LIGHT AND DYNAMITE: How fish safety is compromised

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The story is told of the chief fisherman of Bortiano landing beach who was assaulted by other fishermen in Accra one weekend in May.

Together with other fishermen, Nii Adama Tettey II, had attended a meeting called by the Minister of Fisheries and Aquaculture Development, Elizabeth Naa Afoley Quaye.

What incurred the wrath from his colleagues, apparently, was his defiant stance against light fishing.

"My team was ambushed by a group of people.  They said I deserved to be beaten after accusing me of being opposed to light fishing. In fact, they beat me up," said Nii Adama Tettey II.

Mr Tettey's assistant, who accompanied him to the meeting, was also not spared.

"He was also beaten and ended up with swollen bloodshot eyes," he added.

The chief fisherman showed a photo of his assistant with swollen eyes, purportedly from the beating.

 Nii Adama Tettey II

But Mr Tettey did not bother to report the incident to the police. According to him, nothing good would come out from making such a report. In the end, meeting was cancelled because of the chaos.

This is not the first time the chief fisherman has found himself in a difficult situation. He recounted a period when he had had to make morning trips to the police station after a complaint had been filed against him at the police station by another fisherman.

This time, his offence had been his purported seizure of a fisherman's net after he suspected him of engaging in light fishing.

For Nii Adama Tettey II, it has been a long, lonely and tiring fight against light fishing, which is illegal. What breaks his heart, according to him, is the fact that the law keeps failing those who want to live by it.

When the Minister for Fisheries and Aquaculture Management, Elizabeth Afoley Quaye, went to Ada, in the Greater Accra region, to inaugurate a task force to combat illegal fishing on May 5, she met fierce resistance as some angry people, said to be light fishers, reportedly stormed the venue and disrupted the event.

Azizanya fishermen accompany chief fisherman to the police station after complaint was filed against him

Again, on June 14, fisherfolk at the Azizanya landing beach in Ada Foah, marched to the police station after organising a durbar against light fishing.  At the durbar, a priest had invoked curses on those who engaged in light fishing. Fishmongers were also cautioned against buying fish harvested through light fishing.

But the chief of the area had filed a complaint against the chief fisherman to the police, apparently, for beating the gong gong and mobilising the town folks without permission.

The police commander was said to have sent both parties home promising to call them later for an amicable settlement.

The next day, fishermen from more than ten communities in Ada held a counter durbar, ostensibly, to defend light fishing. They were not happy about the chief fisherman's campaign against illegal fishing. Using this unapproved method is their only means of survival, they claimed.

So, even within the Ada township, there are divided opinions about light fishing with seemingly mounting tension and anger on both sides.

Pregnant fish caught in the trap

Now, the use of light to attract fishes and subsequently killing them with explosives, such as dynamite, has been popular among fishermen.

"You are not supposed to aggregate the fish," said Dr Benjamin Campion of the Department of Fisheries and Watershed Management at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology.

"When you use the light, all the fishes come, both young and old. And therefore, you kill all the fishes, even the pregnant females that might have been going to lay their eggs," he explained.

Fishes caught through light fishing

For light fishers, the excuse has always been that of survival and how to earn income and cater for dependents; the implication of their actions, seem not to matter to them.

"It's an ecosystem - you have the sea floor which is made up of all sorts of organisms and non living things which all help to create the dynamic system that fishes thrive in. When they blast, all those systems are destroyed and it will take a very long time to replenish," Dr Campion added.

"My hands itch when I touch the fish"

Fish is an important source of high quality protein. Rich in omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins, the health benefits from eating fish cannot be underestimated. According to health journals, the essential nutrients fish contain are healthy for the heart and brain.

However, illegal fishing methods used by recalcitrant fishermen are making this precious food that ends up on the plates of human beings unsafe for consumption.

Fishmongers, particularly, are good at telling the difference between fish caught using safe methods and those caught using light and dynamite.

"The fishes look red and they smell bad after a few minutes after I buy them from the fishermen. They get torn apart when I prepare to smoke them and they turn darker when you put them on fire," said Akosua Mensiwaa, a fishmonger at Elmina in the Central region.

Akosua Mensiwaa, who has been in the fish mongering business for about 45 years said she was compelled to abandon the trade and now sells doughnuts to cater for her three dependants.

"I buy fish for GHS100 but only get GHS40 after sales. I'm now in debt; I owe about GHS2,000 because they spoil by the time I get to the market. So now, I only sell doughnuts which doesn't bring much profit."

Akosua Mensiwaa

"My hands itch when I touch the fish. It wasn't so previously because the fish was always fresh," said Aba Gyan, another fish monger at Elmina.

"Those they bring nowadays are always red in colour. We have noticed the difference but the fishermen deny using bad catching methods when we confront them,"

Dr Benjamin Campion draws a link between the use of dynamite and how fast the fish goes bad.

"Fish deterioration or the rate of spoilage are directly related to the catching method. If fishes are caught regularly through entanglement, then they take a longer time to die and so the rate of spoilage also decrease. You see that the skin is uniform, there is no lesions or destroyed body parts.

"But [with] the ones that have been blasted using dynamite, you have the shock of sudden death and blood is suddenly spilled to other parts. You find that the gills are relatively darker. Also the eyes are bloodshot and the whole fish looks highly mutilated."  

'Siko', a hated word in Elmina

Fisherfolks along Ghana's coast have similar challenges. They are frustrated about not making a good catch even after investing in premix fuel, ice for preservation and other essentials.

During a tour of seven landing beaches across the four coastal regions, courtesy the Centre for Coastal Management of the University of Cape Coast with support from USAID, it became clear that a number of the fishermen were aware of the implications of their actions. But they continue to engage in illegal fishing methods, such as light fishing, use of dynamite and monofilament net as well as 'Siko' fishing.

Siko fishing, a practice where large trawl vessels are stationed on the sea for months harvesting fish and then selling them off to in-shore and canoe fishermen is particularly, popular among fishermen at Elmina. Demand for fish has meant that siko fishers are now engaging in deliberate fishing where they catch fish they are not licensed to catch and even operate in near shore areas reserved for boats and canoe fishermen.  

"There are canoe fishermen here who patronise fish caught by the siko fishers. If those fishermen are stopped from buying from siko fishers, the siko practice will stop as there will be no market for the fish they catch. Honestly, the fish they bring are bad," said Nyame, a fisherman at Elmina. 

"Fishermen have become greedy due to siko fishing. They [industrial vessels] are always on the sea harvesting more fish than us [canoe fishermen]. It is now expensive to fuel the canoe and travel farther into the sea and we don't make any catch. That is why we are compelled to use these things [light and dynamite]. If they stop siko, we will also stop using these things," he added. 

Apart from the fact that the practice robs the nation of taxes these industrial fishing vessels would pay when they land, a lot of fish is wasted.

According to Dr Campion, siko fishers tend to offload dead fish back into the sea when they have no need for them. Clearly, the siko fishing practice undermines the country's fishing management regime.

The blame game

Back in the Greater Accra region, fishermen in Ada, have quite a reputation for engaging in light fishing. Their counterparts at Bortiano in Accra and Abutiakope in the Volta region do not hesitate when pointing them out as culprits. 

"We don't do light fishing here. Fishermen from Ada and Prampram come into our territory and practice light fishing. We always attempt to arrest them when we catch them doing it. In fact, I have personally arrested light fishermen in the past," said Togbui Lambert Gada, the chief fisherman of Abutiakope.

"Fishermen from Ada and Tema are those who use light. They made it clear the day they assaulted me that they have no intention of stopping light fishing," said Nii Adama Tettey II, the chief fisherman of Bortiano.

Nene Teye Otibu displaying the citations given to the Azizanya Fishermen in 2015

At the Azizanya landing beach in Ada Foah fishermen here, sharply refuted claims that they are engage in illegal fishing.  

"I'm law abiding and so I encourage my fellow fishermen to obey the laws on illegal fishing. And so we at Azizanya don't practice light fishing," said Nene Teye Otibo, the chief fisherman of Azizanya.

To prove his point, Nene Otibo quickly dashed home and returned with two citations awarded to Azizanya fishermen in 2015 by then fisheries minister, Sherry Ayitey, for practicing safe and sustainable fishing.

Even with this honour, the Azizanya chief fisherman seem isolated as his colleagues in neighbouring fishing communities do not share his 'no to light fishing' stance. That notwithstanding, Nene Otibo remains determined.

"Our major worry is the absence of a cold store. We travel far to catch fish but without a sustainable means of preservation, we cannot keep the fish fresh always. We want citizens of Ghana to enjoy good and healthy fish," he explained.

Solutions from fisherfolks

The fight against illegal fishing, especially the use of light and dynamite, appears to be a tough one for government as efforts to get deviant fishermen to abandon illegal methods for safe fishing practices seem daunting.

At the Albert Bosomtwi Sam Fishing habour in Sekondi in the Western region, some fishermen are clearly unhappy with the marine police. Nana Prah, who is the secretary to the chief fisherman of Sekondi, accuses the marine police of allowing light fishers to act with impunity especially, on Tuesdays which should to be a customary traditional holiday when fishermen are banned from fishing.

"Our complaints to the fisheries director to stop them have fallen on deaf ears. The letter was distributed to the marine police too. We will give you the hint that these people are there, if you go round you will see them - the trawlers, the light and everything," he explained.

"It's a matter of just coming to arrest them but now, it has got some political traces. Nobody wants to do that because of votes. They are not doing their jobs, they are not enforcing the rules," Nana Prah lamented.

Nana Prah

Elmina fish monger Aba Gyan also said authorities needed to get tough on those using unsafe methods to harvest fish.

"We can't allow the safety of the fish we consume to be compromised." she pleaded.

Another way of preventing light fishing is by testing for fish caught using this method right at the landing beach and seizing them. 

"We have asked government to introduce a testing device at landing sites to test fish for their safety. We have made this request at several meetings and we have been told it will be considered," said Nana Kwesi Duncan, the chief fisherman of Marine Park in Elmina. 

Also, the chief fishermen are of the opinion that their waning authority is partly to blame for the actions of some rogue fishermen. If they, together with the seven-member councils that manage landing beaches, were empowered with authority to sanction rogue fishermen, they believe they could act as the first line of defence against illicit fishing.

Ultimately, fishes, like humans, need a supportive environment to thrive. Experts warn fishermen only risk losing their livelihoods if they continue to destroy the natural settings of fishes.