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'Illegal fishing erodes gains of close season'

By: Maclean Kwofi

All gains that were realised after the ban on fishing activities in the country last year have been eroded due to illegal fishing on the country's high seas.

The government in 2019 ban all fishing activities as a means to replenish the declining fishery stock of the country's exclusive economic zone.

The exercise recorded about 99 per cent voluntary compliance, which led to a marginal increase in fisheries stock on the country's marine waters.

These gains has, however, been eroded due to the increasing levels of illegal fishing.

This was contained in the report of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Food, Agriculture and Cocoa Affairs on the 2020 programme based budget estimates of the Ministry of Fisheries and Aquaculture Development (MoFAD).

The committee noted that the low allocation of funds for surveillance on the country's high seas was a factor that was contributing to illegal fishing such as saiko by foriegn trawlers on seas.

The committee considered the illegal practices unacceptable due to its drastic effect on the country's fisheries stock and, therefore, recommended that the Ministry of Finance ensured that the allocation for surveillance is increased for proper policing to forstall illegal, unreported and unregulated practices on the country's waters.

The sector

Generally, the fisheries sector which once contributed about four percent of Ghana’s GDP is near collapse, if steps are not taken to curb illegal fishing, the trans-shipment of fish at sea from industrial trawlers to local canoes.

Historical data from the Ghana Statistical Services (GSS) show that the fishing sector has largely experienced negative growth since 2017, partly due to the activities of trawlers.

These trawlers, mostly unregistered from China, catch immature fish especially pelagics from the surface of the sea, despite the country’s laws forbidding them from doing so. Typically, registered trawlers are supposed to do deep sea fishing under supervision, while artisanal canoes do surface sea fishing.

A report titled; “Stolen at sea, how illegal Saiko fishing is fuelling the collapse of Ghana’s fisheries’ indicates that the phenomena might lead to a complete collapse of the coastal economy which is highly dependent on fish, depletion of the country’s aquatic and ecological resources as well as huge revenue losses to the state.

Implications on local fishermen

Frustrated by the activities of trawlers and their inability to catch enough fish, artisanal canoe fishermen now resort to illegal practices like light and chemical fishing.

This, according to experts, does not only pose danger to the sustainability of the fisheries sector, but a health problem to consumers as chemical fishing is known to contaminate the catch.

Saiko also threatens the livelihoods of 300 fishing and coastal communities that depend largely on the sea for a living, if nothing is done urgently.

For instance, it is expected that about 40,000 people will be rendered jobless before the end of this year.

Buying illegal catch

Additionally, local artisanal canoe fisherman are left with no option but to buy the illegal catch of these industrial trawlers offshore for onward sale onshore.

While this may sound like a good business, it holds dire consequences for the country. For instance, one industrial trawler trip is equal to 450 canoe strips, which means that the damage a trawler can do to the lives of aquatic animals like fish, especially on surface water, far outweighs thousands of canoes.

Additionally, the proceeds from Saiko go into the hands of their foreign owners and sometimes their local collaborators, thereby further worsening the flight of artisanal canoe fishermen and the coastal economy.

In 2017 for instance, an estimated 100,000 tonnes of Saiko fish was landed, four times the officially reported landings of small pelagic in the country.

The 100,000 tonnes were unreported and did not contribute to management decision-making.

This translates to several tens of millions in revenue loss to the state, which otherwise would have been used to support development.

EU support

The European Union (EU) under its fisheries governance project, Far Ban Bo (FBB) project, has been supporting the country's fishing sector.

The FBB seeks to protect the livelihood of fishermen and to empower small holder fisheries associations to secure landing sites amongst other interventions.

Based on this, the government introduced the close season to help replenish the depleting fish stock in the marine sub-sector. 

Although gains was made after the ban, a report of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Food, Agriculture and Cocoa Affairs indicates that it has been eroded due to illegal fishing.

To address the situation, measures needed to be put in place to control trawler operations. The current arrangement where Ghanaians are the license owners and foreigners are the beneficial owners does not benefit the country.