EJF Alleges Chinese Involvement in Illegal Fishing Practices in Ghana

Credit: EJF

Published Oct 10, 2018 7:30 PM by The Maritime Executive

Around 90 percent of Ghana’s industrial fishing fleet is linked to Chinese ownership, according to an investigation by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF). However, Ghana’s laws clearly forbid any foreign ownership or control of vessels flying its flag. 

To ensure that the financial benefits from industrial fisheries go directly to Ghana, rather than being sent overseas, Ghana’s Fisheries Act states that these craft cannot be owned, or part owned, by any foreign interest, with the sole exception of tuna vessels. However, EJF alleges that foreign companies – overwhelmingly Chinese – operate through Ghanaian ‘front’ companies, using opaque corporate structures to import their vessels and register and obtain a license. In 2015, 90 percent of industrial trawl vessels licensed in Ghana were built in China and 95 percent were captained by Chinese nationals.

With the balance of control invariably resting with the Chinese investor, such arrangements clearly contravene the purpose of the legislation, if not the letter of the law, says the EJF. The result is a complete lack of transparency as to who is responsible for illegal actions and who controls and benefits from Ghana’s industrial trawl fleet.

New vessels have continued to arrive from China, despite a moratorium on new industrial trawlers entering Ghanaian waters to address vast over-capacity and severe depletion of fish stocks.

In mid-2018, around 70 industrial trawlers were licensed to fish under the Ghanaian flag for bottom dwelling species, such as groupers, snappers and cephalopods. The main part of the catches from Ghana’s industrial trawl fleet are destined for China, while cephalopods are exported to the E.U. Several industrial trawlers flagged to Ghana are authorized to export catches to the E.U. market.
The EJF says the Chinese and Ghanaian governments should work together to eradicate the illegal fishing practices, improve transparency and sanction those contravening ownership laws. The organization says that lists of all fishing vessels licensed to fish under Ghanaian and Chinese flags should be published online, along with details of all cases of illegal fishing and the sanctions imposed. The ownership of all industrial vessels operating in Ghana, and who actually profits from them, should be public knowledge.

Earlier this year, China launched a crackdown on illicit activities undertaken by Chinese operators in West Africa, withdrawing subsidies and fishing licenses from three Chinese companies involved in illegal fishing in the region.   

“China is already aware of some problems across its fleet in West Africa, and the government has taken some steps to resolve these abuses,” says EJF’s Executive Director Steve Trent. “With this new information about the Ghanaian fisheries, China can, and should, adopt a leadership role, working with the Ghanaian government to ensure that laws are upheld and that Ghanaian fisheries are both legal and sustainable. Failure to take such action will see the further declines and the possible collapse of these fisheries, leading to great suffering across coastal communities.” 

EJF is calling upon both governments to pay particular attention and collaborate to end the damaging practice of “saiko” fishing, where industrial trawlers target fish such as the small pelagic species that are a vital staple food for local communities. The catch is then illegally transferred at sea to specially adapted canoes – and having effectively “stolen” these fish from traditional canoe fishers – operators sell them back to the same fishing communities for profit. Saiko is a highly organized and lucrative practice, accounting for an estimated 100,000 tons of illegal and unreported catches in 2017, with an estimated landed value of $34-65 million.

Ghana’s fishing communities are becoming increasingly vulnerable as the crisis in the country’s fisheries deepens. The average annual income per traditional fishing canoe has dropped by as much as 40 percent in the last 10 to 15 years, and landings of small pelagic fish – key for local consumption – are at their lowest recorded level since 1980.

Over two million people in Ghana, or 10 percent of the country’s total population, depend on fisheries for their livelihoods, with more than 200 coastal villages reliant on fisheries as their primary source of income.