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How fishers & fishmongers are battling for survival on the frontier of climate change in Ghana

This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center.

ACCRA, Ghana — At an open shed along the coast of Bortianor in Accra, one can hear the chatter of market women who hang around the landing beach most mornings in hope of buying fish to trade as fishers pull their nets miles away to the shore.

“Sometimes, it takes as long as four hours to bring our nets ashore,” artisanal fisherman George Kowukumeh said. “And over the years, we have witnessed a drastic reduction in our catch.”

Artisanal fisherman George Kowukumeh at Bortianor landing beach, credit: AL-Fattah
Artisanal fisherman George Kowukumeh at Bortianor landing beach, credit: AL-Fattah

There are currently about 150 fishing canoes operating at the Bortianor landing beach according to industry experts.

In Ghana, the artisanal fishing sector directly employ over 200,000 fishers, delivering 80 percent of total fish supply locally and provides livelihood to over 2 million people including thousands of market women in the value chain.

When it comes to fish, Ghanaian women have traditionally been confined to processing and retailing. The role of women is significant because they add value to fresh fish through processing, while distributing and preserving fish to ensure its availability long after the peak season and allowing it to reach consumers far from the landing beach.

However, the near collapse of the pelagic fish stock, which is the main target for artisanal fishers has left fishers and women in the value chain vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

A two-month investigation by Gideon Sarpong based on interviews with dozens of fishery experts, researchers, fishers and women in the value chain has shown declining income levels for thousands of fishing households partly blamed on climate change and the rise in ocean temperature. A non-existent government intervention program to support fishing communities, particularly women who are very vulnerable to the negative effects of climate change has left them to their fate.

Climate change impact on fishers and fishmongers

It is over three hours since the fishers began pulling their nets at the Bortianor landing beach. There is an obvious anxiety among the market women and fishmongers gathered at the shore who buy their fish directly from the fishers.

Agnes Lamptey, a fishmonger for over 30 years explains the reason for the anxiety: “when there is no catch, we do not get any fish to process for selling. We can’t even provide for our children. My children are in high school and are forced to stay at home when there is a meagre catch.”

Moments after the conversation with Agnes, the fishers manage to bring their catch to the shore. “The catch today is disappointing and full of garbage,” local fisher, George Kowukumeh said. “Several hours of very hard work has produced less than 500 cedis ($62) worth of fish for the 9-member crew, what do we do with this?”

Fishers at Bortianor landing beach in Accra pull their nets to shore, credit: Al-Fattah
Fishers at Bortianor landing beach in Accra pull their nets to shore, credit: Al-Fattah
Catch by fishers at Bortiano landing beach, contains plastic waste, credit: AL-Fattah
Catch by fishers at Bortiano landing beach, contains plastic waste, credit: AL-Fattah

Looking dejected and disappointed, some of the market women decide to wait a little longer for other fishing canoes that are yet to return to the shore. For the fishers, the disappointment is gradually becoming a routine as they quickly prepare to mend their nets.

In 2019, the Sustainable Fisheries Management research revealed that despite increasing fishing effort by the artisanal fishing fleet in Ghana’s waters, small pelagic fish catch has fallen by over 85 percent, from the peak in reported landings of 138,955 metric tonnes recorded in 1996. The researchers blamed climate change and other man-made activities such as illegal fishing as a major cause for the decline in pelagic fish stock in the country’s waters.

Dr. Opoku Pabi, lecturer and senior research fellow at the Institute for Environmental and Sanitation Studies, University of Ghana explained that, “fish catch is strongly related to surface water and atmospheric temperatures; generally, the lower the temperatures, the higher the fish catch.”

“This does vary somewhat across species, however: the catch for Pelagic (round sardinella) peaks when sea water temperature is at its lowest” he added.

Data from a research paper he co-authored showed that Ghana has experienced a, “steady rise in atmospheric and sea water temperatures since the 1960s, with the latter increasing by an average of 0.011degree Celsius yearly.”

The paper also noted that the: “end of the rainy season” which traditionally signals the start of the main fishing season has become very “unpredictable due to variability in rainfall distribution patterns, exacerbating poverty and indebtedness among artisanal fishers and women in the value chain.”

Traditionally, women in the fishing communities across Ghana – particularly, the queen fishmongers – have owned boats and financed trips, guaranteeing them a portion of the catch.

But this traditional system is giving way as profits fall.  Fishmonger, Agnes Lamptey whose husband is also a fisherman counts her loses after investing in the day’s fishing trip.

She explained: “the fuel prices are expensive. I contributed 100 cedis ($12) to the day’s fishing trip and they returned with basically nothing. So can you imagine, I lose about 3000 cedis ($370) in a month if there’s no daily catch. We are really suffering especially, we the women. We need money to take care of our children and keep our business going.”

Agnes Lamptey, Fishmonger and trader at Bortianor, Accra, credit: AL-Fattah
Agnes Lamptey, Fishmonger and trader at Bortianor, Accra, credit: AL-Fattah

Steve Trent, chief executive of Environmental Justice Foundation, an NGO that monitors economic and environmental abuses has warned that any further decline in Ghana’s fish stock, particularly pelagic species would be, “catastrophic and have huge socio-economic costs.”

A 2021 study which focused on the effects of decline in fish landings on the livelihoods of coastal communities showed that decline in fish landings has “translated into low-income levels” for households that have directly depended on fishing over the years.

According to the study, 53 percent of fishing households maintained that they had seen a reduction in their incomes over the last five years.

Closed fishing season – a painful solution?

In response to the dwindling fish stock in Ghana’s waters, the Fisheries Ministry in April, 2022 announced a one month closed fishing season for artisanal fishers and semi-industrial vessels which began on July 1st. The minister, Mrs. Mavis Hawa Koomson in a statement argued that the, “closed season was agreed on based on scientific evidence and stakeholder consensus to reduce the excessive pressure and over-exploitation of stocks in the marine sub-sector which will help replenish the fish stocks.”

Despite the consensus among various stakeholders on the need to protect spawners from capture during the breeding season, fishers and women in the value chain in several fishing communities including at Jamestown, Elmina, Tema and Bortianor have fiercely rejected this directive.

Jacob Tetteh, spokesperson for fishers at the Bortianor landing beach insisted that the closed season must be “scrapped” despite admitting to a drastic reduction in fish catch over the years.

 “The fisherfolks work is not like government work, what they get is what they spend in the house every day. So how will they survive during this period” he argued.

“What will happen to all the women and their kids who depend on the ocean for their livelihood? A loss of revenue for a single day affects the entire community.”

The fisheries minister did not respond to requests for comment.

Jacob Tetteh, spokesperson for fishers at the Bortianor landing beach, credit: AL-Fattah
Jacob Tetteh, spokesperson for fishers at the Bortianor landing beach hold on to a closed season flyer, credit: AL-Fattah

The world has already warmed more than 1 degree Celsius(1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) since the preindustrial era, and last year the oceans contained more heat energy than at any point since record-keeping began six decades ago.

According to a study published in the Journal Science last April, if humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions continues and the ocean’s temperature continues to increase, roughly a “third of all marine animals could vanish within 300 years.”

Way forward

To reduce the vulnerability of climate change impact on Ghana’s fishery sector, particularly women in the value chain, Daniel Doku Nii Nortey, deputy director of coastal resources NGO Hen Mpoano, has recommended a retraining and a skills development program for fishers and women processors.

The state must invest in “alternative livelihood training programs such as soap making, hairdressing, tailoring etc. in coastal communities,” Daniel said. “These will help families diversify their source of livelihood.”

For the many fishers and women in coastal communities across Ghana, the struggle for survival stares them in the face each morning.

“It is a hopeless situation,” said fishmonger Janet Mensah who inherited the trade from her mother over 20 years ago.

“I do not know what the future holds for me and my children in this profession, it all doesn’t make sense to me again. We need help.”

Fishmonger Janet Mensah at Bortianor, credit: AL-Fattah
Fishmonger Janet Mensah at Bortianor, credit: AL-Fattah

Reporting and writing by Gideon Sarpong | Gideon Sarpong is Hub Leader at SOA Ghana

Climate & Ocean Action Ocean Conservation

SOA Ghana Hub join global call for a moratorium on deep seabed mining

Sustainable Ocean Alliance (SOA) Ghana have joined the global call for a moratorium on deep seabed mining during an African dialogue on deep seabed mining which took place last Thursday in Accra.

Commercial deep-sea mining is a new threat that looms for our already imperiled ocean. If allowed to go ahead, research shows that it would irreversibly destroy ancient deep-sea habitats, impact those who derive their livelihoods from the ocean (for example from fisheries), and risk disturbing the planet’s biggest carbon sink.

Gideon Sarpong, Hub Leader at SOA Ghana explained that deep seabed mining poses an “unjustified threat to the health of our ocean, the climate and the present and future generations.”

He also called on the Africa Group representing the continent at the International Seabed Authority to “unambiguously represent the interest of people across the continent by joining the call for a moratorium” unless and until a number of conditions around environmental harm, good governance and social license can be met.

Duncan Currie, environmental lawyer and member of the Deep-Sea Conservation Coalition also called for reforms at the International Seabed Authority, the body that is mandated to regulate deep seabed mining explaining that terrestrial mining as it currently stands can power the renewable revolution.

“The argument is made that we need these minerals for a renewable revolution but this is simply not true, you cannot say there are not enough minerals both on land and in circulation to provide the minerals we need for renewable revolution” he said, adding, “once seabed mining starts there will be a massive industrial mining on the bottom of the ocean and we will have terrestrial mining alongside. Let us be real.”

The ISA, he explained has a conflict-of-interest issue. “There is a conflict-of-interest issue at the ISA as a regulator as well as a potential beneficiary of hundreds and thousands of billions of dollars,” he said.

“This certainly needs to be addressed. We suggest a moratorium is best, backed by another implanting agreement. You will need to separate the regulator and the body the receives the royalty.”

Phil McCabe, an ocean campaigner and member of Deep-Sea Conversation Coalition also described the proposed deep seabed mining as “completely inappropriate.”

“It is completely an inappropriate activity given the dire state of the environment in general. If you look at the ocean, every measurable indicator of the ocean health is in decline and we are talking about adding another pressure, another stressor, it is crazy,” he said.

SOA African hubs ultimately aim to galvanize stakeholder support to ensure that the youth’s position on deep-seabed moratorium clearly represented by the Africa group before irreparable damage is done.

Source: SOA Ghana

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Climate & Ocean Action Home News Ocean Conservation

SOA African hubs join forces in new initiative to tackle deep seabed mining

Sustainable Ocean Alliance (SOA) network of hubs in Africa have joined forces to tackle the evolving threat of deep seabed mining which threatens the health of the ocean and the larger climate system.

Deep seabed mining if allowed will “exploit biodiverse and fragile ecosystems that will result in severe environmental impacts that we cannot fully understand, let alone predict or mitigate,” said team lead Gideon Sarpong.

The hubs in Ghana, Nigeria (Lagos) and Cameroon will hold several regional policy dialogues and deploy a campaign to ensure that decision-making processes around deep-seabed mining by the Africa group and at the International Seabed Authority (ISA) are inclusive, transparent, accountable, adequately account for intergenerational equity and ensure the protection of marine biodiversity.

Gideon Sarpong, who is also the Hub Leader in Ghana stated that, “the knowledge gap on the topic of ocean mining and its potential environmental impact on biodiversity and ecosystems must be adequately communicated to decision makers.”

“The African group representing African states at the International Seabed Authority (ISA) should consider supporting the moratorium on deep-seabed mining, for at least 10 years, in line with the UN Decade of Ocean Science” he added.

Meanwhile, Forbi Perise, SOA Africa Representative and Hub Leader in Cameroon hopes to engage more than 20 University lecturers and professors in two higher educational institutions in the DSBM African Coalition project.

“We plan to involve more than 500 students/youths in our effort in advocating for the protection of the deep blue.  Through multi stakeholder engagement our goal is get more attention towards the protection of the marine ecosystem,” he explained.

Hub Leader in Lagos, Adenike Adeiga will also use this initiative to engage key stakeholders to strengthen regulatory frameworks governing ocean mining and call for the creation of Marine Protected Areas in Nigeria.

The initiative which is expected to last until the end of the year and supported by Sustainable Ocean Alliance will ultimately galvanize stakeholder support to ensure that the youth’s position on deep-seabed moratorium is unambiguously represented by the Africa group at ISA.

By SOA African team

Climate & Ocean Action Home News SOA Ghana Fellows

Blessing Aglago writes: Together we should account for aquatic life

Fishing remains a major source of livelihood for thousands of people living around the coastal areas in West Africa. Despite this huge economic benefit, the ocean provides protecting these coastal ecosystems has not received the much-needed attention.

Among a number of illegal practices which threaten the livelihood of these fishers and aquatic life is chemical pollution.  Chemical pollution is the usage of harmful contaminated substances that affect health condition of something. Manufactured pollutants of chemicals that threaten the ocean include pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, detergents, oil, industrial chemicals, and sewage.

Pollutants from the environment have its way to the coastal areas and enters the ocean. Nutrients packed fertilizers, DDT, chemicals for fishing, insecticide’s etc eventually ends in the ocean that triggers and rob the water for oxygen and affects the life of marine organisms.  

DDT is one of the first synthetic insecticides that was developed in the 1940s and past figures have shown that as much as 25% of the worlds DDT production might have ended up in the ocean and a proportion of this has entered the marine food web.

These activities do not only affect fishers but aquatic ecosystem that is normally wipe off by the introduction of too much algae and phytoplankton with devastating consequences.

These together with other toxic waste harms the food chain of aquatic life. Aquatic life suffers when there is loss of fresh water and oxygen. We therefore are mandated as individuals to check the chemicals that we release into the environment to make sure aquatic life is protected.

By Blessing Aglago | SOA Ghana Fellow

Climate Change

Iddrisu Zakaria writes: How Pollution of the White Volta River threatens Aquatic life

Nawuni is a small community located in the Kumbungu District of the Northern Region and a 45-minute drive from the regional capital Tamale.

The White volta, one of the longest rivers in Ghana passes through this community whose inhabitants are largely Ewes with pockets of Dagombas. The main economic activities in this community is fishing and vegetable farming.

The water serves as a huge source of livelihood for the people in the community and a home to treatment plants of the Ghana Water Company Limited which currently supplies three million gallons of water every day to five districts including the Sagnarigu Municipality and the Tamale Metropolis.

Despite its strategic location and importance to the people of the Northern Region, the community is fraught with a lot of challenges.

Beyond the perennial floods, lies an enormous sanitation challenge that appears overlooked but continues to pose unimaginable threats to the people. With some 84 households and nearly three thousand people, the community has no single public or household toilet facility and no proper means of disposing liquid or solid waste.

As a result, residents have resorted to desecrating the very body that holds the means to their livelihood as they openly defecate and throw rubbish indiscriminately into the White Volta River. Stand on the bank of the mighty Volta and scenes that greet you will be the sight of sacks of rèfuse, plastic bottles and human excreta wrapped in plastic bags. Very often, men are seen defecating into the river from their boats.

It is unsurprising that as per statistics available at the Dalun Health Center, a nearby community where the residents go to seek treatment, cholera has become the most prevalent condition in Nawuni.

Fishing which is also a source of livelihood is also under threat as the constant pollution of the river has diminished its fishing stock. Mohammed Habib is a fisherman. He knows the river like the back of his palm as he fished in it with his father since the age of five but as his dad becomes old and too frail to take the boat, Habib, for half a decade now, has been paddling the boat and casting the nets to provide for a family of six including himself, his wife whom he took not too long ago, his father and two younger siblings. I met him at the river bank with a heap of worms gathered before him that he cuts into pieces to fix into hooks in preparation for an expedition.

He said to me that a good catch could fetch him 200 Cedis in a day but the problem is they have been experiencing dwindling fortunes in recent years. He pointed to an empty space further upstream and said women usually come all the way from Tamale to wait for them there and to buy their fresh fish but the table has turned as the unfavourable fortunes means the women don’t come anymore and they now have to go wherever the traders are to sell to them, a situation that has also turned pricing out of their favour. Asked whether the low catch could be

attributed to the incessant pollution of the White Volta, Habib replies in the affirmative. He said like humans, fish cannot thrive in the dirt.

“Fish and people are the same. They don’t like dirty things but every day we come and throw rubbish in this water, we do toilet in it and they eat them and may die even before we catch them,” Habib noted.

Peter Agbavor known popularly as Soldier, apart from fishing also operates an engine boat that ferries people across to communities beyond the river. He confirms to me all that has been said by Habib. He said before they virtually were casting their nets behind their homes but for the constant pollution which has diminished the fish stock, they now are forced to travel farther in their boats to fish and this sometimes means passing the night in the Volta. Soldier, also lamented the disposal of rubbish in the river is not only detrimental to aquatic life but to themselves as sometimes their nets are destroyed when instead of trapping fish, they trap sacks of rèfuse, bags of faecal matter and Others. He appealed that authorities build for them household latrines and place rèfuse containers at vantage points to enable the proper disposal of solid waste.

Iddrisu, SOA Ghana Fellow travels on the White Volta

Assembly Member for Nawuni Electoral Area, Hon. Alhassan Yussif, said the poor sanitation situation remains a bigger challenge and something he does not sleep over. He disclosed that relentlessly he has pursued the Kumbungu District Assembly to intervene and to help his people overcome the sanitation challenge but has always been met with one excuse or another.

For the pollution of the White Volta, he revealed that engineers of the Ghana Water Company have complained severally to him to tell his electorates to stop disposing waste into the river as the cost for treating and distribution of raw water has more than tripled. He tells me that he and his people have no option than to defecate and throw waste into the river as they have no other ways to rid their community of filth.

The Assembly Member concludes our interview by appealing to benevolent individuals, groups and NGOs to come to the rescue of his people.

Report by  Iddrisu Zakaria | SOA Ghana Fellow