By The Maritime Executive
Ghana’s fisheries are under threat of imminent collapse as a result of “saiko,” a destructive form of illegal fishing where foreign trawlers target the staple catch of canoe fishers and sell it back to local communities at a profit. The Minister for Fisheries and Aquaculture Development Elizabeth Naa Afoley Quaye has now called for complete eradication of the practice.
The saiko trade took around 100,000 tonnes of fish in 2017, worth over $50 million when sold at the landing site. Trawlers are able to hoover up vast quantities of small pelagic fish such as sardinella – the main catch of the local canoe fishers and a crucial part of the nation’s diet. Unless urgent action is taken, scientists estimate that these stocks could collapse by 2020.
Last year, the government intensified enforcement action against saiko, resulting in a high-profile arrest. This led to a notable decline in saiko activities at Elmina, a major landing site for saiko fish in Ghana’s Central Region. Since then, however, saiko activities have slowly increased again.
The Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), which has been monitoring the situation, has called for an urgent government crackdown. Monitoring by EJF showed that saiko landings recommenced at Elmina just a few months after the arrest, with up to 15 saiko canoes landing fish every day. The fish were unloaded in broad daylight, showing the operators had little fear of the law.
The clear statement by Quaye, speaking at the national Conference on Fisheries and Coastal Environment, is very welcome, EJF says. At the conference, the Ghana Industrial Trawlers Association made clear that they were also in full agreement that saiko should be stopped and pledged to work with the government on the issue.
“What is needed is the immediate, effective and transparent enforcement of the law,” said EJF’s Executive Director Steve Trent. “Strong penalties must be applied to create a deterrent and prove that this government means to end saiko fishing for good. Saiko is precipitating the collapse of Ghana’s staple fish stock and with it, poverty and hunger for its people. This is an ecological and humanitarian crisis.”
Over two million people in Ghana rely on small pelagic fish for their food and income. In 2017, industrial trawlers caught almost the same amount of fish as the entire artisanal sector, when illegal and unreported catches are taken into account. That is 76 trawlers catching approximately the same amount of fish as over 12,000 canoes or 100,000 fishers. While canoe fishing offers direct employment for around 60 fishers for every 100 tons of fish, saiko means only 1.5 jobs per 100 tons.
According to Ghana’s fisheries laws, saiko is punishable by a fine of between $100,000 and $2 million, with the minimum fine increasing to $1 million where catches involve juvenile fish or the use of prohibited fishing gear.
EJF already has a tranche of evidence that could be used for prosecution. From investigations in December 2018 and February 2019, EJF filmed trawlers meeting up with saiko canoes to transfer the illegally targeted fish. One of the trawlers caught on film was authorized to export seafood to the European Union. That could raise serious questions around Ghana’s compliance with the E.U.’s regulation to combat illegal fishing, which prohibits the import of illegally caught fish into the E.U. market. Breaches could lead to import bans to the E.U. which could be damaging for Ghana’s economy.
The trawlers are owned almost exclusively by Chinese operators, who use Ghanaian “front” companies to bypass laws forbidding any foreign ownership or control of industrial trawl vessels flying Ghana’s flag. EJF has revealed that over 90 percent of industrial trawlers licensed in Ghana are linked to Chinese ownership.
New vessels have continued to arrive from China, despite a February 2012 moratorium on new industrial trawlers entering Ghanaian waters to address severe depletion of fish stocks. Of the 68 industrial trawl vessels licensed to fish in Ghana from March-June 2018, at least half were built in 2013 or later, after the moratorium on new or replacement vessels came into effect. The list of vessels licensed by the Ministry of Fisheries and Aquaculture Development has not been available to the public since July 2018.