The Human Rights Cost of IUU Fishing in Ghana

File image courtesy FCWC

Published Sep 5, 2021 12:27 PM by Brian Gicheru Kinyua

Over the last two decades, the West African seaboard has been a stomping ground for industrial trawlers. Although most of them are flagged locally by West African nations, they are owned and operated by foreigners, mainly in China or European countries.

Unfortunately, lax implementation of fisheries laws have enabled IUU (illegal, unreported and unregulated) fishing to go unabated, resulting in a massive decline in fish stocks. Environmental concerns, mostly focused on saving marine ecosystems and controlling climate change, have been the basis for policy changes to stop IUU fishing.

However, it is imperative to view IUU fishing from a human rights perspective - especially the immutable impact it has on poor coastal communities of the affected countries.

West Africa has also been synonymous with piracy, particularly in the Gulf of Guinea region, which has received extensive attention from maritime players and the United Nations.

While responding to a recent United Nations Security Council (UNSC) meeting on maritime security, one of West Africa’s eminent maritime researchers, Dr. Ifesinachi Okafor, said that failure to include the human cost for IUU fishing has led piracy to get more attention than the costly plunder of fisheries by foreign vessels.

“In the last 50 years, Africa has lost over $200 billion to illegal fishing by vessels linked to foreign nations. Illegal fishing is so extensive that it amounts to 40-65 percent of the legally reported catch in West Africa alone. Yet, there has been zero resolution on this by UNSC. In contrast, the economic cost of piracy over the last 20 years does not amount to $20 billion. Neither does the environmental impact directly affect the livelihoods of millions of people,” Dr. Okafor said. “Yet, over 30 Security Council resolutions and presidential statements have been issued on piracy in the Gulf of Aden and Gulf of Guinea since 2008. Foreign partners invest millions in tackling piracy while simultaneously investing billions in enabling their fishing vessels to plunder depleting fisheries in Africa.”

In comments at the debate, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken concurred that the debate over piracy must also take IUU fishing into account. “We must bring the same coordinated and comprehensive responses to other threats such as maritime safety and security. This includes IUU fishing- which undermines the sustainability of fish stocks, circumvents the green conservation and management measure, and violates the sovereign rights of coastal states and often goes hand in hand with the use of forced labor and other illicit activities,” he said.

In August, the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) released a report from primary data it collected on socio-economic rights of small-scale fishing communities in Ghana. The focus was on impacts of IUU fishing on the human rights of artisanal fishermen.

Ghana has one of the highest rates of dependence on fish for nutrition in Africa, with fish providing 60 percent of animal protein intake and a yearly per capita fish consumption estimated at 28 kilos. In addition, Ghana’s marine fisheries provide livelihoods for around 2.5- 3 million people along the value chain, which is approximately 10 percent of the country’s population.

Despite the artisanal fisheries sector being a key economic mainstay in Ghana, it is in a perilous state with severe socio-economic implications to the small-scale fishing communities. Ghana’s artisanal fishermen rely on a small pelagic fishery, mainly Sardinella spp., also commonly referred to as ‘people’s fish’ due to their critical role to food security and local livelihoods.

Industrial trawlers are partly to blame for plummeting catches of smaller fish. Driven by the local lucrative trade, trawlers enter prohibited zones and illegally adapt their fishing gear to target sardinella, which are in high demand for local consumption. A major portion of these catches are destined for the illegal ‘saiko’ trade, where the trawlers transship the caught fish at sea to small purpose-built canoes for landing at Ghana’s ports. An estimate by EJF in 2017 on the ‘saiko’ trade revealed that 100,000 tons of fish were traded with a landed value of $50 million. The proportion of juveniles caught via this trade is estimated at 67 percent and in some extreme case reaching 100 percent.

Already, scientists have predicted the collapse of the small pelagic fishery within the next decade in a business-as –usual scenario, with FAO recommending closure of the sardinella fishery shared by Cote d’Ivore, Ghana, Togo and Benin to allow for fish populations recovery.

This comes at the cost of declining income and rising poverty in Ghana’s coastal communities. According to the EJF report, approximately 90 percent of the surveyed fishermen and processors saw a decline in their incomes over the past five years. Around 70 percent of these reported damage to their fishing gear by industrial trawlers.

As a result, fishermen are having to travel further out to sea in search of fish - beyond the six nautical mile / 30 meter depth Inshore Exclusion Zone (IEZ) restricted for artisanal fishing - yet they still report zero catch on some fishing days.

Marginalized and vulnerable coastal fishing communities add to the matrix of Gulf of Guinea piracy and the disastrous irregular crossings into Europe through the Mediterranean and the North Atlantic.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.