Gone Fishing

What does the delicious piece of tuna sashimi you are about to pop in your mouth have to do with microfinance and alleviating poverty in Ghana? Perhaps more than you would expect.

 At a recent staff meeting at the Christian Rural Aid Network (CRAN), one of Kiva’s Field Partners, a loan officer from the Elmina branch said that the recent ban on light fishing was affecting their loan disbursements and repayments from some clients. My ears perked up.

The busy Elmina fish market

Elmina is a major fishing hub in Cape Coast. The government recently passed a law to ban the use of powerful lights at night and other harmful practices such as the use of cyanide or dynamites and small-mesh nets to fish (Light fishing and the use of small-mesh nets usually entrap small fish which haven’t had the chance to mature). This has of course, led to howls of protest from some fisher folk. However, there are many others who recognize this as a commendable and brave move by the Ghanaian government to save the fishing stocks – and livelihoods of those in the industry – over the long run.

All in a day's work: fishermen hauling in a canoe

But the problem of overfishing also comes from across the seas: for decades, illegal fishing by European and Asian trawlers has depleted West African fishing stocks. Whilst the Ghanaian government has sold access rights to foreign fleets to fish in deeper waters (at least 30m) in exchange for much needed foreign exchange and revenue, many trawlers circumvent these rules by sneaking into shallower waters at night, destroying coastal habitats and local fishers’ equipment; or using illegal (and destructive) fishing methods, such as pair trawling (a very efficient method of trawling, using two boats). Pitted against these mammoth vessels with superior technology, the majority of Ghanaian fishermen don’t stand a chance in their canoes… and neither do the fish.

 Cape Coast’s slave-trading days may be long gone, but the historic town is no stranger to modern exploitation.”

- Pirate Trawlers Gutting Ghana’s Fishing Industry, The National

 It is estimated that foreign trawlers illegally harvest US$1 billion worth of fish every year from West Africa. These nations lack the capability to patrol their waters.

 The impact on the Ghanaian people

Valerie, 18, scaling fish near the Cape Coast Castle

The fishing sector accounts for 5 per cent of Ghana’s Gross Domestic Product and fish provides Ghanaians with 60 per cent of their protein intake. It was once considered a major regional fishing nation, exporting US$56 million worth of fish in 1996. Today, supply has fallen behind domestic demand and the country is a net importer of fish.

 Some fishermen now sell food to foreign trawlers in return for fish. 

The next generation of fishermen? - children eagerly posing in Apam, a fishing village

With 10 per cent of the population – 2.2 million people – employed in this sector, the failure of the fishing industry will have very serious consequences for the country. Over the years, there have been fewer and fewer jobs in fishing and peripheral sectors. Many unemployed fishermen have moved to cities to look for employment, but the jobs that they are suited for are far and few between. In the region, smaller catches have been blamed on immigrant fishers, leading to violence.

Further, the low fish supplies have been cited as a key reason for the poaching of bush meat and the extinction of many bush animals.

traditional ovens used for smoking fish

Back to Kiva…

Some of the borrowers I recently spoke to are fishmongers. Many are struggling to earn a decent income (and repay their loans) because supplies of fish from Elmina market have dwindled after the recent ban. These women have to travel further to other markets to buy fish, which is costing them more in terms of both time and money.

For CRAN in particular, it used to provide over 50 per cent of their loans to the fishing industry, but over the years, it has diversified its exposure to other industries. Now the fishing sector represents 5 per cent of its loan portfolio.

George Tokpo, Director for Operations at CRAN, is confident that the current ban is causing only a temporary blip in the Elmina fishing industry and people will start fishing again, using more sustainable methods. For now, CRAN is reducing the number of loans to the fishing sector in Elmina until the situation returns to normal, ie. when the fishermen get back out to sea again.

Fishing boats at the Elmina Harbour

Enforcement of the recent bans on poor fishing practices has been strict and swift. Whilst unpopular in some quarters, the government’s vision for long term sustainability of the fish stocks – and the livelihoods of those in the fishing and related industries – is extremely laudable (perhaps more so than the efforts, or lack thereof, of many foreign governments). The challenge now is to provide local fishermen with better ways and technologies for tracking and catching fish; and ensuring that the bounty of Ghanaian waters benefits the Ghanaians, and is not plundered by others. 

Some food for thought before you bite into your sashimi.

Facts & Figures

  • Canoes or artisanal fleets provide 70 per cent of total fish requirements
  • Fishing supports employment for 10 per cent of the population (or 2.2 million people) and 60 per cent of women, directly and in peripheral industries. 
  • The growth rate for fishing sector was -2.3 per cent in 2009. In 2008, the grow rate was 10 per cent.
  • Almost half of the mammal species in land reserves are now extinct because of illegal poaching.

Sources and Resources:

Mei-ing is a Kiva Fellow in Cape Coast, Ghana, working with the wonderful team at the Christian Rural Aid Network (CRAN), a Kiva Field Partner.  She loves sashimi but will do her best to find out which sustainable fish to eat.

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