The fundamental human rights of Ghanaian fishing communities, such as the right to adequate food and decent work, are being threatened by the government’s failure to tackle overfishing and illegal fishing by industrial trawlers, a new report by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) has revealed.

These communities are a vulnerable and marginalised group, and urgent measures must be taken by the Ghanaian government to ensure their basic human rights are upheld, as required under international law.

Ghana’s fish populations are in steep decline. Severe overcapacity of the trawl fleet combined with the illegal practice of ‘saiko’ – where industrial trawlers illegally target the staple catch of small-scale fishers and transfer it to specially adapted boats at sea – is driving the collapse of Ghana’s inshore fishery. This puts the food security and income of millions of Ghanaians into jeopardy.

The new report shows that basic human rights of Ghana’s fishing communities, including the right to adequate food, adequate standard of living and just working conditions, are under threat. Over half the 215 small-scale fishers, processors and traders EJF spoke to reported going without sufficient food over the past year. This was especially severe among the processors and traders, the vast majority of whom are women.

Over 70% of respondents also reported a deterioration in their living conditions over the past five years, with incomes falling below the level necessary for a decent living, leaving them unable to cover basic needs.

Local fishers are increasingly having to compete with industrial vessels to survive, travelling further and further out to sea in search of catches. This puts both the fishers, and the fishing equipment on which they depend, at risk. Around 70% of the fishers surveyed had suffered damage to their fishing gear by industrial trawlers.

The report stops short of stating that mismanagement of the fisheries sector by the Ghanaian government has caused a violation of fundamental human rights but calls for urgent investigation into this matter.

In failing to prevent trawling companies from violating the right to work of small-scale fishers and workers it is unclear whether Ghana is meeting its minimum obligation under international law to protect the human rights that would enable this marginalised group to live a life of dignity.

Other essential human rights, such as access to clean drinking water, education, sanitation, medical services, and social security are also under threat, the report found. While these issues are less closely related to the decline of the fishing industry, they also require swift and effective government measures to ensure the rights of small-scale fishers and their communities.

These communities rely almost entirely on fish and fishing for their survival, and at present, there are very few alternative livelihoods available to these people, an issue compounded by low school completion rates. Approximately 15-20% of children in the survey had never completed primary school, the report found.

Steve Trent, CEO and founder of the Environmental Justice Foundation, said:

“The fundamental human rights to decent work and an adequate standard of living are under threat in Ghanaian fishing communities. The government must account for and remedy any infringements of these rights.

Alongside action to ensure sustainability and environmental security, the government of Ghana must adopt a rights-based approach to fisheries management, which prioritises the needs of vulnerable small-scale fishing communities who make up the majority of fish workers in the country yet are often marginalised in decisions concerning their livelihoods. Improving governance of the sector through enhanced transparency; ending illegal fishing; reducing fleet capacity; reforming subsidies; and the development of realistic alternative livelihoods for fishing communities are all key steps that must be taken immediately.

The planned reform of Ghana’s fisheries law framework provides an opportunity to establish a clear and unequivocal legal basis to respect, protect and fulfil the human rights of small-scale fishing communities while ensuring environmental security and sustainability.”

Ghanaian officials have however disputed some of the claims contained in EJF’s report, saying neither fisheries observers nor crew have reported these abuses to the authorities.

Michael Arthur-Dadzie, director of the Fisheries Commission, told Mongabay that the agency has never received any official reports from observers regarding the issues raised in the EJF report. “They haven’t reported to us and we haven’t taken action,” he said. “We don’t have any of that data.” He said observers should immediately report these issues so that the commission can undertake investigations as any delay could defeat the “immediacy of revelation of information.”

Arthur-Dadzie of Ghana’s Fisheries Commission explained that the pole-and-line tuna vessels do not have permission to use illegal fishing techniques such as lights, and that the commission is working to resolve this issue after receiving reports about this activity. However, he added that the pole-and-line tuna vessels had a closed season earlier this year, between January and March, so they are legally allowed to fish during the current closed season.

Workers aboard an industrial fishing vessel off the coast of Ghana. This photo was taken during a saiko investigation. Image by EJF.
‘The ones responsible’

Richster Amarfio, secretary of the Ghana Tuna Association, said he does not agree with many points in the EJF report, beginning with the assertion that 90% of industrial trawlers are Chinese-owned.

“I have always challenged the dignity of EJF because it’s skewed,” Amarfio told Mongabay. “It doesn’t follow any proper research. There are 72 registered trawl vessels in Ghana and they … none are foreign-owned. They are owned by Ghanaians.”

He did say, however, that Ghanaian vessels employ Chinese captains and officers since few Ghanaians have the necessary training and certifications to take these positions, and that Ghanaian fishing companies rely on foreign interests to help manage their businesses, which seems to comply with EJF’s claim that Ghanaian vessels are operating as “front” companies.

Amarfio also questioned the allegations of human rights abuses on these industrial trawlers, saying the EJF report only presents one side of the story. “Did they interview the company, the owners? No,” he said.

EJF told Mongabay that the organization did not speak to the officers or companies due to the “opacity of the sector.”

Amarfio said many of the issues may arise when observers challenge the authority of the captains, but that this — and a lot of the other issues raised in the report — could be resolved if the observers were properly trained.

Arthur-Dadzie also questioned the validity of the complaints in the EJF report. For instance, he suggested that crew and observers should bring their own food and water when they report for a job, which could help avoid disagreements over resources on board. He added that their wages should cover these expenses.

Kofi Agbogah, director of the Ghanaian coastal advocacy group Hen Mpoano, said the EJF report has generated a lot of discussion among human rights advocates in Ghana and is prompting further investigation into what the law can do to protect fisheries crew and observers.

Emmanuel Essien was appointed by Ghana’s Fisheries Commission to monitor industrial trawlers’ compliance with the laws of the country and protect declining fish stocks and the livelihoods in coastal communities that depend on them. Despite the danger he faced, he did his job and turned over video evidence of what he saw to the authorities. Then he went back out to sea again. And disappeared.

“What the report has done,” Agbogah said, “is it’s opened the eyes of people in the country who think that everything is going on smoothly.”

Citations:

Environmental Justice Foundation. (2021). A human rights lens on the impacts of industrial illegal fishing and overfishing on the socio-economic rights of small-scale fishing communities in Ghana. Retrieved from ejfoundation.org