The Destructive Race for Resources in the Atlantic Ocean

West Africa’s marine economy is under threat as the pressure on its resources increases. In September 2019, I had the opportunity to see this for myself.

I travelled from Accra across the arid, sandy plains of Ghana to the mouth of the Volta River in the south-east, during the peak fishing season. The estuary island of Ada Foah was fringed with palm trees, dugout fishing boats anchored on the shores, lulled by the languid flow of the tide, and the smell of their catch was rich in the air. We stood looking out at the vast Atlantic Ocean, with the primrose-coloured sand underfoot and plastic waste creeping between our toes. As we meandered across the island, we were joined by local fishermen, who insisted on giving us a boat tour, in exchange for a modest fee of 50 GHS (£7).

During this tour we learnt of the protected mangrove plantations: how they played a central role in transferring organic matter and energy from the land to marine ecosystems, serving as sea-defence and providing essential breeding grounds for aquatic and terrestrial species such as oysters, crabs, birds and fish.

Ghana is home to a vast and significant array of fauna, including twenty species of butterflies and three species of frogs that are endemic to the country. Although the coastlines are thriving in biodiversity, bush-hunting threatens the fauna, with crocodiles and turtles among many other mammals falling victim to slaughter. Hunting for bushmeat is loosely regulated by the government because the practice is still deeply rooted in tradition and remains an important component in the local diet. Like the ebbing and flowing of the sea, if the fish stocks are low, the demand for bushmeat will rise as hunger peaks.

West African Fishing Vessel
Crocodile Island, Ada Foah

Ghanaian cuisine is nutritious and filling. Many native dishes are based on starchy foods such as maize, plantain, yam and cassava, served with a spicy soup or stew with the addition of fish or meat. As a close friend used to say, “when we get hungry, we eat vegetables and animals, it is as simple as that”. Ghana’s current fish consumption sits at a whopping one million metric tonnes and contributes to food and nutrition security. It is consumed across the demographic spectrum, by the rural poor and by the urban rich, by the young and the old, in all regions in Ghana. The nation’s fishing sector is not only savoured by the masses, but it is also a valuable export, generating a significant source of foreign exchange for the government and thus; positively contributing to West Africa’s blue economy. These exports consist of tuna, frozen fish, shrimps, lobsters and cuttlefish.

Over 2.5 million people are employed in the fishing sector, providing employment opportunities during and post-harvest. This lucrative industry is playing a significant role in the socio-economic development and transformation of Ghana, by actively alleviating poverty in the country. However promising the blue economy to West Africa’s future may be, there are still existing challenges that are proving destructive to the sector, causing socio-economic decline and damage to the surrounding marine ecosystems. Climate change is unequivocally aggravating fisheries with rising sea temperatures, harsher and unreliable weather conditions and studies show the migration of fish from the equator to cooler waters.

Additionally, the Atlantic Ocean has become a playing field for international and industrial-scale fishing fleets racing against West African artisanal vessels to deplete and exploit the region’s fish stocks. This over-fishing has led to the decline of harvests from marine fisheries, damage to seafloors, habitat degradation and the reduction in biodiversity.

Illegal fishing continues to devastate West Africa.

Without the capacity to efficiently govern their waters, West African officials are struggling to keep unlicensed fishing vessels and illegal fishing and trading practices at bay. Livelihoods of artisanal fishermen along Ghana’s coast face regular and severe threats from pair-trawlers (utilising two fishing vessels with nets set in-between them), as they destroy local fishing gear and exhaust the West African waters of its marine resources. This buccaneer competition for depleting resources is leading to conflict between fishers and foreign fishing vessels.

Thankfully all is not lost for the conservation of the West African marine resource pool.

Stop Illegal Fishing is an independent African-based organisation, committed to ending the devastating impacts of illegal fishing. By working in partnership with the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), Planning and Coordination Agency of the African Union, surveillance practitioners and universities, Stop Illegal Fishing is harnessing global support to achieve a sustainable and legal fishing sector. By combining access to education, capacity-building and the implementation of investigative task forces across the continent, the organisation has been able to inform policy processes, create awareness and assist with identifying and halting illegal fishing operations. Stop Illegal Fishing has since created a network aimed at supporting African fishermen to stay within the sustainable and legal fishing framework.

West Africa’s marine economy is still under threat but with organisations like Stop Illegal Fishing supporting and sustaining the region’s blue economy, there will be light at the end of the tunnel.

West African man looking down the lens, wearing a hat that says “Stop Illegal Fishing”

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