbers to stop robberies since those too are also illegal,” he quips.
By Kwabena Adu Koranteng
Used with permission
Project Funded by the Global Reporting Centre of the University of British Columbia