How illegal ‘saiko’ fishing is fuelling the collapse of Ghana’s fisheries
Along Ghana’s 330 mile coastline, the ocean provides food and income for millions of people.
In the last half-century, industrial vessels have flocked to these waters, trawling the sea for fish to export overseas.
Now an illegal practice, known locally as saiko, is pushing Ghana’s fisheries to the brink.
Saiko is the local name for a particularly destructive form of illegal fishing, where foreign trawlers target the staple catch of Ghanaian canoe fishers. It is then transferred to specially adapted canoes out at sea, and sold back to the fishing communities.
This used to be a practice whereby canoes would buy the unwanted by-catch of industrial vessels. However, the practice has developed into lucrative organised crime. Trawlers are now illegally targeting what should be by-catch, which they are not licensed to fish for. They then sell this back to the local people – who are forced to buy it, because as a direct result of saiko, they are struggling to catch enough fish to sustain their livelihoods.
These catches, which often contain juvenile fish, are landed by the saiko canoes for onward sale to local markets. This has severe implications for Ghana’s small-scale fishing industry – which is critical to food security and provides significantly more jobs than the saiko industry.
Saiko is illegal, attracting a fine of between US$100,000 and US$2 million. The minimum fine increases to US$1 million where catches involve juvenile fish or the use of prohibited fishing gear.
Although saiko activities are widespread, there is a very low risk of arrest and sanction. Cases are generally settled through opaque out of court settlement processes, and there are no known examples of the minimum fines being paid.
EJF’s investigations have also revealed that 90% of the trawlers are owned by Chinese companies. Foreign ownership is illegal under Ghanian law, so the trawlers are operating under front companies. But the fishers we spoke to describe Chinese ownership as an ‘open secret’.
As saiko is an illegal and unreported fishing practice, there is limited information on the quantity of fish in the saiko trade, the composition of catches, and the implications for sustainable fisheries management. Stolen at Sea provides an overview of the current scale and impact of saiko, based on extensive quantitative and qualitative fieldwork in Ghana.
This study estimates that approximately 100,000 metric tonnes of fish were landed through saiko in 2017.
We estimate the value of this fish sold at sea to be between US$ 40.6 and US$ 50.7 million, and between US$ 52.7 and US$ 81.1 million when sold at the landing site.
These figures indicate that, up to now, the impact of the industrial trawl fleet on Ghana’s marine fisheries resources has been severely underestimated.
Combining saiko landings with official landings reported by the industrial trawl fleet of 67,205 metric tonnes, it is estimated that trawlers caught approximately 167,000 metric tonnes of fish in 2017. This suggests that just 40% of catches were landed legally and reported to the Fisheries Commission in 2017, despite observers being present on a number of vessels.
The magnitude of saiko landings highlights how the benefits to come from fishing are no longer being fairly distributed.
The saiko industry has expanded rapidly in recent years, at a time of severe declines in the catches of artisanal fishers. In 2017, around 80 saiko canoes landed the equivalent of over 55% of the landings of the entire artisanal sector. With the capacity to hold around 26 tonnes of fish, an average saiko canoe lands in a single trip the equivalent of approximately 450 artisanal fishing trips.
Saiko concentrates profits in the hands of a few individuals who have seen their bargaining power increase over time. Processors report being obliged to purchase saiko fish, despite making a loss due to spoilage, so as not to lose favour with saiko owners and risk future supply.
The employment provided by Ghana’s artisanal fishing sector dwarfs the number of individuals employed in the saiko trade. The artisanal sector provides direct employment for over 100,000 fishers across 292 landing sites in 186 coastal villages. In contrast, it is estimated that the saiko industry provides direct employment for up to 1,500 crew members, watchmen and hustlers at the three landing sites of Elmina, Apam and Axim, although this is likely to be an over-estimate.
ENDING SAIKO IN GHANA
Enforcement must be intensified, and offenders sanctioned with the full force of the law to ensure deterrence. This should include any foreign beneficiaries that are found to be profiting from the trade. More broadly, it is imperative that the fishing effort of the trawl fleet be reduced to sustainable levels.
Around 200 coastal villages in Ghana, and over 10% of the population, depend on marine fisheries for their income. Should the resource disappear, mass migration, higher food prices and social upheaval along the coast can be considered a very real prospect.
Our report calls on the Ghanian government to take action to end this damaging practice, and save Ghana’s struggling fishing sector.