“It’s like kicking our brothers”: Aboard trawlers fishing illegally in W Africa
Authorities seem unable or unwilling to tackle the mostly Chinese trawlers depleting stocks and undermining the local industry.
That morning, the crew of the fishing boat had urged the captain to change a damaged part of the trawler’s winch. They had been ignored. Later that day, a shackle snapped, and a metal wire caught Michael’s* leg and threw him into the air. The crewmate came crashing down, landing on his knee, shoulder, and head.
“I lost consciousness,” he says. When Michael woke, he was lying in a discarded, cockroach-infested net where the crew sleep. “I was bleeding. It was very painful. My hand, my legs, I couldn’t control them. I knew then that something bad had happened”.
Michael had been working as a deckhand on a fishing trawler in the Bay of Guinea for two years. Like many young people, he had left his village in Central Ghana due to a lack of jobs and had decided to join the Chinese-owned and Chinese-captained boat to support his family.
He soon found the job to be full of suffering, abuse, and danger. The accident with the winch was the last straw. “No matter how big the salary is, I will not go back,” he says. “I have family to take care of so I cannot just go and risk my life.”
Even before taking the job, however, Michael had felt uneasy about it. In recent decades, illegal large-scale fishing – locally known as “saiko” fishing – has exhausted marine resources and pushed the local fishing industry to the brink of collapse. A report by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) found that tens of millions of dollars’ worth of fish is stolen through these methods each year. It also found that 90% of trawlers involved in this activity are Chinese-owned, though because foreign ownership of fishing boats is illegal in Ghana, they operate through local front companies.
Like other West African coastal states, the Ghanaian government has proven unable – or unwilling – to clamp down on this unsustainable activity. As a result, its fisheries face “imminent doom” that could affect the livelihoods of over 2.7 million people, according to the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Center. The depletion of local fishing also undermines food security in a country in which fish accounts for 60% of animal protein and there is no ready alternative.
Aboard the illegal trawlers
Michael felt guilty about “killing” his community and an industry that, if properly managed, could create hundreds of thousands of jobs. But he had few options. Some local fishermen have responded to depleted fish stocks by turning to illegal methods such as carbide or dynamite to fill their nets. Others have left taken environmental destruction as a cue to migrate, including to Europe, as my previous research has shown. And some have reluctantly taken jobs on the industrial trawlers chasing the last schools of fish.
According to Michael, life on the fishing boat was brutal. Abuse was rampant. There were frequent accidents as the crew was worked into the ground. Hygiene was poor. Michael says the crew would secretly collect the water that dripped off the captain’s air conditioning unit and use it to wash, even though it was “cold and smelled like cigarettes”.
During the day, the Chinese trawler would fish the high seas. But at night, Michael says, it would come close to the shore and plough the bottom of the sea in breach of regulations. “We could see the lights of the villages,” he recalls. “Sometimes we could even get a connection on the phone, so everybody was trying to reach their families.”
Fishing close to the land often meant ramming into the local fishermen and destroying their equipment. “Every night we ran over a net,” says Michael. “The captain told us to just cut it up and throw it away.”
Michael felt ashamed to follow these orders. “We feel bad,” he says. “Maybe they suffer and must take loans to fix the net. It’s like kicking our brothers and fathers or one of our relatives out of the business.”
“Nobody will fight our cause for us”
Industrial trawlers in Ghana are legally allowed to catch certain species, such as red fish and octopus, and export them to Europe and Asia. They are not permitted to target the staple catches of small-scale fishermen. Yet through saiko fishing, they have increasingly done just that before selling the illegal produce to struggling local fisherman.
For the Ghanaian crew, the profits from this catch far outweigh those from legal fishing. For one month’s work, the approximately twenty crew members on a trawler each receive a fixed rate of around 150 cedis ($21). On top of that, however, they receive a share of the profits from saiko fishing, which Michael says ranges from approximately 1,000-1,500 cedis ($140-210). In this way, the industry has co-opted Ghanaian sailors into being complicit in the destruction of their own marine resources.
Ghanaian authorities lack the capacity to effectively monitor the seas, while officials are reportedly bribed to stay silent. According to Michael and his coworkers, the navy is similarly compromised. They said that their trawler was once boarded by navy inspectors who found illegal catch onboard. Yet instead of arresting the Chinese captains, they allege that the officers took a bribe – made up of $5,000, 40 boxes of fish for export, and 150 blocks of the illegal catch – and moved on.
“We’re like in the animal kingdom,” says Michael. “Nobody will fight our cause for us. Look at our own navy selling themselves to the Chinese. Now we know that if anything serious happens and we call the navy, then they will come and take the money and look the other way.”
Since 2015, Ghanaian authorities have placed observers on trawlers to monitor and report illegal practices. But according to Michael, these officials are paid or pressured, including violently, to look the other way. An EJF investigation came to the same conclusion, finding that observers are frequently “bribed, threatened and abused at sea”. In one well-known incident in July 2019, Emmanuel Essien went missing at sea while on observation and his body was never found. The Chinese captains claimed he’d fallen overboard but others were sceptical. Essien’s family has called for justice but the investigation is still yet to be concluded several years on.
“They gave me nothing”
Some studies have linked illegal fishing to an increase in piracy in the Gulf of Guinea. This finding has captured international headlines to the extent that Denmark, until recently, deployed a warship to combat Nigerian pirates. The main issue for most people in West Africa is less dramatic. For those like Michael, the problem of Chinese trawlers’ illegal over-fishing is one of slow environmental destruction, creeping hunger, rising state corruption, and dwindling options.
After Michael woke up on the trawler after the accident, he was in great pain and couldn’t move. The captain simply sent him ashore on a local canoe. “They gave me nothing, they didn’t even come to see me off,” says Michael. “It was my Ghanaian colleagues who helped me into the boat.”
With a makeshift walking stick, he eventually made it to a hospital. He was told his ligaments were torn and his kneecap displaced. The doctor wanted to operate, but Michael didn’t have any money so they discharged him. To this day, his knee makes a crackling sound.
For a few months after the accident, Michael limped to the industrial port of Tema to wait outside the company office. He would have had few options for work even if he was fully fit. He never received any compensation, but when his fellow Ghanaian sailors came ashore, they would slip him some money. After a while, however, he stopped coming.
“I didn’t want to be seen going all the time – as a kind of beggar or something like that”.