Vessel safety, increasing fuel cost and the inability to meet new licensing requirements have combined to ground the operations of many commercial fishing vessels operating in the country.
There is also the wrong use of fishing gear, against which the authorities have waged a raging war.
Currently, only four out of 76 commercial fishing vessels are fully certified by the Ministry of Fisheries and Aquaculture Development and presently undertaking fishing expeditions.
The effect is that fish harvesting at the Tema Fishing Harbour fell by 50 per cent in February this year, recording 2,650.53 tonnes, as against the January 2022 production of 5,383 tonnes.
Since May 2022, the fishing harbour has not equalled the January record, with industrial vessels accounting for between 3,901 and 4,100 tonnes of fish.
A United States Department of Agriculture report, titled: “Ghana Seafood Report”, published on March 22, 2022 suggested that Ghana imported about 600,000 tonnes of fish, valued at $200 million.
The fish crisis has given cause for dealers to increase the importation of fish and fisheries products, thereby increasing cost in the local retail markets.
Some fish brokers and sellers who participated in a Daily Graphic survey revealed that they had been using truck services to cart fish, mostly from Cote d’Ivoire and Sierra Leone to supplement frozen imports packed in large cold stores at the harbour.
The trawl sector, which is licensed to capture demersal fishes (groupers, threadfins, silver bellies, white fish, mullets) have, over the years, been under scrutiny over allegations of the use of wrong gear to harvest surface level and juvenile fishes, which is passed on to Saiko traders (persons involved in illegal transhipment at sea).
Ministry tackles illegality
But the Minister of Fisheries and Aquaculture, Mavis Hawa Koomson, has described the importation of fish via trucks as illegal.
In an interview with the Daily Graphic at the Tema Fishing Harbour last Wednesday, she promised that the ministry, in collaboration with the Customs Division of the Ghana Revenue Authority and National Security, would clamp down on the illegality.
“While we understand that people in business need to earn income to pay their workers, they cannot undertake such importations without acquiring approval certification from the ministry,” Ms Koomson said.
Similarly, she said, a gear modification and replacement programme presently in place was meant to prevent the harvesting of the small pelagic, which was threatened with depletion.
“We do not want the situation where most of the trawl vessels continue to use unapproved gear, such as mosquito nets, for fishing,” she said.
For that reason, she said, the ministry had introduced pre-departure inspection for licensed trawlers that had met all the requirements and had their licences renewed.
The general lack of safety among majority of the vessels has been blamed for accidents, including that involving the MV Comforter II which capsized on Friday, May 6, 2022, killing 11 people, including the captain of the vessel.
Ms Koomson underscored the need for a serious overhaul of vessels which were in very deplorable conditions as the country moved to sign a new international treaty.
The observation by the Daily Graphic of some of the vessels confirmed what industry watchers said was the existence of two separate worlds.
One of the ‘worlds’ was for local seafarers, who had no proper sleeping place and had to endure insanitary conditions, while the other ‘world’ was for the expatriate crew that allegedly enjoyed every privilege associated with the job.
The cabins or bunks, in most cases, had inadequate protective beams, while the watertight doors that were to prevent the ingress (access) of water from one compartment to another in case of an accident or flooding were equally in very bad condition, requiring total replacement to protect lives and property while at sea.
According to the Ghana Industrial Trawlers Association (GITA), majority of the vessels had not been operating at optimal levels, largely due to the depreciation of the Ghanaian cedi against the major foreign trading currencies.
“When the dollar rose from GH¢5 to as high as GH¢15, it only worsened an already precarious situation,” the GITA Board Secretary, Nana Dr Edwin Kelly Ofori-Ani, told the Daily Graphic.
He also pointed out that prior to the closed season in June and July, the sector had projected around GH¢8 per litre for its fuel input.
“By October, we had to revise the projection to about GH¢13, which is still lower than the market value presently,” he added.
Dr Ofori-Ani said as of June this year, the trawlers were losing GH¢500,000 on each fishing expedition, which offered no motivation to continue going to sea.
“I don’t know how many vessels may wish to go into production under these prevailing circumstances where we are paying hugely for fuel,” he said.
In an interview with the Daily Graphic, the Deputy Director-General of the Ghana Maritime Authority (GMA), Yaw Antwi, warned that Ghana’s fish exports could suffer if regulations were not enforced.
He explained that the GMA did not want to see the fishing industry grounded when the Cape Town agreement had come into force and a chunk of the country’s fish exports were rejected by the international market on the back of the existing warnings that had been issued to the country by the European Union (EU).
Again, he pointed out that the inhumane conditions facing Ghanaian sailors on board those vessels required that the GMA enforce strict rules to protect them.
“It is not the case that the authority wants to deprive anybody of his livelihood. Rather, we want to create an enabling environment, such that the industry will continue to thrive and become sustainable and attractive for persons coming in, not to exploit our people,” Mr Antwi said.
The Deputy Director in charge of Surveys and Inspections at the GMA, Capt. William Eson Thompson, blamed fishing vessel operators for failing to raise their game.
“We realised that most of the vessels failed to take advantage of the closed fishing season to undertake maintenance to ensure that all safety issues were dealt with. It was only when they realised that the Fisheries Ministry was not going to compromise on the issuance of licences without the GMA certification that they decided to come to us,” he said.
The life-raft, a life-saving appliance on board vessels, which is deployed to temporarily accommodate a crew when a ship is lost at sea, was malfunctioning in most of the vessels, with some of them tied by ropes, Capt. Thompson disclosed.
He said until the recent decision by the ministry to inspect the GMA safety certification before issuing licences for vessels, “most of the companies did not care about putting some of these important components in good condition”.
Capt. Thompson said the GMA was about to sign onto the implementation of new safety regulations for vessels, in line with the Cape Town Agreement.
He indicated that the authority had held discussions with the relevant stakeholders on raising the safety standards in the industry, bearing in mind the May incident involving the Comforter II vessel.
The Cape Town Agreement is to protect the lives of fishers’ at sea by establishing standards for vessel construction and related seaworthiness.
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