ACCRA, GHANA - On a beach in Ghana's capital, Accra, fishermen from the Nungua community are waiting for the vibrantly painted canoes to return from sea with their catch of small fish to be sold at the local market.
In Ghana, about 2 million people rely on these fish for their food and income. But trawlers, run almost exclusively by Chinese operators using Ghanaian front companies, are illegally targeting this staple catch and selling it back to local communities at a profit in a practice called saiko, according to a report from local NGO Hen Mpoano and the Environmental Justice Foundation.
Kofi Agbogah, director of the NGO, says saiko used to just be a regular practice where fishermen would meet trawlers at sea and exchange the trawler's catch for goods they were carrying.
"Today it has become a multimillion-dollar business where trawlers are harvesting fish that they are not licensed to harvest and sell it back to some canoes — I will call those canoe business people," he said. "They are not traditional fishers. They just go out there without nets, they buy the fish from the trawlers, and come and sell it in some designated ports."
The report found that in 2017, industrial trawlers caught almost the same amount of fish as the local fishing sector when illegal and unreported catches were taken into account. It also found the practice of saiko also destroyed the livelihoods of local fishermen.
Fisherman Frederick Bortey wants the government to banish those behind illegal fishing.
"My children are not getting money to go to school," he lamented. "So it is very painful that we are talking about it. They can try and sack those people for us. We would like that, so we can fish, too, in our own country."
Bortey and his colleagues say they also face fellow fishermen undertaking illegal practices using fishing lights, where a light is beamed into the water to attract fish.
Ghana's government says it is focused on tackling such issues. But if nothing happens soon, Agbogah warns that ordinary people will suffer.
"What happens if the fishermen don't fish anymore?" He said their homes will become "coastal ghost towns" as young people "begin to move across the desert in an attempt to go to Europe."