It’s the classic postcard image of Ghana: brightly colored, narrow wooden fishing boats pulling into the dock of seaside village, bringing in the daily catch. But increasingly this way of life is under threat, with a new investigation showing how Chinese vessels engaged in illegal fishing are depleting stocks, sometimes even selling the fish back to the local communities whose livelihoods and food security have been undermined.
China is the world’s biggest fish producer and has the largest distant-water fleet (CDWF) — officially 2,701 vessels but likely thousands more — many of which engage in high instances of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, according to an NGO, the Environmental Justice Foundation.
The group’s report this week found that some 90% of Ghana’s industrial trawl fleet is actually owned by Chinese corporations using local “front” companies to register as Ghanaian and get around the law.
“EJF has identified continuous instances of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and human rights abuses associated with the CDWF in West Africa, especially Ghana, where Chinese companies use elaborate schemes to hide the ultimate beneficial ownership of their so-called Ghanaian domestic vessels. These schemes include joint ventures, shell companies and subsidiaries,” it said.
While the CDWF also operates in waters off Asia and elsewhere, its activities in Africa account for 78.5% of its approved offshore fishery projects, EJF found when analyzing data from the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs.
CDWF bottom-trawlers catch an estimated 2.35 million tons of fish a year in West Africa, accounting for 50% of China’s total distant water catch and worth some $5 billion.
China’s gain is often to the detriment of countries like Ghana, Sierra Leone, the Gambia, Senegal and Guinea-Bissau, EJF says, with the highest number of illegal fishing incidents reported in the West African region between 2015 and 2019.
“Illegal fishing and overcapacity in the Ghanaian trawl sector is having catastrophic impacts on coastal communities across the country,” EJF’s Chief Operating Officer Max Schmid told VOA by phone, with some 80-90 percent of local fishers in Ghana reporting a decline in income over the last five years.
Women — who are usually responsible for processing and selling the local catch — are often hit hardest by the loss of income, turning to transactional sex, according to EJF, a phenomenon locally dubbed “fish for sex.”
Meanwhile, locals working on the Chinese trawlers often experience human rights abuses, with ten Ghanaians interviewed by EJF saying that they had all “experienced or witnessed physical abuse by Chinese captains.”
It’s also becoming more and more common for the Chinese vessels to catch small pelagic fish, which are the main population caught by small-scale fishers, and then sell them back to communities for profit, the organization found.
In Ghana, neither the Navy nor the Ministry of Fisheries and Aquaculture Development responded to emailed request for comment.
The Chinese Embassy in Accra did not answer phone calls from VOA or respond to emailed requests for comment.
However, China has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, with one article in the state-affiliated Global Times newspaper last year “refuting Western media rumors of "China's illegal fishing" and saying Beijing had introduced moratoriums on squid fishing and had in fact, “tightened its oversight of deep-sea fishing vessels in recent years.”
Another piece in the paper said “the country has done more than any other to protect the sea's environment and resources.” Separately, China’s state news agency Xinhua has pointed to Chinese-funded developments, such as a new fishing port complex in Ghanaian capital Accra, saying it will “greatly improve the working and living conditions for local fishermen.”