The Lu Rong Yuan Yu 956 was apprehended at sea having caught at least 13.9 tonnes of ‘small pelagic’ fish in a single day, a significant proportion of which were undersized juveniles. These fish were caught using nets with a mesh size below the legal limit. This is confirmation of the sheer quantity of small pelagic fish – the staple catch of canoe fishers – taken by illegally fishing trawlers and the scale of the impact on Ghana’s key fishery.
After detaining the vessel on June 16 this year, the Marine Police brought charges against the Chinese Captain, Chief Engineer and Second officer, and two Ghanaian crew members. Appearing before an out-of-court settlement committee, the owner of the vessel agreed to pay a fine of US$1 million. This is the statutory minimum fine under Ghana’s 2014 Fisheries Amendment Act. However, this is the first time that it has been imposed on an industrial trawl vessel, and since the Act came into force other perpetrators have paid lower sums despite the law.
The small-mesh nets found on board – which are illegal for an industrial trawler – show that the vessel was targeting small pelagic fish, such as sardinella. In recent years, industrial trawlers, licensed to fish for species such as octopus, have targeted vast quantities of small pelagics for the destructive and illegal saiko trade. These catches are unloaded on to specially adapted saiko canoes out at sea, before being sold to local communities.
Known as the ‘people’s fish’, small pelagics are the main catch for artisanal canoe fishers and a staple food in Ghana. However, populations have crashed over the past two decades, threatening the livelihoods of canoe fishers and the food security of coastal communities. Scientists predict the imminent collapse of the fishery if urgent action is not taken.
Examining the case, the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) used tracking technology to determine that the vessel left port at around midnight on June 16. Since it was apprehended later that day, this means that the trawler was able to take 13.9 - 19.6 tonnes of these fish in a single day. A normal fishing trip will last 30-45 days or more. This confirms the devastating impact that illegal fishing by industrial trawlers is having on Ghana’s small pelagic fishery.
This case also highlights how illegal fishing makes sustainable fisheries management impossible. It follows the first ever closed season for the artisanal fishing fleet, which took place from 15 May-15 June 2019. This was put in place to give fish populations the chance to replenish, and stave off collapse. The fact that trawlers were out at sea during this time, illegally targeting the canoe fishers’ catch, means any ecological gains may have been severely undermined.
EJF’s Executive Director Steve Trent said: “Over two million Ghanaians rely on fisheries for their livelihoods and food security. The saiko trade in particular has created an incentive for industrial trawlers to illegally target small pelagics, the mainstay of the artisanal fleet. EJF welcomes this robust and transparent enforcement action. The concern now is ensuring that the fine is paid in full. In the past, fines have been negotiated down or opaque out-of-court settlements have obscured whether the law has been enforced. It is vital that this fine is paid to deter others, and that the outcome of this and other cases are published on the Ministry’s website.”