Cape Coast, Sept. 16, GNA – The over-exploitation of marine resources and depletion of fisheries has become a major challenge for governments worldwide, especially in West Africa, where fishing contributes significantly to the regional economy.That is no less true in Ghana, where the government has long subsidized fishing in an effort to reduce the cost of fishing for small-scale fishers to improve upon their livelihoods.Fisheries experts have proposed a two-prong approach to remedy the problem. First, they say fishermen need to deal with overfishing and irresponsible fishing practices. Second, they encourage policymakers to employ measures, such as a seasonal ban on fishing and support for fish sanctuaries to rebuild fish stocks that have been declining.Yet the solutions put forward by the experts currently conflict with subsidies governments’ are providing to the fisheries sector that allow fishermen to reach fishing grounds quickly and access grounds that might not have been accessible before, leading to the depletion of fish stocks.Often provided through reduced prices for fuel and outboard motors, fishing subsidies in Ghana do little to incentivize more sustainable fishing habits or conservation efforts, says, Kofi Agbogah, fisheries adviser to the USAID-supported Ghana Sustainable Fisheries Management Project (SFMP).To change that, the World Trade Organization (WTO), of which Ghana is a member, is pushing hard to end harmful fisheries subsidies by the end of 2019. Started in 2001, the WTO effort is based on the idea that there is an environmental imperative to reform subsidies. Isabel Jarret, Manager of the Reducing Harmful Fisheries Subsidies program at Pew Charitable Trust, also asserts that harmful subsidies could be trade distorting, the elimination of which has been one of the WTO’s main aims.The question arising from the WTO negotiations is what are the implications for local fishing communities and fisheries policy reforms efforts?Jarret contends that an agreement to stop or reduced subsidies through the WTO would help governments channel monies traditionally put towards subsidies to areas that would be of utmost benefit to local fishers and their communities.It would also help policymakers explore the best possible ways of making the ocean give their people more in a sustainable way, she says.However, Jarret was quick to add that for any subsidy agreement to have the necessary impact of benefiting fishing communities, particularly in Least Developed Countries (LDC), the WTO must, as part of its negotiations, agree on sanctions for members who violate the imminent agreement. She suggested that trade restrictions can be imposed on members that breach the agreement while urging the WTO to explore other approaches that would aid in the successful implementation of any deal to end to subsidies.Ghana’s fisheries crisisGhana is home to about 13,000 artisanal, or canoe, fishermen; 400 semi-industrial (inshore) fishermen; and 75 industrial trawlers, according to the country’s Fisheries Management Plan. There are also 334 artisanal, seven semi-industrial and two industrial landing sites in the country.A recent report by the Environmental Justice Foundation and Hen Mpoano stated that Ghana accounts for about 11 percent of total artisanal canoes in West Africa, making it one of the most important small-scale fleets in the region. The country’s Ministry of Fisheries and Aquaculture Development (MoFAD) estimates that more than 10 percent of the population is engaged in the fisheries sector, the majority of whom are artisanal fisher-folks and fishmongers.Despite the large number of people employed by the sector, its contribution to Ghana’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has been abysmal in recent years, falling from five percent of GDP to less than two percent.Records at the Ghana Statistical Service (GSS) show that the sector contributed 2.5 percent to GDP and 2.3 per cent in 2009 and 2010, respectively. This percentage fell to 1.7 per cent in 2011 and has not seen any improvement.According to fisheries economists, such as Professor Rashid Sumaila, Director of the Fisheries Economics Research Unit at the University of British Columbia Fisheries Centre, subsidies are contributing immensely to the poor performance of the fishing sector because they do not encourage sustainable fishing.“We need to really think hard before we give subsidies that lead to overfishing because it comes back to bite us. Because without the fish, there will be no fishermen, no fishing money, jobs, food,” Dr. Sumaila stated. “I don’t care if you give people money to go on holidays, but my point is, just don’t destroy the resource.”According to Sumalia, the provision of subsidies, particularly on fuel, tends to encourage wider access to fishing ground and goes to support unsustainable usage of fisheries resources and the further depletion of fish stocks. This means lower fish catches for artisanal fishermen, something that threatens both their food security and incomes.The 2016 Sustainable Fisheries Management Project (SFMP) Fish Stock Report, for example, reveals that total landings have been in sharp decline since 2000, reaching their lowest level in 2015 at 19,608 tonnes. That’s just 14 percent of the highest recorded landings from 1996 of 138,955 tonnes.“Usually at this time of the year, I will not be here. I will be at sea, and I come home with plenty of fish. Now see, here I am sitting here wondering what the future holds because even if I go, I may come home empty handed,” said Kobina Mensah, an artisanal fisherman from Elmina.Fisheries subsidies add to other unsustainable practicesIn past decades, Ghana’s artisanal fisheries sector has been heavily subsidized as a way of minimizing the high cost of fuel and the cost of fishing to promote growth and protect employment as well as incomes of fishing communities to reduce the poverty rate in those communities.The subsidies come in addition to other factors that are driving fishing beyond sustainable limits, such as open and free access to fisheries and non-compliance with laws and regulations that, for example, prevent the use of explosives and chemicals and monofilament nets, restrict the operation of beach seines close to estuaries, the landing of undersized or juvenile fish and offshore petroleum activities.While subsidies generally are not bad, the type that go toward enhancing fishing activities are deemed harmful, say experts.Some examples of harmful subsidies cited by Dr. Sumaila are those that go toward fishing port construction and renovation, improving fish landing site infrastructure and subsidies for fishing gear and engines.But from theory and from what he has observed on the ground, Dr. Sumaila said the most harmful of the subsidies were fuel subsidies, which reduce the cost of fuel, enabling fishers to travel greater distances to access more resources and use more powerful engines.The fuel subsidy for the fisheries sector was introduced in 1992 to help relieve operational fishing costs through a heavily subsidized product called “premix fuel,” and the National Premix Committee and Landing Beach Committees (LBCs) were established to ensure equitable distribution of subsidized premix fuel.Currently, of the US$144 million Ghana pays annually on capacity-enhancing subsidies, such as fuel and engine subsidies and tax waivers, US$ 63 million go to fuel, said Dr. Sumaila.“Government subsidies on premix fuel, outboard motors and other fishing gear have accelerated development of the sector – supporting and developing the local fishing industry, promoting sector growth, protecting employment and income in fishing communities,” said Agbogah from the Ghana Sustainable Fisheries Management Project (SFMP).But the continued increase in subsidies is not a good practice, he said, calling it “very unsustainable.”A 2016 report by SFMP stated that the total fisheries fuel subsidy was US$47 million, up from US$33 million in 2003.Rather than incentivizing overfishing, Dr. Sumaila explains that subsidies can help support sustainable fishing by financing management, research, technological improvements and other activities in the common interest.But, citing recent research during an interview with the GNA, Dr. Sumaila said subsidies were driving unprofitable and unsustainable fishing activities across the world, detrimentally affecting the livelihoods and food security of millions of people who depend on the fisheries sector.According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), around 30 percent of global fish stock are overfished or fished beyond sustainable limits, while another 60 percent are currently being fished at their maximum sustainable point.Jarret from Pew said almost two thirds of the world’s commercial fish stocks are either already fished at maximum levels or are overfished.Many fishermen in Ghana agree that capacity enhancing subsidies are contributing to the problem of overfishing and the subsequent depletion of stock. However, they are in a fix, because they also think that stopping the subsidies completely would bring untold hardship upon their communities.“Our fishing industry is dying,” said Joseph Paintsil from Moree in Ghana’s central region, recounting how the method of fishing had changed radically in the last two decades in the midst of intense competition for limited fisheries resources.“Fishing is the only trade for us because we could not get access to education,” Joseph said. “I will also say that people who do not have the skill to go fishing are nowadays going to sea because of the high level of unemployment in this country.”Joseph said he thinks the subsidies draw more people onto the sea, but he was also not ready for them to be halted.WTO negotiationsOngoing negotiations at the WTO aimed at ending harmful fisheries subsidies have so far centered on three possible solutions.First is the idea that countries commit to not subsidizing those found to be engaged in illegal fishing. The second idea is for governments to commit to not providing subsidies to stocks of fish that are already over-exploited. Governments would therefore have to strictly monitor what the recipients of their subsidies have been fishing. The third idea would set a limit on the general amount of subsidies that countries could provide to their respective fisheries.Even if rules are put in place, however, they would need to be effectively enforced to achieve the maximum results since overfishing is often enabled by weak fisheries management and inadequate control, said Alice Tipping, lead of Fisheries Subsidies at the International Institute for Sustainable Development.“And the challenge comes when in the fisheries, you don’t have strong control over the total amount of all the fish catch and each fisherman fish just a little bit more, which is enabled by subsidies,” she stated.“If there isn’t good control of who catches what in the fisheries sector, that means people with the larger boat not only catch more but people with smaller boats and with the subsidies, they can catch more,” she added.Harmful fishing subsidies drain fish resources and undermine the ability of the fisheries industry to keep growing, Tipping said. And “at the end of the day if there is no fish, there is not going to be anything for the industry for growth.”Jarret said it’s important for the government of Ghana to explore how the country could benefit from a WTO agreement to end harmful subsidies.“The benefits would be that the fish stock will be able to rebound, there would be less fishing and potentially that could mean more fish for the future and ultimately better livelihoods for Ghanaian fishers,” she said.The Deputy Minister of Fisheries and Aquaculture Development, Francis Ato Cudjoe, and the Executive Director of the Fisheries Commission in Ghana, Micheal Arthur- Dadzie, who are privy to the ongoing WTO negotiations, did not respond to a request to have their take on the matter.According to Jarret, research suggests that a very ambitious agreement in which all WTO member states would commit to removing harmful subsidies could see fish stock rebound by more than 33 percent.Such an ambitious agreement, Jarret explained would see governments commit to ensuring that the only allowable subsidies were aimed at improving biodiversity conservation, including programmes to reduce the size of fishing fleets, to improve monitoring and control, or to promote scientific research.But for member states like Ghana, where coastal communities account for a significant portion of the voting population, eliminating subsidies could be politically unpopular and sparks fears losing votes during elections. And that has, in part, made negotiations difficult.From beginning of 2019, negotiators have been meeting at the WTO headquarters in Geneva to try to reach an agreement on ending harmful fisheries subsidies by the end of the year. In closing remarks at the latest round of negotiations in July, Ambassador Roberto Zapata Barradas, the chair of the Negotiating Group, urged representatives of member states in attendance to be ready to negotiate compromises and focus on real differences rather than their preferences adding that, the keywords for progress would be pragmatism and simplicity.Charting a sustainable pathMany experts argue that harmful subsidies need to be redirected away from incentivizing the over exploitation of marine resources and toward supporting sustainable employment and the livelihoods and incomes of fishermen.One way of doing so, said Tipping, is through cash transfers to fishermen to undertake “experimental fishing” and to support fishers’ incomes.“If the government of Ghana wants to ensure that people have jobs in future, and better livelihoods, then it has to stop giving people money to overfish,” she said.Jarret noted that some scientists have suggested that paying fishermen to stop fishing is better than paying them to overfish, though it has not been successfully tried yet.Like Dr. Sumaila, she said subsidies could be used in different ways, such as helping to provide better fisheries management, stock assessment and water conservation.Dr. Sumaila did laud Ghana for some efforts to stop overfishing, such as successfully implementing a one-month seasonal ban on fishing for artisanal fishers. He said the country could build on that ban to ensure more sustainable fisheries, noting that a comprehensive seasonal ban would allow fish to lay their eggs and bring forth new fish to replenish the stock.He also suggested that instead of giving fuel subsidies to fishermen to go far out to sea, the money could be used to pay fishermen to clean up the sea. In this way, he said, fishermen would earn money while providing a better environment for growth and development.“Personally I never argue that we take the subsidy money out of the community, I want the money to stay in the community,” Sumaila said. “We need more money in the communities, but when we get money in there we should use it in ways that help the community not only now but also in the future,” he said.This article was supported by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network as part of the West Africa Fisheries project.
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