Chinese trawlers are emptying West African fishing grounds

As China’s global fishing net widens, artisanal fishermen off the coast of Ghana see their catches plummet and go to bed hungry

The wooden canoe is painted with scriptures. They’re meant to bring good fortune to the craft’s fishermen and protect against the dangers of the Atlantic – sky-high ocean waves, creatures of the deep and, increasingly, industrial Chinese trawlers.

“Colleagues have drowned when their canoes have capsized in the wake of trawlers. But the Chinese don’t care,” says Samuel Otoo, one of the canoe’s two crewmen.

In the early hours of the morning, before the heat begins to press, the fishermen set off from Jamestown, a small port outside Ghana’s capital, Accra. They return at 3pm in one piece, having encountered several trawlers, but the fishermen fear their days in the business are numbered.

This is because the Chinese vessels, far superior in size and capability than the artisanal fishermen of Ghana, are not only causing capsizes and deliberately destroying the nets of rival boats – they’re also bleeding the ocean dry of its fish.

Otoo and his fishing partner Alfred Ofore Kae say they no longer land any major catches when they go out to sea. The trawlers are a contributing factor to that, according to reports from British NGO Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF). 

Indeed, a single high-tech trawler can catch five times as much fish in a day as one small village fleet can in a year.

A fisherman casts his net in the waters of the Gulf of Guinea, outside Jamestown
Ghana’s fishermen fear their days in the business are numbered CREDIT: NATALIJA GORMALOVA/AFP/Getty Images

This trend of overfishing and ever-diminishing returns is being repeated up and down the entire West African coast, where hundreds of thousands of people rely on the sea to stave off hunger and make a living.

As early as the 1880s, people began to worry that the ocean’s fish could run out in the future if large quantities continued to be landed. British cod fishermen testified how they had to travel further and further in search of fish, only to return with ever smaller catches.

They turned to the UK Royal Commission on the Sea Fisheries, whose most influential member was Thomas Henry Huxley, a zoologist and Darwinist with a dogmatic belief in the power of nature and the survival of the strongest. 

Huxley snorted at the codfishers. To think that the fish might run out was “unscientific,” he said. Only the weak cod allowed themselves to be caught. The strong always escaped and thus the cod stock would evolve evolutionarily, according to Huxley.  “It is inconceivable that the great sea fisheries […] could ever be exhausted,” he argued at a seminary in 1883, a prevailing view in science at the time. 

But it would turn out that he was wrong. What the British fishermen experienced in the 1880s was only a vague premonition of what their West African colleagues now experience today.

Fishermen landing their catch, Tombo Port, Sierra Leone
Hundreds of thousands of people rely on the sea to stave off hunger and make a living CREDIT: Simon Townsley/The Telegraph
Fishermen landing their catch, Tombo Port, Sierra Leone
The trend of overfishing and ever-diminishing returns is being repeated up and down the entire West African coast CREDIT: Simon Townsley/The Telegraph

When Otoo and Ofore Kae reach the beach after their day at sea, a dozen colleagues help them pull up the canoe. They sing West African work songs. Drops of sweat run down their foreheads while the canoe makes it further and further up the beach, foot by foot.

It’s a group effort, but the profit seems paltry for so many. A box of sea bream and a small bucket of sardinella. Nothing more.

“Twenty years ago, we could catch four or five times as much,” says Ofore Kae, 42, who has been fishing since he was a young boy.

In the early 2000s, the small-scale fishermen of Jamestown usually didn’t have motor powered canoes and no GPS equipment like they have today.

“Still, we don’t get nearly as big catches now. So it is obvious that stocks are drastically declining,” says Ofore Kae.

‘We are getting poorer’

The stories of the fishermen are supported by research. A study led by the Ghana Fisheries Commission shows that catches of sardinella, mackerel and anchovies in 2019 were only 40 percent of what they were in 1993. 

It was worse for sardinella, with catch size just 10 percent of the 1993 volume. This in a country where up to 3 million people are directly or indirectly dependent on fishing.

“It shows in the family’s finances,” says Ofore Kae. “We are getting poorer.”

After the canoe is pulled ashore, Otoo and his wife Nelly Sampson open the door to the small beach shed where they and their seven-year-old child sleep. Not much more than the bed can fit in there. 

Sampson laughs when asked how the family is affected by the dwindling fish stocks. Do they ever go to bed hungry? “If Samuel doesn’t get a catch, it happens, yes.”

Fisherman landing his catch, Tombo Port, Sierra Leone
Catches are plummeting and Ghanaians often go to bed hungry CREDIT: Simon Townsley/The Telegraph
Locally caught fish arrive in Tombo Port, Sierra Leone
Bitterness emerges among the locals when the issue of dwindling catches is raised CREDIT: Simon Townsley/The Telegraph

In the middle of the shanty town on the beach, there is a small pub. Some children are sitting in front of a television watching Chinese action movies. Fishermen play board games and smoke. A certain bitterness spreads when the issue of dwindling catches is raised. Everyone has the same opinion on who’s to blame.

“They are stealing what should be ours,” says one man, pointing out to sea. “They” are not visible to the naked eye. But according to the app Marinetraffic, which uses tracking technology to monitor ship movements in real time, a handful of Chinese vessels are out at sea, prowling the deep blue for its precious commodities.

More may well have joined them, but chosen to be invisible. According to a study published in Science Advances at the end of 2022, it is not uncommon for trawlers off the coast of West Africa to turn off their tracking locators when they could be suspected of performing shady operations.

The Chinese have been fishing West Africa’s waters for decades. As early as the mid-1980s, the nation’s own territorial seas showed signs of overfishing, and a dedicated fleet was therefore established in order to maintain jobs and fish supplies. Especially over the last two decades, it has grown rapidly. 

No other country comes close to the fishing capacity of China. Today, the fleet consists of thousands of ships – estimates ranging from just under 3,000 to close to 17,000 – of which a large proportion are bottom trawlers, a type of vessel known to cause great ecological damage. 

Fishermen landing their catch, Tombo Port, Sierra Leone
No other country comes close to the fishing capacity of China CREDIT: Simon Townsley/The Telegraph

Many of the ships can be out for years in international waters thanks to huge motherships with large storage capacity. Smaller ships can dock with these larger vessels out at sea, unload catches, replenish supplies and change crews. 

There is no official catch data for the Chinese long-distance fishery. But according to many reports, the effects are now being felt more and more clearly in the world’s oceans. It has also led to diplomatic protests from several countries, including Ecuador, after Chinese ships landed thousands of tons of octopus off the Galapagos Islands.

Although much of the Chinese fishery does not violate current regulations, there are many examples of illegal fishing, human rights violations and corruption. This has become particularly evident in Ghanaian waters, where the Chinese fishing industry has been forced to adopt a different approach.

Ghanaian law does not allow fishing licenses for foreign vessels, but among the 74 bottom trawlers licensed in the West African nation, over 90 percent are actually Chinese owned – but via Ghanaian fronted companies. 

This was revealed in 2018 by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), which has heavily scrutinised the Chinese fishing fleet. Yet the Chinese companies have not even bothered to hide the traces. 

The trawlers – all listed on the website of the Ghanaian Ministry of Fisheries and Aquaculture Development – have Chinese names such as Meng Xin or Jin Hai. 

Fishermen landing their catch, Tombo Port, Sierra Leone
The Chinese have been fishing West Africa’s waters for decades CREDIT: Simon Townsley/The Telegraph

A Google search for one of the trawlers, Zhong Lu Yu 1003, leads to Zhonglu Oceanic Fisheries. Its website lists the trawler as part of the Chinese company’s fleet, yet, according to Ghanaian fishing authorities, the vessel is owned by a firm in Ghana.

The number of trawler licenses are far from sustainable, say researchers,  And they are also known to engage in illegal fishing beyond their regular quotas. 

Yet the exploitation of Ghana’s waters would not be taking place without corruption in the nation’s fishing industry, which, according to the EJF, is rampant.

A study based on 36 interviews with Ghanaian crewmen who worked on trawlers found that 86 percent witnessed corruption among fisheries inspectors and port authorities. This often took the form of payments of valuable export fish, which were delivered to government officials in return for keeping hush over illegal fishing activities.

So how far are Chinese captains prepared to go to stop those who dare challenge their sea-faring hegemony? Very far, some believe. Among them are hairdresser Bernard Essien and his brother, chauffeur James Essien, who both live in Accra’s Nima district, four miles from Jamestown. 

On July 5, 2019, James Essien received a phone call. Emmanuel, their third brother, was missing. He was employed as a fishery observer on a Chinese trawler, as part of a World Bank-funded project.

“The crew had had dinner together and Emmanuel had gone back to his cabin. The next day he wasn’t there anymore. The police found his mobile phone and passport in the cabin,” says James.

Just two weeks earlier, Emmanuel had done something unusual among observers. 

“He had provided a report and video footage to the police about illegal fishing activities on board another of the trawlers,” says James.

Bernard shows the handwritten report on his mobile phone. In it, Emmanuel describes how the Chinese captain ordered large quantities of fish to be dumped overboard, an illegal practice. 

The fish, which are unintentionally mopped up by the trawlers’ vast nets, aren’t considered that valuable by the Chinese so are discarded back into the ocean to make room onboard for higher-priced catches. Already dead, these fish then go to waste, left to rot away in the ocean.

Emmanuel’s report could have led to a fine of millions for the trawler. The family therefore suspects that Emmanuel was murdered – allegations the Chinese captain has refuted. 

“You don’t just fall overboard on those trawlers, the railing is high. They must have done something to him. He was alone there as an observer,” says James.

Fishery observer is a dangerous job and there are many cases around the world of observers who have disappeared without a trace. The reasons can only be speculated upon.

For the family, the incident is a source of deep trauma. After almost four years, they have not yet been able to bury Emmanuel and are still waiting for the police investigation to be completed. “We are very proud of what he did, but we want justice,” they say.

While Chinese trawlers continue their activities, the Ghana Fisheries Commission believes that the collapse of stocks cannot be primarily blamed on them. They claim the small scale fishermen are the main problem and have accused them of using illegal fishing tools, such as dynamite and agricultural insecticides.

Among local fishermen, however, it is a common perception that they have been forced to resort to illegal methods in order to compete with the Chinese trawlers.

Ofore Kae says he knows many people who use dynamite to kill fish. “The authorities should put a stop to this kind of thing, otherwise we will soon have no fish left,” he says.

Instead of switching to illegal methods to increase revenue, Ofore Kae wants to buy his own boat. Today he only works on other people’s boats, but with one of his own he hopes to make more money.

“I need to make sure that my children can go to school. Otherwise, they won’t be able to support me when I’m old. It is not easy when fishing is deteriorating. But God has a plan for us.”

Source: The Telegraph