How climate change impact on fisheries is pushing artisanal fishers into IUU fishing in Ghana

This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center.

Takoradi, March 27 – It was 10:00 hours on a Saturday morning and artisanal fishers in a coastal town of Abandze, on the West coast of Ghana are seated patiently under their sheds waiting for the rains with strong wind to recede so they could embark on their fishing expedition. Fish processors and traders also sit on their aluminum basins at the shore hoping same. According to the fishers, the sudden weather changes is making it difficult for them to go to sea as often as they should.

Artisanal fishers Understanding of climate Change

Jacob Otabil is the chief fisherman at Oshiyie, a fishing community in Accra. With over 25 years of fishing experience, Jacob admits that a lot has changed in the fishing business. He complains about the changes in the seasons. Jacob mentioned for instance that, “there are seasons where everybody knows that from August-September, there is usually a bumper harvest”. According to him, in the late 2000s, things had changed drastically in the sense that expected bumper harvest have declined.
“Last year, we were expecting the harmattan to start in early January but it did not come. This year too, the harmattan started just last two weeks which is in March. This has never happened before”, says Jacob.

He explained that “usually, the harmattan starts in early January, at times we will experience it from December but in early January, it becomes very high. When it happens, you either cannot go to sea or when you go, you will not get anything. The climate has changed totally”, he added
He remarked that “At times you can feel very cold, and other times too, you feel very hot. But what we have been witnessing recently is that the times that we expect to feel the coldness, we rather feel very hot, and the times that we expect to feel hot, we feel cold. Upon seeing these things, we are convinced that the climate has changed.

Mic Abakah- Edu is a fisher from Axim Apewosika with over three decades of fishing experience. Abakah-Edu started fishing in his school going days. He also says there has been significant changes in the fisheries sector.

Artisanal fishers’ and their traditional method of determining the weather

Historically, Ghanaian artisanal fishers predict weather changes using traditional methods such as putting their feet in the sand and observing the clouds to forecast the weather changes. Today, applying such traditional methods are gradually proving to be obsolete in the face of a rapidly changing climate. As a result, fishers keep making huge losses from tidal waves and other extreme weather conditions brought about by climate change.

Jacob explained that artisanal fisher determines the weather by looking at the changes in the clouds. For him, their traditional way of determining the weather suitable for fishing was gradually not becoming reliable. This, he said was because of the sudden changes and the behavior of the sea.
“Yesterday, for instance, the sea was very stable, so those who went fishing got a lot of fish. All of a sudden, you see the sea running. I just received a call from a colleague who is telling me the sea is running. It has changed all of a sudden, when it happens like this, if you cast your net, there will be no fish to catch. All these happenings tell us that the climate has indeed changed”, he said.

Papa Nketia, a 78-year-old retired fisherman from New Takoradi in the West coast of Ghana narrates that fish was caught with less stress and with ease at his active days of fishing. With over 50 years of fishing experience, he says there have been significant changes and attributed it to the use of illegal fishing activities. Most importantly, he admitted that climate change has also played a part.
“There are times that the rain does not fall. We have times when the rains are not supposed to fall. Typically, January, February, and March are not rainy seasons but now we experience rain in these Months”, he noted.

He explained that unusually, a huge storm precedes the rainy season in April. He said the rains cool the sea. But he admitted that “Now the sea is warm. Climate change is real”.
He explained further that “Three Months after Easter, the rains start coming and the upwelling season begins. This is an indication that we are going to have fish. At this point, all type of scarce fishes come to the sea and plenty of fishes come to the sea. But now due to the changes in the weather and the climate, this rarely happens. It’s hardly to see this nowadays, unlike first”.

Impact of Climate Change on artisanal fishing

It is estimated that climate change could reduce Ghana’s potential fish catches by 25 percent or more by 2050. This, threatens food security and a way of life of people whose livelihoods depend directly on the ocean and fisheries. Most artisanal fishermen complain that surface water fish appear to be disappearing with reduction in the sizes of the fishes.

This makes Nana Kweigya, a fisherman who lives in the fishing community of Abandze in the Central Region of Ghana more worried and concern. Kweigya, who is the current President of the Canoe and Fishing Gear Owners Association of Ghana (CAFGOA) speaks about the climate change impacts and said “We have observed that fish species that used to appear at the surface of the sea in the past do not appear and as often as it was, giving an indication that increasing sea surface temperature has altered the distribution partner, movement of fish”.

Many artisanal fishers interviewed for the purpose of this article believe that climate change is a natural phenomenon compounded by human activities and therefore there is little they could do. Abakah-Edu for instance, believes that a lot of things were contributing to the climate change which artisanal fishers had no control over. He mentioned sea erosion and decline in fish stock as some of its impact.
“Erosion has taken greater part of the sea shore but thanks to the government, we now have a sea defense”, he said.

However, he said though the construction of a sea defense was a good thing, access root to the shore line had become a problem for the fishers. According to him, a lot of fishers have had accidents while returning from their expedition because of the rocky ways.

Nii Adametey is the Chief Fisherman in Tema, a major fishing community in the Greater Accra Region. Nii Adametey also shares his thought on how climate change is contributing to the declining fish stock. He explained that artisanal fishers do their fishing in shallow areas of the sea, however, the heat from the sea was preventing the fishes from coming to spawn at places such as the estuaries and the mangrove areas.
“Fish species such as shrimps and crabs are diminishing while our mangroves have dried up due to the heat. Because of this, the fishes are not moving down as they should for us to catch them”, he lamented.

“We are now seeing sea erosion and sometimes we do not have a place to land our canoes”, says Abakah-Edu.
“Decades ago, with a little effort, we get a lot of fish. In the past, fishers go to sea and return the same day but now, they spend two to three days on the sea because they cannot get fish”, he explained.
Abakah-Edu added that “At first, we did not use to experience the impact of climate change, we were always hearing it on the radio but now we are practically experiencing the effects”,

“Now we have to spend a lot of money on one fishing expedition and we have to increase our efforts ether than that you will not get enough catch to offset your cost. A lot of fishers are running losses. Some go to sea throughout the week and still do not get the catch which was not so in the past”
“So, now we see that climate change has impacted the sea, it has impacted our living at the coast and our job as well. We are now believing what has been said about climate change”
55-year-old Kofi Tawia is a fisherman from Ekumfi Ekumpoano who has been fishing for the past 35 years. As other fishers say, Tawiah narrates how fish was abundant in the past. He says “In those days, we can go on a fishing expedition two times a day because we did not go far before we get fish, the fishing business was booming”.

Fish Mongers waiting patiently to see their fishermen come back with enough catch. Photo credit: Yusif Dadzie, 2023
Fish Mongers waiting patiently to see their fishermen come back with enough catch. Photo credit: Yusif Dadzie, 2023

However, he noted that in the past 20 years, things have changed but it has been worst in the last 15 years. As a result, fishers have devised other means to get catch fish, and gradually fishing efforts had increased tremendously. “Now it’s very difficult, we have to travel a long distance when we go on our fishing expedition.”, he said
“We spend about GHS10,000 on one fishing expedition. If we go and we do not get fish, we have to spend days on the seas”. This, he said was not so in the past. “The fish these days have become very scare, we suffer before we catch them”, he bemoaned.
Professor Joseph Aggrey-Fynn, Head of Department of fisheries and Aquatic Science, University of Cape Coast (UCC) aggress with the fishermen. He is also convinced that the decline in fish stock could partly blamed on the changes in the climate.

He noted that Ghana’s waters have been warm for years and gave a historical background to why certain species of fishes such as sardine and grid trigger fish suddenly disappeared from the sea.
He explained that for organisms in the sea, especially small pelagic, they become uncomfortable and they move to where they will feel okay with the slightest change in temperature of the water. “It is clear that the sardinellas have been reacting to these warm conditions in our waters”, he said.
Artisanal fishers in Ghana are working hard to adapt to the changes being witnessed in their business as a result of the changes in climate. Sadly, some of these adaptation strategies have not been the best as they contravene the laws and regulations governing the fisheries sector and in effect contributing to worsening the already bad situation.

The use of light to aggregate and harvest fish, for instance, has been in response to the disappearance of fish at the surface of the sea, while the use of small mesh size has been in response to the decreasing sizes of fish.
Veteran Papa Nketia also shared his thought on the impact of climate change on their business and narrated that “Two years ago, after the closed fishing season, a lot of fishers went to sea and came back empty handed, unlike first, this is the period of bumper harvest.
“We see that there are changes and are now witnessing it, and it is impacting our work, it is making our work harder.
“Now, it has become the survival of the fitters, everybody is thinking about how to get fish and we are using all sort of methods (IUU). If we do not do that, I tell you we will not get fish, we will be running losses. This is further deepening our woes”, he narrated.

This, Professor Aggrey-Fynn an associate professor of Fisheries and Aquatic science believes, is forcing artisanal fishers to indulge in IUU fishing practices.
“The issue of artisanal fishermen engaging in are coming up because of the fisher’s frustration in not getting what they are supposed to get. Their frustration is in the sense that they go to sea and do not get fish, they are using all sort of means, it does not mean what they are doing is right but they are supposed to survive”, he mentioned.

Increased risks

The negative consequences of climate change are making an already risky job of the fishers even more, risky. Artisanal fishers are witnessing bad weather days, due to climate change, which is affecting the frequency of embarking on fishing expedition or the number of times they spend at sea. Coastal floods, marine erosion, tidal waves, storm surges and extreme weather conditions impede smooth fishing expedition and operation.

Kwame Adu Afful is another veteran fisherman with 38 years of fishing experience. For him though risky, fishers’ risks have increased in recent times.
“When there are high tides, you cannot go fishing. The sea becomes rough, very rough. If you go and you do not take care, either the boat will capsize or your gear will be damaged which will cost you a lot, so we do not go fishing when we notice the weather is not favorable”, Kwame said.
Jacob shared his personal experiences and said “I remember a time when the sea was very rough. The wind was blowing from the East coming to the North, so we decided not to go to sea but some of us insisted that we go, but when we went, coming back to the shore was very difficult, we found it very difficult to land at the shore”

In the olden days, though there were high tides, the wind was not too strong as we see in recent times. Now, whenever you see a small cloud, it tends to be very serious compared to years past, he added.
Nii Adametey, also added that the high tides destroy their fishing gear. “If you anchor your canoe at the shore, and the tides come at night, it can destroy the canoe, the nets could be stuck in the sand and you cannot get them back, making us run losses”.
Support from the Ghana Metrological Agency (GMA)
To boost fishers understanding and the state of the ocean, the Ghana Metrological Agency (GMA) is providing fishers with regular and daily marine forecast through the Safety at Sea Service. The GMA provides forecast and training to some artisanal fishers to interpret, translate the forecast into local languages and share among artisanal fishers using WhatsApp platforms and community information centers.

The GMES and Africa project has provided fishers with used code (*920*88#) which enable them to asses information on the state of the ocean three days ahead. Additionally, the project has developed an App which help fishers to check for additional information on the state of the ocean before they set out to go on their expedition.
By these interventions, artisanal fishers are able to check whether the state of the ocean will be calm, rough or dangerous.

These interventions, according to the artisanal fishers have been very useful and timely to them. Nana Kweigya explained that, in the past, fishers have suffered damages to canoes, outboard motor and fishing gears due to tidal waves, storm surge but with the ocean state information that is provided, they are able to know the state of the ocean to decide whether to go to sea or not.
“With the ocean state information, we are able to tell if there will be a storm, strong winds or if it will rain heavily, so we stay out. So, by staying out, we are saving lives and properties being investment of artisanal fishers”, he said.

Nana Kweigya stressed that his organization was working hard with stakeholders to enhance early warning systems to ensure that safety at sea is a priority in artisanal fishing.
“We are working to bring as many as possible community information Centre operators into a network that will help in the dissemination of ocean state information and forecast being whether advice or warnings, to give fishers timely”, he stated.
This, he stated was a departure from the past where our forefathers put their feet in the sand and are able to tell whether there will be rains or not.

Adaptation Strategies

Tawiah, shares how the artisanal fishers are making use of technology to advance their job in the wake of climate change impacts. He explained that “We were using our own knowledge but now the trawl boasts have taught us and we are now using GPS, and other technology in determining the location of the fishes”.

These technologies, he said were helping the artisanal fishers to be able to compete with the trawl vessels. “This, is what is helping us to get some fish, if not that, you can spend even a week on the sea and still come back empty handed”, he said.
To avoid making huge losses made through several fishing expeditions, the artisanal fishers now go to sea with ice blocks. This way, they are able to spend days on the sea and come home convinced that their fish will still be fresh.
“We needed to find a way to reduce the loses because we are tired of returning back empty. Now, almost every fisherman goes to sea with ice, even though this is not what we want, it is helping us”, Nketiah stated.
“Now if you really want to get enough fish to break even or make profit, you have use ice block and spend about two or three days on the sea. Unlike the olden days where you do a return trip, today it is not like that”, Abekah-Edu also mentioned.

What needs to be done

It is important to acknowledge the impact of climate change in the fisheries sector to allow for stakeholders to come up with a comprehensive plan both in the short, medium and in the long term to address the impact.

The GMA providing fishers with regular and daily marine forecast. Photo credit: Yusif Dadzie, 2023
The GMA providing fishers with regular and daily marine forecast. Photo credit: Yusif Dadzie, 2023.

Nana Kweigya talks about the need to enhance livelihood options for fishers to reduce the excessive dependent on fisheries as their sole livelihood activity.
Prof. Aggrey-Fynn agrees with Kweigya and said “In this era where their work is too difficult, they have to be exposed or encouraged to take an alternative livelihood” though I was going to be difficult for the traditional fishermen to accept.
Regardless, Prof Aggrey-Fynn thinks the sea work would not be as lucrative as it used to be moving forward and therefore stakeholder ought to find a way to help the fishermen to get an alternative livelihood.

Nana Kweigya further underscored that artisanal fisher must be adequately educated and provided information about climate change and what needs to be done in order not to worsen the situation.
“Without a good understanding of the changes that is happening, fishers will continue to resort to whatever option that guarantee them catch which may not be the best. It is important for fishers to have adequate information as to what is happening and they will be able”, he said.
Nana Kweigya also talks about adequate participation of fishers in fisheries governance and, management. For him, fishers must have the space to be part of the policies and programs from their conception stage, data collection and implementation.

He said it is the surest way to build confidence in the process stressing that, once fishers have confidence in the process, they were more likely to accept the decisions and contribute to the implementation of the various management measures.
Nii Adametey believes that artisanal fishers could look for extra business from the sea. For instance, he said artisanal fisher could venture into the aquaculture and the rearing of mad or catfish, shrimps along the coastal areas to support their marine fishing activities.

The artisanal fishers themselves admitted to engaging in all forms of bad practices. In that regard, John Eshun, a fisher from Axim suggested that “We have to stop our bad fishing practices and allow the nature to take its course for the sea to amend itself for us to have the positive effects”.
Abakah-Edu also said Government must strictly enforce the fisheries laws and regulations. For him, Government must find an antidote to the challenges in enforcement.
All the above-mentioned interventions, according to Prof Aggrey-Fynn would have to be a deliberate that the Government must pursue. He commended the Government of Ghana for construction of coastal sea defense but insisted that it must pursue other people centered interventions as well.

Report By Afedzi Abdullah

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