A formerly traditional barter system in Ghana, where bycatch was exchanged for farm produce, has become a highly lucrative backdoor transaction system overseen by Chinese-backed trawlers, threatening the livelihoods of traditional fishers.
Industrial trawlers operating in Ghana's water and manned by Chinese crew are heavily involved in a practice known as saiko, Environmental Justice Foundation Executive Director Steve Trent told SeafoodSource. Saiko is the practice of illegally transferring frozen stocks of bycatch from industrial trawlers to small canoes for sale. According to EJF, the industrialization of the process is depleting stocks traditionally fished by artisanal fishers, putting those stocks at risk of collapse.
In a recent report published by EJF in partnership with Ghanaian NGO Hen Mpoano, the illegal practice is shown to have siphoned off 100,000 metric tons (MT) of fish worth USD 34 to 65 million (EUR 29 to 56 million) from the industry in 2017. Ghana's fishing industry brought in USD 400 million (EUR 344 milliion) in reported revenues in 2014.
The practice of saiko “puts industrial fishing vessels in direct competition with small-scale fishers for catches of species such as sardinella that are a staple food for local communities. Having effectively 'stolen’ fish from canoe fishers, saiko operators sell these back to the same fishing communities for profit,” the EJF report stated. There is evidence that industrial trawlers are now deliberately targeting bycatch species, including juveniles, in order to sell to saiko.
“Saiko is illegal under Ghanaian law, attracting a fine of between USD 100,000 (EUR 86,000) and USD 2 million (EUR 1.7 million). The minimum fine increases to USD 1 million (EUR 860,000) where catches involve juvenile fish or the use of prohibited fishing gear,” EJF's report said.
Trent told SeafoodSource via email that a large number of the industrial trawlers have some Chinese involvement, although it is illegal for foreigners to have the majority ownership of trawlers operating in Ghana's waters.
“As the control of fishing activities invariably lies with the Chinese (rather than local) partner, and with the majority of vessels captained by Chinese nationals, Chinese interests are likely to be central to decision-making and oversight in the saiko business,” Trent said.
In August 2018, a saiko boat and crew were arrested, but “there have been difficulties identifying the industrial trawler that caught and transshipped the fish in the case,” Trent said. And where industrial trawlers are caught or fined, there tends to be a lack of transparency and accountability with regard to sanctions, he added.
“Saiko has evolved into a business in its own right,” Trent said. “Saiko canoes are different to those used by artisanal fishers, being specially designed to transport frozen blocks of fish from trawlers out at sea back to shore. The wealth made by saiko canoe owners has attracted not only people active in the fishing industry, but many outsiders formerly not active in fisheries.”