Up until the early 2000s the average Ghanaian could only have a piece of chicken as a main dish during festive occasions, specifically Christmas; we were used to eating our salmon, Amane, Opoku and Kpale every day! But today the story is different.
Even fishermen are feeling the pinch.
In February 2020 I visited a Jamestown, the hub of fishing in the heart of Accra.
Under a shed a group of fishermen were seated together mending their fishing nets while others idle about in friendly chatter.
My attention is drawn to an old man, Edward Kotei who is sitting by his canoe with inscription ‘Mighty God’ as he mends his net.
Edward is among the over 200 fishermen at this landing site and has been in this business for over three decades. He remembers how it was like back in the day when it was the only source of income for his household
“This is our source of livelihood…we have catered for our children and acquired properties through this. Gradually…there is a shift in fishing practice…we have made several appeals to government – several meetings – they have assured they will fix the problems. But we are yet to see any results.” He said
Mr. Kotei blames the fishing trawlers for their woes! Accusing them of stealing their livelihoods
“The fishing trawlers are our biggest headache now. They have flooded our shores and flouting the laws. They come all the way into our territories to fish. The trawlers come all the way down shore to catch the fish and dump a large chunk of the small ones back in the water and then move from our territories and go elsewhere.
Meanwhile, Research conducted by the Sustainable Fisheries Management Project found that the decline in fish stock began from the year 2000.
The European Union in 2013 Warned Ghana,that it faced a ban on the export of fish to Europe if it failed to address illegal, unreported and unregulated.
This action led government in 2015 to launch the fisheries management plan to provide a strategic framework for reversing the declining trend of fish resources
Among these plans was a $55m World Bank project, Ghana placed an observer on every industrial trawler, to collect data and report violations of fisheries law.
But despite the presence of these observers, the fish stock continues to deplete.
A research conducted by EFJFG in 2017 revealed that approximately 100,000 tonnes of fish where landed through saiko out of the total 167,000. What this means is that just 40% of catches were landed legally and reported to the fisheries commission despite observers being present on a number of vessels.
But one of such observers who did his job diligently was Emmanuel Essien.
Essien prior to this job had been unemployed for over a year. His brother remembers how elated he was when he got the chance to serve as an eye on Ghana’s sea.
“I knew he was looking for a job. He never told me he wanted to go into the fisheries sector. So when he told me got this job I only asked him if he could do it. He said yes.”
But his confidence in excelling in the new job was short lived.
Emmanuel left home on the 30 th of June, after he had been given a short notice from his bosses at the Ffisheries Ccommission to be on board Mexin 15 trawler.
“Soon he called me one Friday evening and told me he needed some money to buy some provisions for his journey”
But just 6 days after he left his wife and two children, they got a call that was going to change their lives forever
“He left on the 30th of June. On 5th July we received a call that my brother had gone missing on the vessel. I was shocked and asked how it happened. We were given the company’s contact. We spoke to the director called Mr. Nii. He confirmed the news and told us the vessel had been recalled so we should wait”
This news came in as a shock to not only the family but also an Executive Member of the trawlers association, MrDr. Ofori Ani who first received the news.
The news about Emmanuel’s disappearance continues to surprise many people in the fishing industry. Some say Emmanuel is dead.
Though the family have not seen the body, they suspect he has been murdered. One that believes this is Bernard, Emmanuel’s younger brother
“I don’t even know how this is possible. You just cannot disappear like that. You cannot even jump. There’s a question mark. Those on the vessel know what exactly happened. Because this is not possible. Unless he was poisoned. I cannot wrap my head around this”
Bernard recalls a moment when his brother called him and his sister to tell them he was going to quit the job over reasons he could not explain
“There were days he opened up to me. He told me the job was dangerous. There were days he couldn’t take stock of what the Chinese were doing because he was threatened. The trip before this last one he went to visit our sister. He confessed he was going to resign. He didn’t give her reasons. All he said was he’s seen blood. And that was all”
Being an observer is a difficult job. They have to make complex decisions every day. Sometimes they may have to look the other way while the trawlers plunder the fisheries resource. Prof. Yankson, with the University of Cape Coast Believes it is terrible idea to keep observers alone on these trawlers.
“How do you put a solitary young man on a fishing vessel with Chinese crew? And he is to report illegalities and take photographs. Do you think the crew will allow him to do that? I don’t know who gave this advice”
Meanwhile, at Emmanuel’s house, we met Abey another observer. He has been doing this job for almost one year but already he wants to resign.
“My life is in danger, we are alone on these vessels. The navy comes around once in a while, which is very bad”
With proof that he was on board a vessel, he shares with us when and how he found out about the horrific circumstances that led to the disappearance of his friend.
“The captain on my vessel told me my colleague was missing. At the time I had no idea who it was. So later when I found out it was Kwaku, I knew something had happened to him”
Under Ghana’s laws illegal activities like saiko and catching of juvenile fishes attracts fines of between US$100,000 and US$12million, or up to US$4 million in the case of repeated offences.
That is if the observer reports. Obed admits there were days he was offered bribes not to report the activities
“There was once my captain told me I’ll have a share of the sales. They were selling fishes illegally at sea. I wanted to take videos but I couldn’t. I was threatened. I was offered 1000gh Cedis. I was told I’d receive the remaining when we dock. I took it!”
But Mr. Ani believes this practice is not widespred. He believes only a few vessels engage in such illegal acts.
Meanwhile back at Emmanuel’s house, the family brought out a police report written by Emmanuel after returning from a previous trip. In the report Emmanuel writes that about 49 baskets of fish were dumped into the sea. In the reports he ended by saying “I humbly plead with the police to investigate further.”
It is unclear whether it was investigated and perpetuators dealt with. But these 49 baskets of fish thrown into the sea would have meant a lot to these artisanal fishermen
Almost a year since this incident happened the family is yet to receive an official report from the authorities
Emmanuel Essien took the fall. He disappeared while serving his nation; to help restore Ghana’s Glory in the fisheries sector. A sector that is battling to survive.
But what is the Fisheries Commission and the Ministry also willing to do to enforce the laws!