Although the Ghana's fisheries laws, as spelt out in the Fisheries Act, 2002 (Act 625), are very clear on what constitutes fisheries offences, illegal fishing practices abound on the country's high seas with wanton abandon.
Illegal fishing refers to any fishing activities which violate national laws or international obligations.
The Trade and Communications Section of the European Union (EU) estimates that between 11million and 26 million tonnes of fish are caught illegally, every year, with an estimated value or global value of up to ten billion Euros.
One of the illegal fishing practices―fish trans-shipment― has been identified as one of the factors contributing to the collapse of the fisheries sector and eroding the traditions and cultures associated with fishing.
Fish trans-shipment has also been held to be responsible for the increasing poverty in coastal communities and creating inequality among artisanal fishers.
The local name for fish trans-shipment in Ghana is saiko, which refers to the transfer by industrial trawlers of frozen fish to specially-molded canoes on the high seas.
The industrial trawlers come very close to shore, steal fish from artisanal fishermen by fishing in their space, destroy their nets and gear, deprive them of their catches and sell the fish caught back to the local communities for huge profits.
On the other hand, some local fishermen go to sea without nets, but with large canoes― designed specifically for the saiko trade to buy large quantities of by-catch― often comprising illegally-caught juvenile fishes― from the trawlers.
The saiko business has, over the years, been operated by a syndicate― mostly foreigners― with licenses secured by Ghanaian trawlers.
The saiko trade exploits the country's fish stock, sells it and repatriates the earnings through forex bureaus to their home countries, with severe implications for the artisanal fishing sector.
A research conducted into the illegal fishing practices of trawlers in the Ghanaian ocean waters reveals that Ghana lost between US40 million and US50 million dollars in 2017, involving 100,000 metric tonnes (MT) of fish.
The research, conducted by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) and Hen Mpoano― both environmental Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) with interest in protecting the country's natural resources and ensuring their sustainable management ―reveals that the practice has become a lucrative industry, with 90 per cent of the trawlers owned by foreigners, especially Chinese and Koreans, depleting fish species including small pelagics, such as sardinella and mackerel, with impunity.
Available statistics indicate that only 40 per cent of catches were landed legally and reported to the Fisheries Commission in 2017, despite observers being present on a number of vessels.
The study represents the first comprehensive attempt to estimate the volume and value of fish landed through saiko, and helped to understand the ecological and socio-economic implications of the practice.
Saiko is an offence attracting a fine of between US$100,000 and two million dollars with the minimum fine increasing to one million dollars where catches involved juvenile fish or the use of prohibited fishing gears.
However, although Saiko activities are widespread, the risk of arrest and sanctions is very low, with cases often settled through out of court settlement processes, while most of the industrial vessels engaged in saiko are linked to foreign beneficial owners, which also contravenes Ghanaian laws.
The fisheries sector is critical to the country's food security and provides jobs for the local communities who depend on it for their livelihoods. Thus, any threat to the sector's survival ought to be resisted.
Ending the menace of Saiko to ensure sustainable management of the fisheries sector will, therefore, require that fisheries regulations are strictly enforced.
Beyond the enforcement of fisheries regulations, persons authorized to check illegal fishing practices must demonstrate truthfulness and honesty, rather than condone with the perpetrators of the crime against fish and humanity.
Key stakeholders in the fisheries sector, including the Ministry of Fisheries and Aqua-Culture, Fisheries Commission, Fisheries Law Enforcement Unit of the Ghana Navy, civil society organizations, representatives from the Ministry of Food and Agriculture, Development Partners such as the EU, Norwegian Government, United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the academia, students and the media, must join hands together to enforce the law on trans-shipment and the saiko business.
It is important to recognize the efforts of the EU in fighting illegal fishing under the Far Ban Bo (FBB) project.
FBB is a four-year fisheries governance project which is being implemented by a consortium of three― CARE (the lead), Friends of the Nation (FoN) and OXFAM-in-Ghana ―in collaboration with key fishery stakeholders, such as Smallholder Fishery Associations, Fisheries Commission and the Fisheries Alliance, with funding from the EU.
FBB is designed to contain the challenges of overfishing and unsustainable fishing practices such as Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing, which refers to any type of fishing that is practiced in contravention of existing legal, management and conservation measures.
It is also designed to address low compliance with fisheries regulations and the weak capacity for the enforcement of fisheries laws.
The project, therefore, seeks to empower community participation in the management of their resources by forming IUU Community Monitoring Groups (CMGs) that will plan actions for improved IUU monitoring at the local level that links to national level multi-stakeholder platforms for follow-ups on arrest and prosecution for cases reported.
Effectively implemented, FBB is expected to contribute significantly to improving livelihoods and the nutritional status of smallholder fishers as well as other users of fisheries resources, through social & economic safeguards.
The writer is a free-lance Journalist and a lawyer.