Emmanuel Essien was sure he had evidence of illegal fishing on board an industrial trawler operating in the waters off the coast of Ghana. The 28-year-old fisheries observer had video of the crew catching large numbers of juvenile fish, and also partaking in an illegal practice known as saiko, the intentional catching of small pelagic fish that local fishers target, and then selling the fish to the coastal communities for profit.
Back on land, Essien went to the police and handed over the video and a report, according to his brother, Bernard Essien. Two weeks later, in July 2019, Emmanuel Essien disappeared from his cabin aboard the Chinese-owned vessel Meng Xin 15. He was never seen again. A police investigation that followed suggested there had been “no signs of violence or anything incriminating.” But others, including Essien’s family, say they believe he was murdered.
“There were days he came back and said he was worried,” Bernard Essien told the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) in a recent report. “The job of an observer is to make sure they are obeying the laws. There were times those in charge of the vessel got angry at him for doing that. They told him not to. He told me it was difficult. He wasn’t comfortable. He said it was dangerous work.”
His family may never find out what happened to Essien, but the report and a newly released film produced by EJF give voice to crew members and fisheries observers who previously kept silent about their experiences on board industrial fishing vessels operating in Ghanaian waters. They give accounts of being offered bribes, and being threatened, starved, and beaten. Their mistreatment is entangled with widespread illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing that is pushing fisheries off the coast of West Africa to the point of collapse, threatening the livelihoods of millions of people.
Ghanaian officials dispute some of the claims contained in EJF’s report, saying neither fisheries observers nor crew have reported these abuses to the authorities. But crew members and observers say they fear the consequences of making official complaints. Their accounts of abuse also echo those heard from industrial fishing vessels elsewhere, suggesting a global pattern of human rights abuses against sailors who are vulnerable and isolated at sea.
Workers aboard an industrial fishing vessel off the coast of Ghana. This photo was taken during a saiko investigation. Image by EJF.
‘We fear a lot’
The film follows the report released by EJF nine months ago, detailing numerous human rights issues onboard Ghana’s industrial fleet. The report, which was produced in cooperation with the Danish Institute of Human Rights with funding from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, describes the experiences of 10 Ghanaian crew members and three fisheries observers working on foreign-owned industrial trawlers. While Ghanaian law prohibits foreign fishing vessels from operating in its waters, research conducted by EJF suggests that about 90% of Ghana’s industrial trawlers are actually owned by Chinese corporations that use “front” companies to register as Ghanaian and evade the restriction.
All of the crew members said they had been abused by Chinese captains and officers, or witnessed the abuse of their peers. They described beatings with stones, sticks and boots; long hours in hazardous conditions; no adequate toilet facilities. When they were given a rare break, the crew had to make do with resting on deck under tarpaulins that barely kept out the rain. Cockroaches bit them in their sleep. They were often given cassava flour as their only food. A lack of adequate drinking water meant they had to resort to boiling seawater. On top of everything else, these crew members reported not receiving written contracts and getting wages below the daily minimum wage.
“It’s sad to say that we’re living in a world now where you really do have to look very closely at what’s going on on these boats,” Steve Trent, founder and executive director of EJF, told Mongabay. “Because too many of them, too often, are fishing illegally, unsustainably, or involved in these kinds of human rights and labor abuses.”
The fisheries observers reported similar conditions, but they faced the extra challenge of trying to document and report any illicit fishing practices they witnessed, which often put them at odds with the captains and officers of the vessels.
Since 2018, the World Bank-funded West Africa Regional Fisheries Program (WARFP) has required all industrial trawl vessels operating under the Ghanaian flag to carry a government-appointed fisheries observer on board as part of a larger effort to rescue Ghana’s fisheries from possible collapse. The observers are tasked with recording how many fish are caught, if any endangered species are captured, and if the vessels are following the law. The observers are supposed to report any violations to Ghana’s Fisheries Commission, an agency within the Ministry of Fisheries and Aquaculture Development.
The three observers interviewed for the EJF report said most of the vessels they worked on did indeed engage in IUU fishing. They used illegal, undersized nets and discarded juvenile fish, crimes that could reap fines of $1 million under Ghana’s 2014 Fisheries Amendment Act. But when the observers tried to document these acts, they were threatened or forced to accept bribes.
“We fear a lot,” said one observer in the EJF report. “Even something like taking a picture and the captain sees you. One time such thing happened to me. I had to tell him that I am not feeling well and asked to join a passing vessel. He became aware and he went further out to sea (to 200 metres) where I would not be able to make a call.”
Michael Arthur-Dadzie, director of the Fisheries Commission, told Mongabay that the agency has never received any official reports from observers regarding the issues raised in the EJF report. “They haven’t reported to us and we haven’t taken action,” he said. “We don’t have any of that data.” He said observers should immediately report these issues so that the commission can undertake investigations as any delay could defeat the “immediacy of revelation of information.”
But many crew members and observers told EJF they are afraid to speak up for fear of losing their job, or worse: their life. The men featured in the report declined interviews with Mongabay for these reasons.
Trent said they were reluctant to speak on record to EJF, and the foundation took measures to ensure their anonymity in both the report and subsequent film. But, he said, their willingness to give testimony shows “just how bad” things are.
“They’ve been victims of the violence and the abuse, but they’re also seeing what it’s doing to those coastal communities,” he said.
Fishing crew sorting through their catch on an industrial trawler operating off the coast of Ghana. Image by EJF.
‘When there is no body, there is no crime’
Fishing crew working on vessels across the world have complained about abuse, harassment and general mistreatment. And many observers, like Emmanuel Essien, have disappeared under mysterious circumstances.
“Everyone who has worked at sea for very long has a story of someone ‘disappearing’ or dying at sea,” said Alfred “Bubba” Cook, a senior fisheries program manager at WWF in New Zealand.
Cook himself lost a good friend, Keith Davis, an experienced fisheries observer from the U.S. who vanished from a tuna transshipment vessel off the coast of Panama. His body was never found, and the Panama Maritime Authority, which was responsible for investigating the crime, eventually closed the case, saying the causes of Davis’s death were “unknown.”
“It is too easy, when a vessel is hundreds if not thousands of miles at sea, for a death to occur where the body goes over the side, intentionally or otherwise,” Cook told Mongabay in an email. “As the saying goes, ‘when there is no body, there is no crime’ and any circumstantial evidence disappears in a flood of seawater and salt air long before the vessel returns to port where a proper investigation can occur. Even when there might be witnesses to a crime, those who might have seen anything must consider the consequences if they speak out, which, at best, might result in dismissal from the only job and income they might know, or, at worst, might result in them being next.”
There are currently no central records of abuses and deaths at sea. In 2017, WWF called for the development of a global database of incidents involving fisheries observers at the International Fisheries Observer and Monitoring Conference in Vigo, Spain — but no action has been taken, Cook said.
“It is disgraceful that the only efforts to catalogue the deaths of fisheries observers and fishing crew on a global scale have been undertaken by two tiny NGOs, the US based Association for Professional Observers (APO) and the UK based Human Rights at Sea (HRAS), by cobbling together whatever information they can find in public resources or what little official information is available,” he said.
Teresa Turk, a former fisheries observer consultant for NOAA who trained fisheries observers in Ghana and other parts of West Africa between 2008 and 2012, agreed that the sea can be a dangerous place. She, too, was a friend of Davis.
“I’ve lost several good friends to things like this,” Turk told Mongabay. “I just don’t think it’s worth it anymore that we put people out there when we’re not able to protect them adequately.”
Turk, who stressed that she’s no longer a federal employee and that her opinions do not reflect the official views of the U.S. government, said fisheries observers working within the jurisdiction of the U.S. have faced similar issues, including harassment, intimidation and injury. But she said there are solutions.
“It’s hard to get there, but there’s a way to protect observers, and that way is for them to be government employees, and for the government to support them and make sure that they are considered a government employee when they’re on the vessel,” Turk said. “[If] anything goes wrong, to have a communication device that [provides] an independent way of communicating, and to have somebody that’s available 24 hours a day with a plan.”
She said she believed Ghanaian fisheries observers should also be employed as government workers for the same reasons. Yet neither the Ghanaian nor the U.S. governments currently employ fisheries observers. In Ghana, while the government does appoint fisheries observers, they are paid by the Ghana Industrial Trawlers Association (GITA).
Fisheries workers could also benefit from the work standards set out in the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Work in Fishing Convention of 2007, which specifies that crew and other workers need adequate living and working conditions and for safety standards to be followed at sea. But Ghana has yet to ratify this convention.
“In the absence of an internationally binding overarching piece of legislation, countries will — and Ghana is no different to any other countries — make their own legislation,” said Eric Holliday, chief executive of the FISH Safety Foundation in New Zealand. “But quite often, for a whole bunch of reasons, these things don’t really have teeth, because they [the countries] are not beholden to an international body to report what goes on. So there’s no international pressure on them to have proper legislation, proper checks.”
Holliday said he would like to see the ratification of the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) Cape Town Agreement, which would require fishing vessels to be more transparent about their fishing operations, safety procedures and working conditions, and to follow certain safety regulations that would safeguard against IUU fishing and human rights abuse. The Cape Town Agreement will only come into effect if and when 22 nations with a combined 3,600 eligible fishing vessels accede. Right now, only 16 countries, the latest being Peru, have agreed to the framework.
“We still have a long way,” Holliday told Mongabay. “That’s why human rights abuses continue.”
A fisheries observer from Sierra Leone who has worked in the industry for about a decade, but asked to stay anonymous for security reasons, told Mongabay that the human rights issues highlighted in the EJF report are also present in other parts of West Africa.
“At sea, observers are not free to collect the necessary data at their own time due to the pressure of the Chinese people,” the observer said. “Chinese crews have no respect for observers. They fight them. They beat them.”
An illegal saiko trans-shipment in progress. Image by EJF.
‘Our livelihoods taken away from us’
The human rights issues in Ghana’s fishing industry are tangled up with the deteriorating situation of Ghana’s once-thriving pelagic fishery, which provides livelihoods for up to 3 million people. According to a USAID report, annual landings of sardinella experienced a “drastic decline” from 100,000 metric tons in the mid-1990s to 19,000 metric tons in 2017 as fishing capacity increased. Without quick and aggressive action to manage the issue, the report suggests that Ghana’s small pelagic fishery could collapse within five years.
While the USAID report points toward the expansion and ever-growing efficiency of Ghana’s artisanal fishing fleet as a main reason for the worsening state of the pelagic fishery, the EJF suggests an additional factor: the practice of saiko, the local name for illegal transshipments in Ghanaian waters. According to an EJF report, industrial trawlers will adapt their fishing gear to capture small pelagic fish such as round sardinella (Sardinella aurita), flat sardinella (Sardinella maderensis), anchovies (Engraulis encrasicolus) and mackerel (Scomber colias), essentially taking the fish away from local artisanal fishers and disrupting the ecological balance of the marine region. Then the trawlers transfer frozen blocks of these fish onto specially designed canoes so the fish can be sold in nearby ports for a profit.
EJF estimates that industrial trawlers caught about 100,000 metric tons of small pelagic fish in the illegal saiko trade in 2017, which had a landed value of about $50 million. Another recent report by EJF found that industrial illegal fishing and overfishing were leading to widespread human rights issues affecting entire communities. It showed that most small-scale fishers and fish processors had experienced a decline in living conditions directly linked to a drop in income. Many were not getting enough food and or clean water. Families could no longer send their children to school.
Trent of EJF said he believes the Ghanaian government has the ability to quickly and efficiently stamp out many of the illegal fishing and human rights issues that persist in the region, but that it has “willfully refused to do so to this point.”
“They need to take those steps, protect the ecological security and the fishery and protect the people who desperately need that resource, as their basic livelihood is how they feed themselves, it’s how they feed their kids,” he said. “Without that they are in trouble.”
Victor Dzokoto, a fisher based in Ghana’s Keta municipality, said the practice of saiko and the ailing pelagic fishery are already having a negative impact on coastal communities.
“The crime rate is going higher, teenage pregnancy is going higher,” Dzokoto told Mongabay over the phone. “The level of education has totally dropped. People are no longer going to school. They tend to [walk] around the town, messing up every place. It is so disgusting.”
Dzokoto said some people who can no longer find fishing work are turning to crime and even piracy. “Maybe soon we will be like Somalia,” he said. “Because if our livelihoods are taken away from us, then we need to find an alternative.”
Christian Bueger, a professor of international relations at the University of Copenhagen, told Mongabay that piracy is currently one of the biggest threats to Ghana’s maritime security, and as a result, IUU fishing may not always be prioritized by the government.
“Illegal fishing basically undermines the welfare of coastal populations, and it also undermines their food security, leads to a lack of employment opportunities,” Burger said. This, in turn, may encourage some unemployed individuals to turn to crime at sea, including piracy or smuggling, he said.
Concerns over IUU fishing prompted the European Commission to issue Ghana its second yellow card on June 2. This is a formal warning that the EU could ban seafood exports from Ghana if the issues of illegal fishing are not rectified. Ghana received its first yellow card in 2013, which spurred the government to change some of its fisheries laws to guard against IUU. But the problems have persisted.
Dzokoto said he and other fishers recently spotted pole-and-line tuna vessels using high-voltage lights to attract fish, which is illegal under Ghanaian law. He also said these vessels were fishing during Ghana’s current closed season, the period between July 1 and Aug. 31 this year during which artisanal and industrial fishing fleets are prohibited from operating, in order to help fish populations regenerate.
“We are law-abiding people,” Dzokoto said. “So when they say this is the law, we try to follow the law. Yet the Fisheries Commission is demonstrating to us that some who can pay … can do whatever they want.”
But Arthur-Dadzie of Ghana’s Fisheries Commission said that the pole-and-line tuna vessels do not have permission to use illegal fishing techniques such as lights, and that the commission is working to resolve this issue after receiving reports about this activity. However, he added that the pole-and-line tuna vessels had a closed season earlier this year, between January and March, so they are legally allowed to fish during the current closed season. This earlier closed season for the pole-and-line tuna vessels does not appear to have been publicly announced.
Saiko canoes landing at Elmina port. Image by EJF.
‘The ones responsible’
Richster Amarfio, secretary of the Ghana Tuna Association, said he does not agree with many points in the EJF report, beginning with the assertion that 90% of industrial trawlers are Chinese-owned.
“I have always challenged the dignity of EJF because it’s skewed,” Amarfio told Mongabay. “It doesn’t follow any proper research. There are 72 registered trawl vessels in Ghana and they … none are foreign-owned. They are owned by Ghanaians.”
He did say, however, that Ghanaian vessels employ Chinese captains and officers since few Ghanaians have the necessary training and certifications to take these positions, and that Ghanaian fishing companies rely on foreign interests to help manage their businesses, which seems to comply with EJF’s claim that Ghanaian vessels are operating as “front” companies.
Amarfio also questioned the allegations of human rights abuses on these industrial trawlers, saying the EJF report only presents one side of the story. “Did they interview the company, the owners? No,” he said.
EJF told Mongabay that the organization did not speak to the officers or companies due to the “opacity of the sector.”
Amarfio said many of the issues may arise when observers challenge the authority of the captains, but that this — and a lot of the other issues raised in the report — could be resolved if the observers were properly trained.
Arthur-Dadzie also questioned the validity of the complaints in the EJF report. For instance, he suggested that crew and observers should bring their own food and water when they report for a job, which could help avoid disagreements over resources on board. He added that their wages should cover these expenses.
Kofi Agbogah, director of the Ghanaian coastal advocacy group Hen Mpoano, said the EJF report has generated a lot of discussion among human rights advocates in Ghana and is prompting further investigation into what the law can do to protect fisheries crew and observers.
Emmanuel Essien was appointed by Ghana’s Fisheries Commission to monitor industrial trawlers’ compliance with the laws of the country and protect declining fish stocks and the livelihoods in coastal communities that depend on them. Despite the danger he faced, he did his job and turned over video evidence of what he saw to the authorities. Then he went back out to sea again. And disappeared.
“What the report has done,” Agbogah said, “is it’s opened the eyes of people in the country who think that everything is going on smoothly.”
Environmental Justice Foundation. (2021). A human rights lens on the impacts of industrial illegal fishing and overfishing on the socio-economic rights of small-scale fishing communities in Ghana. Retrieved from https://ejfoundation.org/resources/downloads/EJF-DIHR-socio-economic-report-2021-final.pdf
Environmental Justice Foundation. (2020). Fear, hunger and violence: Human rights in Ghana’s industrial trawl fleet. Retrieved from https://ejfoundation.org/resources/downloads/EJF_Ghana-human-rights-in-fisheries_2020_final.pdf
Environmental Justice Foundation, & Hen Mpoano. (2019). Stolen at Sea: How illegal ‘saiko’ fishing is fuelling the collapse of Ghana’s fisheries. Retrieved from https://ejfoundation.org/resources/downloads/Stolen-at-sea_06_2019.pdf
Lazar, N., Yankson, K., Blay, J., Ofori-Danson, P., Markwei, P., Agbogah, K., … Bilisin, W. D. (2018). Status of the small pelagic stocks in Ghana in 2018. Scientific and Technical Working Group. USAID/Ghana Sustainable Fisheries Management Project (SFMP). Coastal Resources Center, Graduate School of Oceanography, University of Rhode Island. Retrieved from https://www.ghanalinks.org/documents/20181/0/Status+of+the+Small+Pelagic+Stocks+in+Ghana+in+2018/027bde19-fbfa-4ec0-8bb8-a9494247e117?version=1.0
Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @ECAlberts.