This ban on fisheries makes nonsense of the scientific method

Tilapia Image 22.jpeg A ban was placed on Tilapia imports in June

Sun, 8 Jul 2018 Source: Cameron Duodu

IT is quite clear now that the ban placed on tilapia imports by the Ministry of Fisheries and Aquaculture Development was an ill-thought-out, hasty measure.

Having realised the unintended consequences of its action, the Fisheries Commission is now seeking to assure the public that “tilapia from Ghana is safe for consumption.”

The head of the Aquatic Animal Health Unit of the Commission, Dr Peter Ziddah, told journalists at a news conference organised with the Ghana Aquaculture Association (GAA), that “The public must rest assured that the tilapia on our market is safe to eat,

However, Dr Ziddah in fact muddied the waters a great deal, by first admitting that there was “no scientific evidence that the virus was transferable to humans, if they ate tilapia affected by the virus.”

If Dr Ziddah was correctly reported and that the virus was not transferable to humans, what was the basis for the speed with which a ban was imposed on imports of tilapia?

The Ministry's statement declaring the ban was published on the 28th of June 2018. It was to take effect almost immediately, that is, on the 1st of July 2018 – a mere four days later. Why such a short notice?

Didn't the Ministry anticipate that the sequence of events would give the impression that the Ministry was trying to deal with an emergency situation? The Ministry created this impression although, as now admitted by its officials, the Ministry knew all the time that no emergency existed, because the virus was not transferable to humans!

This mistake must teach Government officials that that matters that affect the welfare of the public, especially over health issues, must always be treated with the utmost circumspection. Even those who are neither Government officials nor scientists could see from the statement that it would cause a certain amount of panic. Why didn't the Ministry's trained personnel see that?

In fact, it's the Government Relations Officer of the Ghana Aquaculture Association (GAA), Mr Angelo Habib, who has clarified in a more elaborate manner, the differences that exist between the GAA and the Government over the tilapia virus issue. He stated categorically at a joint news conference held with some officials of the Ministry of Fisheries that the public should rest assured that “tilapia can be consumed with no risk whatsoever to public health.”

Mr Habib explained that the virus was one of many fish ailments the world over, and that the GAA, having been made aware of the virus five years ago,

could “categorically state that the virus is not present here in Ghana.”

Mr Habib pointed out that the statement by the Ministry, “although well-intended, had unfortunately created some misgivings and anxiety among the Ghanaian public who patronise the fish”.

The GAA, he disclosed, had “already taken various measures to safeguard [the] farms and fish [of its members] from the Tilapia Lake virus and other viruses, to ensure that none of them surfaced here in Ghana.

Mr Habib added: “We are conducting awareness training for farmers, in respect of good husbandry practices on our farms”. The Association, in conjunction with the fish health team of the Fisheries Commission, had taken steps to ensure that plans were put in place to tackle the virus before it took root, Mr Habib reiterated.

Meanwhile, West Africa's largest tilapia-producing company, Volta Catch, has also described as “hasty”, the government's decision to ban the importation of tilapia on suspicion that Tilapia lake virus was being introduced into the country.

The Financial Controller of the company, Mr Joshua Bosoka, told Eyewitness News, that the government's decision was taken “without due consultations” with stakeholders and was unnecessary, “especially as the possibility of the virus getting into Ghana was very minimal.”

Mr Bosoka said:“Our main issue is the hasty nature of the statement. This virus is not in West Africa. It is found in Egypt currently. It is nowhere in West Africa. Just issuing a statement without consulting the stakeholders to know what the virus is about is problematic. The virus has no effect on humans. The virus has more effect on the producers of tilapia because if you have it [the virus] on your fish, you will have a higher mortality rate [among the fish. That rather affects the producers, not the consumers”.

Mr Bosoka claimed that “the government's blanket ban was already taking a toll on local fishing businesses”. Tilapia consumers were declining in number “on account of fear,” he stated.

Such a development would eventually “lead to job cuts” and even “the collapse of companies” engaged in aquaculture, Mr Bosoka predicted.

Mr Bosoka continued: “The government should have consulted the stakeholders. [Its statement] should have been worded in a different way so that it would not put fear and panic in the general public. Today, sales for most of the aquaculture businesses in the country have reduced drastically, because a lot of people are afraid to consume tilapia. Yet the tilapia we have in the country is not [even] imported tilapia”.

I am glad that those involved in the tilapia industry have risen to challenge the Ministry of Fisheries over its incompetent handling of the tilapia virus issue. Too often, those involved in an industry that has been shabbily treated by government officials are wary of stepping on the feet of officials and so tend to close their eyes to actions that are clearly injurious to their businesses.

The Minister of Fisheries should be aware – in case she's unwilling to let the heads of those responsible for this unnecessary fracas in this matter roll – that a British Minister, Mrs Edwina Currie, was wrongly advised by her officials to make an unwise comment, in 1988, that most of Britain's egg production was affected by salmonella! The Minister had to resign, although she, not being a scientist, she must only have been repeating what her officials has told her had been concluded from scientific processes.

It is to avoid creating alarm about food consumption that clear guidelines exist on how to handle food consumption issues. The simple rule is: Whatever you do, don't alarm people over the food they choose to eat, unless you have very good reason to do so. Tests and their results must be repeated for confirmation before announcements are made about banning food items meant for consumption.

It is sad that tilapia has come under this apparently unnecessary suspicion, for its consumption has become widespread in Ghana of late. If you don't believe me, go and try to order delicious tilapia for lunch at the Scoop Restaurant at the International Press Centre in Accra! It is in such high demand that you might have to pre-order it before you can be assured of getting it.

I can personally testify to that fact!

Columnist: Cameron Duodu