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Climate Change Livelihoods

Fisheries and Climate Change in Ghana: Impacts, Causes and Solutions

In a classic Tragedy of The Commons scenario, industrial fishing vessels in Ghana are dredging up small pelagics reserved for the artisanal sector — having already depleted higher trophic species. The vessels tip overboard the unwanted (bycatch). In response, Ghana’s artisanal canoe fishers are resorting to destructive fishing methods, including using bombs to send a shock wave through the water to maximize their catch and light to attract shoals of fish. The canoe fishers say they will stop when the Government stops the trawlers. Climate change is magnifying these vulnerabilities to the extent that fishermen no longer go to the sea because 'there is no fish in the ocean'. Is the future already here?

August 1, 2020

Fisheries and climate change: Fisherman in Ghana casts a net over a lagoon. Copyright © 2020 Muntaka Chasant

In a classic Tragedy of The Commons scenario, industrial fishing vessels in Ghana are dredging up small pelagics reserved for the artisanal sector — having already depleted higher trophic species. The vessels tip overboard the unwanted (bycatch). In response, Ghana’s artisanal canoe fishers are resorting to destructive fishing methods, including using bombs to send a shock wave through the water to maximize their catch and light to attract shoals of fish. The canoe fishers say they will stop when the Government stops the trawlers. Climate change is magnifying these vulnerabilities to the extent that fishermen no longer go to the sea because 'there is no fish in the ocean'. Is the future already here?

Stresses on fish populations from overfishing are threatening livelihoods and food security in Ghana. But climate change may be doing far worse by modifying habitats for marine fishes and invertebrates in the Gulf of Guinea through changes in species productivity and distribution.

The uppermost part of the ocean provides a buffer by absorbing heat and anthropogenic carbon dioxide1 (CO2) trapped in the atmosphere. This helps to stabilize Earth’s climate system.

Earth’s temperature has risen by more than 1° Celsius2 3 since the late 19th century.

Our oceans absorb more than 90% of the Earth’s excess heat from greenhouse gas emissions. This process has warmed the ocean significantly in the last 20 years4.

The heat does not disappear. It recirculates, evaporates waters, melts ice shelves, and reheats the atmosphere.5

The effects do not end there.

Ocean warming is now threatening livelihoods and the food supplies of millions of people in the world’s poorest regions.

How is Climate Change Affecting Fisheries in Ghana?

Ghana is in the tropical zone — between the Equator and the Tropic of Cancer. Sun lies almost directly over the country for the entire year.

CO2 build-up in the ocean causes seawater to acidify. This threatens marine life, including shellfish, corals, and plankton. 

Warmed waters affect phytoplankton production6, depriving fish of essential food.

Fish populations migrate to cooler areas when they can not thermally tolerate warm waters.

This affects where and who can harvest the stock. The migration of fish stock is beneficial to one area/waters and detrimental to another.

Ocean warming has shrunk catch potential by a net of 4% (around 1.4 million tons of cumulative loss) over the past 80 years, according to a 2019 study7 that examined 235 populations of 124 species of fish across 38 separate regions.

While some fish species and areas benefit from warm waters, the study adds: “losers outweigh the winners.”

However you look at it, changes in fish abundance and movement is affecting yield and profits, especially in the tropics.

The climate change-fisheries characteristics briefly described above are taking a toll on fishers globally, including in Ghana.

Amissano and Hinii Fishing Villages in Ghana

Fisheries in Ghanaian waters are responding to ocean warming as catches of commercially important fish species have declined markedly.

Roughly around 12,000 marine artisanal canoes — more than half motorized — operate along Ghana’s coast. They are responsible for at least 70% of Ghana’s total marine supply, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations8.

The effects of climate change are felt widely. But unevenly.

Amissano and Hinii are artisanal fishing villages located in southern Ghana. Just by the Gulf of Guinea in the Central Region, one of Ghana’s 16 regions.

These sister fishing villages already live in the future. Like other coastal communities, they have been hit hard by the effects of climate change, overfishing, and destructive fishing methods.

[Fante dialect] “Nnam nnyi ipo nim.”

Translates as: “there is no fish in the ocean.”

Every fisherman echoed the exact same words when I asked why they were not at sea.

They do not go to sea for 3-4 months every year due to a decline in fish catch. 

“We return home empty-handed each time. It was easy about 10 years ago. We just come in and scoop up the fish. Now we don’t get any at all,” Said Kwabena Abudu, the Amissano chief fisherman.

I’m always struck by this response — having heard it from several fishing communities over the years.

Affluent urban dwellers may not immediately feel the effects yet, but poor populations are being directly affected by the earth’s warming climate.

How will they survive? What will they eat?

Sadly, I have no answers to these questions except to show you some photographs of the area, including a fisherman casting his net over the Amisa lagoon without catching a single fish.

Fishing Villages (Ghana) At The Front Lines of Climate Change

Going west, I had hoped to see canoes along Ghana’s coastlines going to sea or landing catches. I did not see one single fish because there were no fish for the fishermen to catch, but I found contended and happy people and swathes of smiling faces.

For me, that was enough to pull out a camera.

First, I found artisanal fishing canoes parked by the seashore. They had not gone to sea for months.

Then bumped into Kofi Odomna throwing his cast net over the Amisa lagoon for blackchin tilapia. He cast the net repeatedly, but not one single fish turned up whenever he pulled it out. This made me sad.

Then a group of Hinii young people trying to keep the blue crabs they had caught in the nearby brackish water cool and moist. They kept the crabs in wooden baskets by the Amisa Lagoon.

Amisa Estuary

Amisa brackish water and beach.

Again, I did not see a single fish around the area, but I was happy to form a friendship with the people. Hopefully, I’ll be able to go back soon.

I’m particularly interested in women’s exposure to fine particles and toxicants such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons during fish processing.

Destructive Methods of Fishing in Ghana

Destructive fishing methods such as per trawling, light fishing, and the use of dynamite further put pressures on the productivity and species composition of the fish population in Ghanaian waters.

Pair trawling involves tying a huge net between two boats and dragging it through the water, sweeping the sea clean of every marine life in its pathway.

“The fishermen hate pair trawling because the Chinese men catch the smaller fish meant for them together with the bigger ones,” Said Dede, an Accra Jamestown-based fish marketer.

Dede added: “They then throw the smaller ones back into the ocean. But the smaller fish don’t survive, totally wasting them.”

The phenomenon of incidental catch and mortality of fish Dede explained is known as bycatch. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that around 40%9 of fish caught worldwide is bycatch. 

Bycatch is illegal under Ghana’s Fisheries laws10.

Welcome To ‘Saiko’ Fishing in Ghana

‘Saiko’ in Ghana is the illegal transshipment of unwanted bycatch from industrial fishing vessels to designated artisanal canoes at sea.

The bottom trawlers — licensed to target demersal stocks — scoop up small pelagics such as sardinellas11 that are reserved for the artisanal sector and sell them back to the fishermen. 

The small canoes in front of the ‘Welcome to Saiko Beach’ entrance above are literally the canoes that go out to sea to pick up frozen bycatch from trawlers back to the Jamestown landing area.

The poor artisanal fishers now return home empty-handed because the huge trawlers had already scooped up the small ‘amanes’ and other pelagics their livelihoods depend on.

This puts the trawlers in direct competition with the canoe fishers. It is destructive because the artisanal sector is small-scale, and their small wooden canoes are no match for the industrial fishing vessels.

It’s like going to a Samurai katana fight with a sword made out of balsa wood.

The Ocean Means So Much To The Poor

Curious how Accra Jamestown’s poor value marine fish catch?

Check out the photo below:

Found anything interesting yet?

Do you see three (3) men hurtling against the waves with emergency toward a powered artisanal canoe that is about to land its catch?

The men help fishermen land their catch in return for fish, which they sell for sustenance. They’ll do anything to help with a landing for a piece.

What would they do?

Fisherman Now Fishes in The Korle Lagoon Due To A Decline in Marine Fish Catch

Tired of plastic debris turning up in his cast net when he goes out to sea, the man in the photo above now fishes in the heavily polluted Korle Lagoon — a few yards from where wastewater from Korle Bu, Ghana’s premier healthcare facility, empties into the lagoon.

Accra’s major drainage channels empty their waste into the Gulf of Guinea through the Korle Lagoon.

Marine pollution is one of the biggest threats to ocean ecosystems.

Read more about this odd situation in the link below:

Related: Man Fishes in The Korle Lagoon Due To Plastic Pollution At Sea

Also read: Agbogbloshie, Ghana (2020): Questions & Answers

Tragedy of the Commons and Fisheries in Ghana

Tragedy of the commons is a situation where individuals acting based on self-interest overuse shared resources, ultimately leading to depletion.

Back in Accra, I asked Jamestown fishermen about ‘saiko’ and a whole host of other destructive fishing methods.

The response was straightforward: “We will stop light and blast fishing when the Government stops the trawlers from stealing our catch.”

We will stop light and blast fishing when the Government stops the trawlers from stealing our catch.

accra jamestown fishers

How The State Exacerbates Livelihood Vulnerabilities

Despite the destructive nature of light fishing, Ghana’s Fisheries Commission in April 2020 granted an exemption that allowed fishing vessels from the Ghana Tuna Association to use light to attract baits — small pelagics reserved for the artisanal sector — around the waters of Saltpond and Keta.12

But there was a quick U-turn on this decision after an uproar from artisanal canoe fishers who are not allowed to use light attraction equipment.

In a further confrontation, Ghana’s Navy, which had earlier reminded the Fisheries Commission about the illegality of light fishing, arrested two tuna vessels that were engaged in light fishing.

There’s no doubt that the industrial and artisanal subsectors are together one of the greatest threats to Ghana’s marine ecosystems.

But what happened there?

The commission briefly caved in to big business demands at the expense of Ghana’s poor canoe fishers.

The damages the decision may have wrought on the ecosystem were of no concern to the Fisheries Commission.

Else, what informed their decision to excuse the association to engage in a fishing practice that is prohibited under the Fisheries Act? Why did they turn around quickly?

This is evidence of how state institutions use power to distribute resources and how it eventually harms the poor.

Yet this did not make it to the front pages of Ghana’s newspapers.

Ghana’s marine ecosystem is in a death spiral.

Light fishing helps to increase catch rate — but at a cost. It contributes to bycatch (including endangered species) and overfishing. It also impedes conservation and other efforts to rebuild overfished populations.

I’d never know about this standoff had it not been reported by the London-based not-for-profit Environmental Justice Foundation.

Ghana Government’s tight-lipped attitude over ‘saiko’ is alarming.

Perhaps Ghana needs to revisit its cultural interpretation of inequality. It is only then that it will realize how its institutions help to shape poverty by exacerbating livelihood vulnerabilities.

Jamestown Fishing Harbour & Fisher Community

The Jamestown Fishing Harbour was razed down to make way for a modern fishing harbor. Members of the fisher community were therefore relocated to an area near the Korle Lagoon estuarine environment, a dynamic and highly active area.

Although I understand what they are trying to do with the fences, runoff from the heavily polluted Korle Lagoon still makes the area a potentially toxic13 environment.

There below, that’s the Korle Lagoon estuary (relocated fishing community area marked in red):

They were relocated to around this area — stretching towards the Jamestown abattoir where workers use scrap tires to singe livestock.

If you are as obsessed with estuaries as I’m — here’s an up-close bird’s eye view of the Korle Lagoon’s brackish water:

The fishing harbour area towards Korle Gonna is an environmental disaster, but the immediate vicinity around where they were relocated to is far worse, in my estimation. I have air quality monitoring assets around the area, and it’s a nightmare.

These fishers deserve better.

They do so much for Ghana — economic and food security-wise.

Pollution is a threat to water quality in estuaries.

Why push them too close to the heavily polluted Korle Lagoon, Lavender Hill, a slaughterhouse that frequently use scrap tires to singe livestock, and near an area where fecal waste is processed?

I have visited the Jamestown fishing harbour for nearly a decade a few times each month to pick up freshly caught fish directly from the fishermen.

Sadly, July 20, 2020, was my last time to pick up fish from the area as they were being pushed to the extremely polluted environment described above.

Not a smart idea to pick up food from the Korle Lagoon estuarine environment and near an area where fecal waste is processed — for hygiene and sanitary reasons.

There below, my last fish from the area, from an old friend:

That’s a roughly 40-inch grouper with barotrauma (the air-filled sac coming out if its mouth), and had just been caught about an hour earlier.

Barotrauma in fish occurs when a fish is brought up from the deep to the surface quickly, resulting in the expansion of its swim bladder. Totally fine for fish caught for food.

The fisherman used good old hooks and lines. I paid GH₵250 (around $43) for the grouper. A steal, but many of the locals seem to think I’m frequently cheated. I’d pay more if he asks — as long as my money helps to improve the material condition of urban poor.

What is The Way Forward?

Changes in oceanographic conditions due to climate change are expected to exacerbate the declining reproduction patterns and distribution of fish populations in the tropics.

The Guinea Currents region is projected to suffer a significant decrease in catch potential by the mid-century.14

Biogeographical distribution of fish species may result in a redistribution of catch potential towards the high altitude, jeopardizing food security and livelihoods in the tropics.15

Tackling all the problems highlighted on this page depend largely on what occurs outside the fishing industry: policy, enforcement, and multilateralism.

Poor fishermen can do very little to influence nations to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

But one thing is certain: Ghana needs urgent adaptive fisheries reforms to mitigate the direct impact of climate change — including rebuilding overfished populations.

And to stop trawlers from stealing small pelagics reserved for the artisanal sector.

Copyright notice: All photos on this page and are copyrighted. Do not copy or reuse without permission.

Copyright © 2020 Muntaka Chasant



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