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Opinions Sat, 29 Oct 2016

Ghana can benefit from Oyster

‘THE INVISIBLE FISHERIES’ COULD DRIVE NUTRITION SECURITY IN GHANA

By Samuel Hinneh

Courtesy: USAID Ghana Sustainable Fisheries Management Project Reporting Grant

The country is indeed blessed with abundant natural resources, yet one that is unduly exploited is oyster. Given its vast benefits and accessibility in the country, one keeps wondering the challenges that confronts the business to realise its full potential-providing nutrition and livelihood to people and women respectively.

Oysters have very high essential vitamins and minerals such as protein, iron, omega three fatty acids, calcium, zinc, and vitamins C. Another important benefit in eating oysters is, it poses no danger to the cholesterol levels in the human body. A research done by University of Washington shows, oysters raise good cholesterol levels and lowers bad cholesterol levels. Despite these health benefits oysters are consumed by only a few in Ghana, due to superstitious beliefs and relative scarcity on the market. Oysters are mostly fished from the Volta River and only sold in few markets around the country due to lack of proper processing and preservation methods.

Oysters are very valuable economically not only for their meat, but their shells as well. Oyster shells can be used in landscaping, replacing gravels and tiles, when paired with cement can be used to design beautiful pavements, and interiors. A clear example of growing this business is the close-door neighbouring West African country-the Gambia, where women have taken up the business to boost income. Supported by the USAID/The Gambia, the women have been able to expand their business.

Members of the Try Oyster Women's Association in the Gambia is a community-based organisation with a membership of over 700 women who harvest oysters and cockles in The Gambia was formed in 2007.

The aim of the organisation is to enhance sustainable livelihood opportunities for women along with improving and raising their standard of living. Coastal erosion and degradation coupled with unemployment were challenges that require surmounting.

Through action and education, Try Oyster Women's Association members were empowered and taught how to balance sustainable harvesting of oysters and cockles with the management of delicate mangrove ecosystems.

This has resulted in a network of communities with organised leadership at community levels and at the apex. 15 different communities exist and efforts to improve local incomes have been complemented by efforts to reduce anthropogenic impacts on the Tanbi Wetlands ecosystem, the workplace that sustains the majority of the harvesters.

Initially, people were not aware of the great benefits associated with oyster businesses in the country. The Try Oyster Women's Association has a president to lead and other affiliated groups who now belongs to the Association.

In January this year, the USAID/Ghana Sustainable Fisheries Management Project (SFMP) sent a group of fish processors and leaders from women's organisations in fish processing in the country to The Gambia where the University of Rhode also runs another USAID fisheries project. The project in the Gambia works with 12 communities of women oyster harvesters, to harvest oysters off the mangrove roots in the mangrove estuary, which is about six thousand hectares in size. This means that about 600 women in the Gambia depending on the oysters for their livelihood.

Many of the women in the Gambia that the project supports have very low literacy rate, as well as very few other sources of income, just like their counterparts in Ghana. Many of them were abandoned by their husbands with children to care for and the oyster was the main source for food and a popular delicacy eaten in The Gambia.

"So it is a very important source of income and 99 percent of the harvesters were women, who engage in harvesting and processing together with selling them. It is one of the few industries, where women go out in dugout canoes, paddle out and collect the oyster off the mangroves,” says Brian Crawford, the Chief of Party of the USAID/Ghana SFMP.

"We did a series of appraisals with them where the numbers of oysters was getting harder to collect, the sizes were getting smaller, and the numbers were getting less because of over harvesting and increasing number of women going out to harvest them. So we told them to implement some actions to help sustain maximum supply of harvest. We helped the oyster association in developing a management plan which they can put in place simple measures such as closed season.

"They had closed season for nine months to allow the oysters grow up for about 12-15 months to get big adults sizes, the bigger the oyster the bigger the prize. The Gambia was fortunate in that its fisheries act allow for the fisheries department to create community based management groups and delegate these rights, exclusive rights to the women to harvest the oysters.

"So we worked with them to develop the management plan and department of fisheries on what the requirement are for appropriate management plan that meet their policy and conditionality. The minister signed off the management plan which also provides the rights to women, so rather than the government managing the oyster through kind of top down directives, they allowed the women to decide on their own what the harvesting roles should be to sustain the harvest of oysters.

"It gave them an incentive to control who could come in to fish and could exclude others from coming in … and that motivated the women to control it and made decisions on how to make sure it fetched them most profits and sustained it year after year.

"They are still maintaining closed season, and even institutes some permanent closures, to serve as spawning banks where lots of big adults spawn lots of eggs to grow new oysters in areas that are allowed to be harvested,” Crawford states.

According to him each community has designated harvest zone and have areas where all the women can harvest and areas where it is permanently closed and others which are temporary closed. All these are managed by the women and the department of fisheries facilitate meetings and provides technical support of the range of management measures, he adds.

"I think that in Ghana places like the Densu estuary near Tsokomey, and some of the river mouths like Ankobra, Pra, there are oysters that are harvested by women. In addition, when you go out to Lake Volta, in Ada, there are also clump but the locals called them oysters, but actually related to oysters. I think in these areas the same thing in the Gambia could be done.

"We are going to try to do in the next couple of years some kind of experiment by developing community based management groups to empower the communities to manage the resources as a measure to sustain their economic livelihood and get the fisheries commission not to manage it for them but to facilitate the process and help them manage it for themselves,” Crawford notes.

Currently, Ghana’s fisheries act does not explicitly allow for the establishment of community based management communities, or granting people exclusive rights to manage resources. However, the fisheries commission has expressed the desire in policy documents to move towards community based management as results of excellent results seen in places like The Gambia, Philippines where they know works well.

"So the fisheries commission and ministry of fisheries and aquaculture development is revising the act that may also allow the fisheries commission to grant community groups rights to manage fisheries and facilitate processes that can help them take over and manage these resources on their own,” Crawford says.

"It is exciting thing because working in many countries we know that if decision making authority is delegated to local communities that are dependent on natural resources, together with giving them the rights to manage it, it is highly likely that they will do a better job of sustainably managing the resource than the government trying to do it for them,” he emphasises.

Oyster is harvested in Tsokomey by women, who usually boil the oyster to open up the natural resource as a measure to chuck out the meat. The women say a handful sells for about four cedis, which is not a lot of money.

The project in the Gambia created value addition for the women through packaging, which attracted buyers from even the capital city, who were willing to pay more money for better quality and hygienic products, mostly smoked rather than boiled.

"One of the things we are working with the women in Tsokomey is training them in value added technologies so that they can get higher prices for oysters,” Crawford states.

In the United States of America (USA), many enjoy eating raw oysters as a result, farmers are able to fetch lots of profits due to the forces of demand and supply. Fortunately, for the women in Tsokomey , there are a lot of tourists from the USA and Europe in the country, who love to eat raw oysters at restaurants.

"In addition, we will try is working with the oyster farmers over the next year… is maybe what they can do is to keep them alive so that once a request comes from hotels in Accra, where lots of Europeans eat on weekends, it becomes an opportunity to market the oysters.

"If they can maintain the oysters alive and transport them in a way to restaurants, the women might be able to increase their profits considerably by opening up new markets. So what we can do is try to help if we can connect them to some of the markets,” he notes.

One of the issues of eating oysters raw is the need to ensure that they are coming from neat environment devoid of faecal contamination to as a measure to prevent any sorts of health effects to consumers.

"One of the things we want to do is to work with the University of Cape Coast to do some water quality testing to see if the waters are contaminated or not to engage in oyster business. It will also help us to know which places in the year offers clean water for the women to harvest oysters.

"It will take a while to figure out and we could do that and the opportunities are certainly there. So what we will like to do is to work with the women and try to explore that opportunity into reality to boost income generation.

"During the lean season in Tsokomey, when there is no fish to smoke the women rely on the oysters as source of income and if there is a way of building that income by enhancing production of oysters to have impact on quality of life of the women, ”Crawford explains.

According to him one of the problem of community based management is group size, saying, if it is really big then it becomes challenging due to the fact that the complexity of social interaction becomes much greater.

"So community based management usually work well in small groups of one hundred and not in thousands if you are organising people together to manage these resources. One of the challenge in The Gambia was there were a lot of migrants and transit coming in and either they were not cognisance of the rule or not willing to follow the rule, ” he adds.

Grace Bondzie, a District President for the National Fish Processors and Traders Association (NAFPTA), Grace Bondzie, a participant of the tour says she was very impressed with the effective organisation.

"When they started, they did not have any sponsor but their own contributions led to the growth of the group. The little contributions from members have helped them to achieve great things. There is a lot of unity among the women, some in Gambia and Senegal have unite to engage in oyster business.

"The fish from their sea is really hygienic because they do not use chemicals in fishing. We saw that the women are resilient in ensuring that the right things are done. The women have alternative livelihoods which helps them to respect closed seasons.

"They also close sections of the sea to ensure that the fish grows. We need the women to have alternative livelihoods as well in Ghana if we are to have the same kind of success of the women in the Gambia,” she states.

Abraham Asare, the project manager of Development Action Association (DAA), a farmer based non-governmental organisation, says a lot of the women that participated in the tour to the Gambia spoke so well of the kind of leadership and ownership the women in the Gambia have and the way resources are supposed to be managed.

"Once people can feel a sense of responsibility and ownership at the grassroots level you are rest assured that they will take care of the resources. But once people don't see that connection and they think that it is the central government and municipal assembly that owns it, then of course they don't exercise that responsibility or ownership towards it.

"We are trying to do something similar to mimic that kind of style, even though it may not be stipulated in our law. The third year of the USAID/Ghana SFMP project looks at identification of oyster harvesting at Tsokomey at the Densu estuary so the project will help to form a community management that would sort if own it.

"We want to come out with a management plan for the women in that area and that will be community based. Those in that area will do it themselves by coming out with management plan relating to oyster harvesting, within it will be closed season, closed area, and scientific research identifying oyster spices,” he emphasises.

The USAID/Ghana SFMP project year three begins in October, 2016.

Mr Thomas Insaidoo, the Deputy Director in-charge of Projects of the Fisheries Commission says oyster is a big business, which requires concrete measures to manage well to increase income for fish processors.

He says the fisheries act will be undergoing a revision exercise soon, and once inputs from stakeholders call for granting exclusive rights to people to manage resources at the local level, that will be done.
Columnist: Hinneh, Samuel