By Godfrey Baidoo-Tsibu, Fisheries MCS Expert, Ghana
I was stunned by the online publication by Modern Ghana on 9 July 2023, captioned, “Legalise Saiko –
Elmina chief tells government”. The reportage indicated that the Omanhen of the Edina (Elmina)
Traditional Area at the Bakatue festival which climaxed on 8 July 2023, “called on the government to lift
the ban on Saiko”, citing that “the ban had thrown many canoe fishers out of business and worsened their
plights”. The reportage further indicated that, “Mr. Sammi Awuku, the Director General of the National
Lottery Authority (NLA), who represented the Vice President, indicated that even though Saiko contributed to the depletion of the fish stock, he would relay the request to the relevant authorities for consideration”.
My exasperation about this alleged request to bring back Saiko is because of the long distance this issue
of Saiko had travelled until it appeared to have been stopped through Government directives and actions
in the past two years.
Bakatue festival, dating as far back as 1847, is used to mark the beginning of the fishing season in Elmina.
The celebration of the festival was instituted to commemorate the founding of Elmina by the Portuguese
in the early days of the colonization of the then Gold Coast. The festival is also used to offer thanks and
prayers to the gods for a good fishing year. The 2023 Bakatue festival was under the theme “Buy madein-Ghana products and support Ghanaian industries and create employment for the youth”.
Incidentally, the 2023 marine fishing closed season was launched in Elmina on 1 July 2023 by the Minister
of Fisheries and Aquaculture Development, Hon. Mavis Koomson, who intimated that Elmina was
important for the launch because of its rich culture and historical structures such as the Elmina Castle,
and most significantly, as an important fishing community, for which the Elmina Fishing Port Rehabilitation
and Expansion Project was commissioned by the government in May 2023. The minister also attested to
the fact that “the marine fisheries subsector had experienced a decline in fish stock levels and sizes due
to activities of overexploitation and Illegal, Unregulated, and Unreported fishing (IUU), among others, and
that the livelihoods of the over 3,000,000 people and 187 coastal fishing communities that depend on
fisheries resources are being threatened by the depletion or decline of fish stocks”.
Saiko in short is IUU fishing, in contravention of Ghana’s fishing legislation, but prevailed in Ghana’s
marine fishing sector for many decades, until it was stopped by the Ministry of Fisheries and Aquaculture
Development about two years ago. It comprised the illegal fishing of small pelagic fish stocks comprising,
Sardinella, Mackerel and Anchovy by industrial trawlers, (licensed to fish demersal fish), and
transshipment of same in frozen form to specialized wooden haulage canoes and landed in Elmina, Apam
and Axim. The European Commission’s press release on 2 June 2021, indicated that “illegal transshipments
at sea of large quantities of undersized juvenile pelagic species between industrial trawl vessels and
canoes in Ghanaian waters”, was one of the reasons the European Commission imposed a yellow card on
Ghana for the second time in one decade.
By 2018, prior to the first scheduled fishing closed season for the canoe and semi-industrial sector (this
fishing closed season was postponed to 2019 at the very last minute at the request of the fishers), the
Scientific and Technical Working Group made up of academicians, fisheries scientists and fisherfolk, under
the USAID Sustainable Fisheries Management Project (SFMP), had cautioned that the small pelagic fish
stocks risked collapse by 2020 (see chart in Figure 2).
The National Fisheries Management Plan (2015-2019) had anticipated fishing closed seasons as part of
conservation and management measures (CMM), in addition to fleet size reduction. In response to the
colossal landing of small pelagic fish and the transshipment to specialized canoes at sea, and also dumping
at sea, the Ministry of Fisheries and Aquaculture Development instituted a study of the then existing trawl
net in 2018. Following recommendations from the study, the Ministry proposed and implemented in 2022
a new trawl gear with a gape of 10m aimed at drastically reducing by-catches of small pelagic fish.
Now let’s take a look at the statement alleged to have been made by the Omanhen of Elmina regarding
the call to government to lift the ban on Saiko. Perhaps we need to understand well what Saiko is all
about. In the article, “Saiko is Sacrilege”, which I authored in 2019
(https://www.graphic.com.gh/features/features/saiko-is-sacrilege.html, I described the phenomenon as
sacrilegious, because it offends the integrity of the deities and mars the dignity of stakeholders engaged
in it, gauging from the excessive destruction to important fish stocks and the attendant deprivation of fish
landings to canoe fishermen whose livelihood depends on the same fish stocks.
I have earlier on indicated that Saiko is illegal in contravention of Ghana’s fisheries legislation. It is illegal
because it is juvenile fish caught in manipulated trawl nets as was revealed in the Gear Study instituted
by the Ministry of Fisheries and Aquaculture Development in 2018. Because of the manipulation of the
gape of the trawl net and the use of small meshed nets in the cod-end of the trawl net, colossal amounts
of small pelagic fish were targeted (not by-catch) and this fuelled the Saiko trade at sea which culminated
in the formation of an association for the collection of fish by-catch from industrial trawlers at sea, which
began pressurizing government for legitimacy in 2018. Meanwhile, the industrial trawlers were only
licensed and authorized to catch demersal fish, and not small pelagic fish.
In order to obtain unwarranted profits from Saiko, the industrial trawlers spent far longer periods (up to
6 to 8 weeks) during fishing trips, and targeted illegally the juvenile small pelagic fish which were quickly
frozen and illegally transshipped to specialized wooden covered canoes. According to a study conducted
by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) and Hen Mpoano in 2019, (Stolen at sea. How illegal ‘saiko’
fishing is fuelling the collapse of Ghana’s fisheries), a single Saiko canoe transshipment trip could land the
equivalent of fish caught by 450 fishing canoes! It was estimated by the study that annual Saiko landings
was 100,000 metric tonnes valued at between USD40.6 and USD50.7 million, and between USD52.7 and
USD81.1 million when sold at the landing site. Unfortunately, such colossal catch of small-pelagic fish did
not form part of fisheries statistics. Landing of juvenile fish contradicts Regulation 14 of Fisheries
Regulation (L.I. 1968) of 2010.
It should be noted that the specialized wooden covered haulage canoes were not the same as the open
fishing canoes. Whereas the open fishing canoes were registered and authorized by the Fisheries
Commission for fishing, the specialized wooden covered canoes used for transporting Saiko fish were not
registered by the Fisheries Commission or any other competent authority, and were illegal. Transshipping
from a trawler to a canoe at sea is also illegal in accordance with Section 132(1) of the Fisheries Act 625
of 2002 and Regulation 33 of the Fisheries Regulations (L.I. 1968) of 2010.
The small pelagic fish caught by the trawlers which could not be packaged and frozen because of their
miniscule sizes were illegally dumped in large quantities, in contravention of Ghana’s Fisheries legislation.
This was the basis for an association for the collection of fish by-catch to request authorization to collect
such fish for sale on the domestic market. This association is not listed among fishing associations in the
National Fisheries Management Plan (2022-2026). We should not lose sight of the fact that the small
pelagic fish were juveniles caught using manipulated trawl nets, and new trawl net specification have
been proposed by the Ministry of Fisheries and Aquaculture Development in 2022, following the Gear
Study conducted in 2018.
The Chief of Elmina, in the Modern Ghana publication was alleged to have reasoned that “the ban had
thrown many canoe fishers out of business and worsened their plights”. In other words, the canoe fishers
in Elmina could no longer benefit from the Saiko trade. I will like to reiterate that there is a clear distinction
between registered and authorized fishing canoes used for fishing by artisanal fishers, and unregistered and unauthorized wooden fish haulage covered wooden canoes used to receive and transport illegally
transshipped fish from industrial trawlers. The latter (who are just a handful of individuals), may have lost
an illegitimate business, but the former (about 300,000 fishers), had always been at the mercy of the
Saiko trade because they were deprived of their legitimate catch of small pelagic fish and continue to
suffer the consequences up to date (see chart in Figure 2).
I have indicated earlier on that the STWG in 2018 warned of the imminent collapse of the small pelagic
fish stocks by 2020 due to overexploitation, overfishing and IUU. The Minister for Fisheries and
Aquaculture Development at the launch of the 2023 fishing closed season on 1 July indicated that “marine
fisheries subsector had experienced a decline in fish stock levels and sizes due to activities of
overexploitation and Illegal, Unregulated, and Unreported fishing (IUU), among others, and that the
livelihoods of the over 3,000,000 people and 187 coastal fishing communities that depend on fisheries
resources are being threatened by the depletion or decline of fish stocks”.
This brings to the fore who were/are the ultimate beneficiaries of the illegal Saiko trade, which depended
on the illegal catches of semi pelagic fish by Ghanaian flagged industrial trawlers, and could be behind
such a diabolic agenda. Separate investigations by EJF, Trygg Mat Tracking (TMT) and C4ADS, and China
Dialogue Ocean into the activities of Ghanaian flagged trawlers have revealed that some of their current
or past ultimate beneficiary owners (UBOs) are Chinese, despite the listed owners in Ghana’s fisheries
registry being Ghanaian (EJF, 2021: At what cost? How Ghana is losing out in fishing arrangements with
China’s distant water fleet; TMT and C4ADS: Spotlight on The Exploitation of Company Structures by Illegal
Fishing Operators; China Dialogue Ocean: How Ghana’s weak Penalties are letting trawlers off the Hook).
Parallels can be drawn between illegal mining in Ghana (galamsey) whose ultimate foreign beneficiaries
do not care a hoot about what happens to virgin reserved forests, prime cocoa farms, and important rivers
like Pra, Ankobra and Densu whose waters have been polluted beyond recognition and utility.
Might we be calling for Saiko again? The answer is an overwhelming NO. It is hoped that the recent efforts
by government to sanitize the industrial trawl sector with the introduction of a new trawl gear, combined
with enhanced inspections of industrial trawlers by the Fisheries Enforcement Unit will ensure that semipelagic fish by-catches of industrial trawlers are reduced to negligible levels. It is expected that the
Ministry of Fisheries and Aquaculture Development would continue to monitor the new trawl gear and
refine it to improve its selectivity to catch only demersal fish in line with the trawl license. This will also
protect and rejuvenate the small pelagic fish stocks to ensure landings by the artisanal canoe fishery are
The essence of Ghana implementing the fishing closed season, since 2016 for the trawl fleet, and since
2019 for the artisanal fleet, in line with the National Fisheries Management Plans (2015-2019) and 2022-
2026, (and extended to the Fisheries Committee for the West Central Gulf of Guinea subregion in 2023),
is to reduce fishing effort and enable replenishment of declining shared small pelagic fish stocks,
(sardinella, anchovies, mackerel). The National Fisheries Management Plan (2022-2026) has proposed a
3-month duration for the fishing closed season. By now, the positive impacts of previous fishing closed
seasons should begin to be realized, and all efforts should be made by all stakeholders to prevent erosion
of those positive impacts in accordance with national fisheries policies and legislation.