Illegal and destructive practices by foreign-owned trawlers are draining the Ghanaian economy of an estimated £50m a year. Along its 350-mile coastline, overfishing has driven small pelagic species known as “people’s fish”, the staple diet, to the verge of collapse.
In 2015, as part of a $55m World Bank project, Ghana placed an observer on every industrial trawler, to collect data and report violations of fisheries law. Around the world, the work of these observers is becoming ever more dangerous. In 2017, a report by Human Rights At Sea found six cases of disappearances of observers in the Pacific. It concluded their work was hampered by “inadequate legal protection” and “physical danger”. Illegal fishing is common, they said, confirming reports of the targeting of small pelagic fish or “saiko” by trawlers, an illegal trade revealed by the Environmental Justice Foundation this year. Two of them witnessed observers taking bribes, they said. Some had been beaten by the Chinese crew – 90% of the vessels are estimated to be Chinese-owned. Some 80 to 90% of reports by observers contained incriminating evidence of illegal fishing. Despite such allegations, only 23 trawlers were sanctioned for illegal fishing in 2018 and prosecutions were subject to political interference, according to the commission source. “We choose the observers … but politicians call our bosses and tell us: ‘Don’t prosecute these people.’”
Emmanuel Essien a fishing observer alleged illegal fishing by a trawler he had been working on. If the allegation was proved true, the ship’s captain faced a minimum fine of $1m. 28-year-old Emmanuel vanished at sea from a trawler called Meng Xin 15, owned by a Chinese state-owned enterprise, Dalian Meng Xin Ocean Fisheries, according to an investigation by China Dialogue Ocean, which found the fleet has committed 16 fishing offences in Ghana since 2016. Its special status as an “offshore fishery enterprise of the ministry of agriculture” gives access to subsidies and tax exemption. The World Bank highlighted Ghana’s “weak commitment” to reducing the number of industrial trawlers and its “less than agreed” scale of law enforcement, including “partial prosecution of offences and collection of fines”.