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Audio: Ghana's Close Season, a Scientific Perspective.

A typical Tuesday morning at Elmina, Ghana

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Ghana's fishery sector has a glorious past. Historically, the country's fishing culture has been of great importance to its people and across West Africa. However, excessive fishing along the coast of Ghana has led to the depletion of fish stock.

Whiles industrial fleets indulged in trawling within the Inshore Exclusive Zone, artisanal fishers employed unconventional methods such as chemical and light fishing with careless abandon. These unorthodox methods of fishing have adversely affected fish stock, compelling the country to import about half of its fish stock for local consumption.

Apart from depleting the fish stock and poisoning fishes that are meant for consumption, the practice by these fleets have also led to the disruption of the ecosystem and food chain.

Decades of neglect resulting from weak law enforcement and political interference has led to the phenomenon of overfishing and over capacity. Ghana's cheap fishing license fee rate among the 10 countries implementing the West African Regional Fisheries Project with commercial fishing activities has also been identified to be a factor for the depleted stock. On the same league table with Mauritius, Senegal, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Cote d'Ivoire, Ghana's license rate of 35 dollars for industrial fishing vessels has been identified to be the lowest rate among these countries, thereby attracting the attention of other vessels which hitherto operated in countries with demanding conditions and requirements. There are currently about 75 licensed industrial trawl fleets in Ghana, a figure which far exceeds the requirement of the European Union of 54 trawlers in a country's territorial waters.

For a better appreciation of the challenge, there are about 14,000 artisanal vessels with an estimated annual catch of about 254, 000 metric tons of fish.

The sector which employs about 10% of the country's over 29 million population is now ailing badly and coastal communities are the worse affected.

But now the government is taking the bull by the horn.  As part of measures to rebuild the stock, the government of Ghana is closing the sea to all fishing activities for one month.

It is the first time this is being done for all sectors of fishing. The close season is part of controlling strategies that have been spelt out in Ghana’s fisheries management plan which was published in 2015 as part of measures to rebuild stocks to 90,000 metric tons by 2030.

The government has earmarked August for the closure. However, a significant number of fishers across the country are kicking against the measure.

Egya Ewur is a fisherman at Shama in the Western region of Ghana. With two children and the sole provider of his brothers' children, he says government must reconsider such a decision. He disagrees with the implementation of the ‘closed season’ saying, unlike government workers, if we don’t go to sea for one day, we will starve. He adds that ‘government should reconsider its decision; otherwise it will not hear any good news from us.’

Egya Ewur

Egya Ewur, sharing his concerns on the closed season.

The fishery sector use to be one of the booming sectors of the economy and generated massive employment for people. It was one among a few sectors in which the economy was recording trade surpluses. It is not so now.

The decline in fish has compounded the already ominous unemployment situation in the country. Leaning on his canoe and mending his net, fisherman Kwesi Anum pensively considers the far reaching implications of the closed season on the social life of the people in his small village of New Amanful.

When we don't get fish, people take to stealing. Some parents even commit suicide. The little girls take to prostitution with men who are old enough to be their fathers just because there is no money to send them to school. In a situation like this, teenage pregnancy goes up.

The chairman of the Ghana National Canoes and Fisherman's Council, Nana Joojo Solomon also paints a gloomy picture of what could happen if government implements the policy. He says the policy has wider national security implications. ‘We have all manner of people from all over the world here in our country because of oil and gas. Our girls are here, they will be going into prostitution and drugs.’

A February 2016 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) states that, in 1999 production from marine fisheries was almost 420,000 tonnes – but had declined to 202,000 tonnes by 2014.

The sector's contribution to the economy has dropped sharply from 50.6 percent in the third quarter of 2017 to -8.1 percent in the first quarter of 2018.

In the face of these concerns, the Chairman of the Scientific and Technical Working Group providing a scientific base for the close season, Prof Kobina Yankson says it is critical that urgent measures be carried out to forestall an imminent collapse of the resources. He justifies the need for the closure to commence in August.

He explains that ‘the small pelagics which constitute close to 70% of the marine fish landings are at the verge of collapse. In fisheries science, if your catches get to 10% of your historical maximum, then you cannot recover. We are hovering around the 10% in Ghana as far as the small pelagics are concerned.’

The month of August in the calendar of Ghanaian fishers is unique.  Since time immemorial, August has heralded the bumper season. There are feverish preparations and huge loans are normally contracted to expand and mend fishing gears in wait of August. However, it is in August that government plans to close the sea.

 As a result, some fishermen are calling on government to consider a different month for the closure. Fishermen Ekow Esuon and Kojo Kaya are impressing on government to provide them with alternative means of livelihoods.

Whether we catch fish or not, I still have to give my family spending money. Now government wants to close the sea in August. If government spells out any employment plan for us, then we don't care what government would want to do with the sea. This is the only work we do. Government should have informed us long ago, not now. They said.

 However, Prof Yankson says August has been chosen for the benefit of the sector. According to him, the small pelagics come inshore to breed in August. He said if the fishers go to sea at that time, ‘then the population of fish will be deprived from recruiting.’

In as much as this planned initiative has been applauded, Prof Dennis Aheto of Centre for Coastal Management, University of Cape Coast says there are still issues to be ironed out. According to him, the policy is not scientifically packaged. Arguing from a coastal management point of view, he said there are opportunities ‘to close areas to scientifically investigate where Ghana’s spawning grounds are within the ocean, so that instead of closing the sea, fish breeding grounds could rather be closed’.

The discussion has also raised broader social concerns of added burden of unemployment. Prof Aheto says apart from the 10% of Ghana’s population who are employed by the artisanals, there are about 75 percent of Ghanaians who are crew onboard the industrial vessels and they would also become unemployed.  He says the implementation of such a policy must be one that will provide long term adequate sensitization about the benefits and the challenges that come with it coupled with other management interventions. He is also calling for intermittent warnings and punishment for fishers who will defy the orders of the government during this period.

Nana Joojo Solomon is of the assertion that asking fishermen to close the season comes with a lot of problems and so government should also be seen to be addressing some of these issues. He proposes that government considers certain measures that could cushion fishermen during the period of closure.

Fishing communities predominantly depend on the fishing sector for their total livelihood. In such communities, “no fish means, no business”. Women who engage in petty trading activities are already counting their losses. With a look of uncertainty and a chocking voice, Hawa fears her porridge business will grind to a halt should government carry through with the policy.

Efua Akyere is similarly worried. She has taken a loan facility and she is expected to make weekly payment. She is afraid her creditors will come after her as a result of the closed season.

If successfully implemented, there are further concerns that fishermen may employ desperate measures to ground the effort of government to zero. Prof. Aheto is therefore calling for the engagement of other measures to manage the post closure period. He maintains thatclosing the sea for one month can bring about sustainability only on condition that other management measures are put in place so that the fishers don't go back to the illegalities.

The 2016 FAO report states that some of the challenges hampering growth in the sector include over-exploitation of marine stocks by industrial fleets. The Ghana Small-scale Fishers, Traders and Processors have said that landings of small pelagic fish are at their lowest recorded level since 1980.

Again, the activities of Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported (IUU) fishing are estimated to cost the economy over US$100million annually.

The government of Ghana must take the available data seriously and take bold actions to save the sector. Government should enforce stricter penalties for those who use light, chemicals and other explosives in fishing.

 Government must resource the Ghana Navy to patrol the sea and offenders given due punishment without any political interferences. These measures if properly and consistently implemented will go a long way to help address the depletion of the fish stock.

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This story was funded by Earth Journalism Network.

SOURCE: ATL FM NEWS/ Mary Ama Bawa