In the shadows of Fort Amsterdam, a former fort for enslaved people overlooking the Atlantic Ocean in southern Ghana, people wait eagerly for the colourful fishing boats to return to shore with their cargo of anchovies, sardinella and other small ocean fish. When the boats arrive there is a bustle of activity. Everybody wants a share.
Fishing binds coastal communities in Ghana, providing a livelihood for more than two million people. It is woven into cultures and traditions. Many fishers will not go to sea on Tuesdays, for example, believing it to be a day of rest for the sea goddess so she may give birth to more fish.
A man waits for the right wave at dawn before swimming out to his boat with supplies. Someone will usually stay overnight on the boat to prevent the engine from being stolen
But there may have to be more days away from the sea. Fish populations in the west African country are falling, especially the small pelagic species on which artisanal fishers rely, some of which are being pushed to the point of collapse. Sardinella catches have plummeted from about 136,000 tonnes in 1996 to 29,000 tonnes in 2016.
“The catch has declined drastically,” says Kofi Tawia, a 40-year-old artisanal fisher from the bustling port of Cape Coast. There are so few fish that negotiations over how to share the day’s catch can easily tip over into physical confrontations.
In the early morning, on top of the rock by Cape Coast castle, men pull their fishing net in from the sea. It is a traditional way of fishing on this part of the Ghanaian coast
The blame for falling fish numbers is attributed, in part, to a damaging fishing practice used by the industrial fleets. Called “saiko”, it began as an informal trading system in which unwanted fish caught by large ships – usually small species such as anchovies and sardinella – were exchanged at sea for goods such as fruit, water or even livestock brought by locals in canoes.
Fishing boats at Cape Coast. In this part of Ghana, coastal communities depend on the daily catch for their livelihoods
The system has since evolved into a highly organised, lucrative – and illegal – industry. Industrial trawlers deliberately target smaller fish normally reserved for artisanal fishers using illegal nets, according to a report from the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF). Up to 90% of these industrial ships operate under Ghana’s flag but are linked to Chinese owners, the report found.
Out at sea, under the cover of darkness, trawlers transfer tonnes of iced fish to canoes. These fish are taken to shore and sold to local communities. In 2017, an estimated 100,000 tonnes of fish worth more than $50m (£45m) were traded through saiko.
A fishing boat heading out to sea from the port of Elmina. With fuel costs soaring, fishing is becoming more expensive while catches shrink
Some of these canoes come to shore in the ancient port town of Elmina, about 8 miles west of Cape Coast. The boats sometimes arrive with steam rising from them as the slabs of frozen fish begin to thaw. It is nearly impossible to photograph them, as people on the shore are quick to warn against taking any pictures of the illegal trade.
While the practice of saiko is generating profits – for trawler owners as well as for the Ghanaians who operate the canoes – the reality for the rest of the fishers in Cape Coast and other nearby fishing towns is bleak. People are struggling to cope with plunging fish populations, while marine ecosystems are being pushed to the point of collapse.
The crew of the Mesere Nyame Psalm 100 haul in their net after spending 14 hours at sea, top. Official data shows that more than 2.4 million people on Ghana’s coast live off fishing
Every day at dawn, the port at Cape Coast thrums with activity. Some fishers stand on the rocks, pulling on a rope to secure a fishing net – a traditional way of fishing in this part of Ghana. Others swim out to their wooden boats with supplies for a long day on the water.
Fishing here is not only becoming harder but also more expensive. “There is no business in the sea for me,” Tawia says. “Things are bad.” Fuel and crew costs quickly mount up and many fishing boat owners are burdened with debts they cannot pay off.
The boats are often partially crewed by children, as fishers try to cut overheads as their catches diminish
As fish become more scarce, some resort to illegal methods, such as using dynamite to stun or kill schools of fish, or fishing with lights to attract the plankton as bait for bigger fish – a technique linked to higher levels of bycatch. While these practices are forbidden in Ghanaian waters, there is little or no enforcement.
Others are turning to child labour to bring down costs. Every day, streams of children make their way towards Cape Coast’s fishing port from the surrounding communities. While some are dressed in school uniforms, others have ropes slung around their small frames, ready to work.
Kojo Kowaku, top, who fishes with his father at Cape Coast, with some of the day’s catch. Women preparing fish to be smoked, centre left. Smoked fish, centre right. Ama Mensima, a fishmonger, and her grandson Kojo Kowaku clean fresh fish on Cape Coast beach, above
These children’s lives revolve around the sea. They come from families that have fished for generations; their fate is interlinked with the health of the seas. Falling catches mean more nights going to bed hungry – and more children being pulled into the industry, signalling an end to their schooling.
Patrick, a 17-year-old fisher, fears for his future. With little education, he sees few options to make a living outside fishing. “I could have been in school. I could have pursued my dreams,” he says. “Who knows? Now I might have to try to reach Europe.”
Two brothers struggle under the weight of heavy ropes as they go to work on the fishing boats
On the beach at Cape Coast, Kwabena Taiwa, 17, is getting ready to take his boat out to the fishing nets. He is worried about what is happening to the fishing industry and frustrated at those resorting to illegal methods.
“My family and I are suffering because of the dwindling sea resources. I can’t use light or any of these bad practices. My conscience will not allow me,” he says.
Some believe there is still time to turn things around. The conservation organisation Hen Mpoano has been working with communities to teach better management methods to help rebuild fisheries. It also lobbies against saiko and pushes for Ghana to address illegal fishing through stronger monitoring and enforcement of laws.
The light hung under a boat to attract plankton, which draw fish such as shad and sardines. They in turn are preyed on by larger fish. Setting up the light to start the illegal fishing, above right. The crew drops one end of the net and sails in a wide circle, unfurling it as they go. They close the net like a giant drawstring bag, trapping the fish inside
But there is a long way to go. Last year, the EU issued Ghana with a “yellow card” for failing to monitor and control Ghanaian-flagged fishing vessels, among other problems. This means it risks being labelled as a “non-cooperating country” in the fight against illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.
“Our livelihoods are in trouble,” says Ama Mensima, a fishmonger on Cape Coast beach. “Our lives depend on fishing and it’s getting harder and harder.”
Crowds of onlookers greet the returning fishing boats in the hope of getting a share of the catch
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