By George Sydney Abugri
Thanks to the rivalry between the incumbent and NPP presidential candidate Nana Akufo-Addo, the nagging issue of the invasion of Ghana’s territorial waters by pair trawlers has come up on the public agenda yet again and more forcefully this time.
Last week, Nana Akufo-Addo pledged in the course of his campaign to ban pair trawling and other illegal fishing activities in the country’s waters. The NPP presidential candidate blamed lack of progress in the fight against pair trawling on the lack of political will.
Not to be outdone in the show of political leadership concern for the activities of pair trawling fishermen in Ghana’s waters, President John Mahama has asked the Ghana Navy to get tough with the international poachers using pair trawlers who are fast depleting the nation’s fish stocks.
The issue of the poaching of fish stocks by foreign fishermen using pair trawler appears to be so serious that international buyers of Ghana’s tuna have shown some interest in recent years: A couple of years ago, European Union (EU) announced a total ban on fish exports from Belize, Guinea and Cambodia and warned that Ghana and two other countries would be next on the list if they did not take immediate steps to stop illegal fishing in their waters.
Ghana is the third largest exporter of tuna to the European Union and a ban on fish imports from the country would have dealt Ghana a hefty financial blow. Various reasons have been advanced to explain Ghana’s dwindling fish stocks: A rather very generalized reason given by some experts in fisheries is that dwindling fish harvests are a global problem induced by environmental, climatic and economic factors.
Some expert sources at the University of Ghana’s Department of Oceanography and Fisheries have in the past attributed the dwindling annual fish harvests partly to Ghanaians’ craving for the popular “Keta Schoolboys” (fingerlings).
Fingerlings or ‘baby fish’ are a necessary fisheries regenerative resource as they are food for larger fish and should not be eaten by fish consumers on the present scale, the sources have explained. By continually sweeping fingerlings off the sea bed to feed the craving of many Ghanaians for Keta Schoolboys, fishermen make the regeneration of fish stocks difficult.
Local fishermen are also engaged in other bad fishing practices. Poor sanitation and environmental practices which impede fish stock regeneration in coastal areas further compound the problem of decreasing fish harvests.
Valid though they are, these arguments ignore or at least seem to downplay the importance of the argument raised by local canoe fishermen and marine environmentalists about the very efficient but also very destructive impact of modern fishing technologies being used by foreign fishing companies in our waters:
Many local fishermen and other fisheries researchers have blamed the problem of bad fishing practices on the depletion of fish stock by large foreign trawlers in the first place.
According to one tropical fisheries study, “decreased fish catches [in West Africa] have resulted in increasing poverty of fisher folk and local fishermen have therefore resorted to the use of larger nets, and mesh sizes less than one inch, to harvest juveniles [Keta Schoolboys]. They also use explosives and chemicals to be able to catch a lot of fish.”
In one report on fishing along the West African coast, the global environment group, Green Peace, states bluntly that “European trawlers are scooping up the lion's share of West Africa’s fish stocks leaving them severely depleted.”
Apart from the obvious consequences on the nutritional status and economic status of coastal communities and West African nations, the situation poses a danger to the lives and safety of traditional fishermen in West Africa:
The depletion of fish stocks by poachers is compelling Ghanaian coastal fishermen to venture farther out to sea in motorized canoes. “Now traditional fishermen are forced to sail their small open canoes farther out to sea in search of a decent catch. Intended only as inshore craft, the canoes are being sailed up to 200 miles offshore, where they are very vulnerable in the open ocean.
The fishermen lack safety equipment such as lifejackets and face the risk of marine accidents all for a catch sometimes consisting mainly of low-grade fish,” the group reported.
The increasing dangers traditional fishermen face far out at sea sometimes take the form of foreign trawlers running over or ramming into fishing canoes.
The BBC once reported the case of a Gambian fisherman and small boat owner, Papa Khan, whose small boat was “smashed in two one night by an illegal trawler, killing ten of his crew, including his brother.”
Khan who survived the accident, told the BBC that “when the trawlers are stealing our fish they turn off their lights. We didn't see it until it was so close. We couldn't avoid it.”
Green Peace paints the following mental picture along the coast of Senegal to symbolize the situation along the coast of West Africa today:
“On a beach in the West African State of Senegal, a traditional fishing canoe is dwarfed by the rusting hulk of a giant European trawler. It's a stark image which sums up the unequal battle that Senegal's fishing communities face - against the elements, against the big industrial fishing vessels and against the might of the European Union.”
According to marine environmentalist Kary Fulton who has investigated the problem of dwindling fish stocks along the coast of Ghana and other West African countries, fishing in the sub-region’s waters used to be done in a sustainable manner by small boats and local fishermen.
“It was labour intensive and employed most of the men in the coastal communities. Today the Japanese, Koreans, Russians, Chinese, Taiwanese and European nations use their large boats equipped with modern equipment.”
Fulton says the technologies used by fishing fleets in Europe have left many northern nations severely depleted fish stocks and these nations which are looking for new areas to fish, are targeting the coasts of Mauritania, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia, Ivory Coast and Ghana.
A BBC report on the problem warned that “West African governments have to balance their need for foreign exchange earnings with the need to safeguard fish stocks, not only for the future but also to help feed their own people today.”