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Saitei: Selling our fishing rights

Saitei and Saikouare Japanese words meaning “worst” and “best”, respectively (Jisho.org).

The history of Saiko fishing (corrupted from Saikou) – the most destructive form of fishing involving the illegal catching of the juvenile catch of pelagic fish by Ghanaian-flagged industrial trawlers and their illegal transshipment to local Ghanaian specialized canoes-cannot be discussed without coming across the word Saitei.

History has it that Japanese industrial trawler fishermen fishing in Ghanaian waters around the 1960s and 70s would dangle small-sized pelagic fish by-catch at sea before Ghanaian artisanal fishers, shouting “Saitei!Saitei!”, referring to the small-sized by-catch as “not good”, and for that matter were to be discarded.

The Ghanaian fishers, on the other hand, would respond to their Japanese counterparts that the small-sized fish was “good”, (which translates in Japanese as “saikou”).

The Ghanaian fishers would then exchange fruit and freshwater (goodies) for the small-sized pelagic fish by-catch.

It means that what is currently known in Ghanaian fisheries parlance as SAIKO, has indeed always been ominous. Just like how drug addicts eventually become hooked to illicit and destructive narcotic substances through offerings of free doses of same substances initially, the Saiko fish trade has similarly flourished in Ghana.

Saiko is no longer a barter item but has become a niche trade commodity transacted with money at sea.

Saiko fish, comprising mainly juvenile small pelagic fish (sardinella, chub mackerel, anchovies), now forms about three times the retained landings of trawlers and therefore cannot be considered as by-catch.

The small pelagic fish are purposefully targeted illegally by Ghanaian-flagged industrial trawlers which, on the other hand, are licensed to target demersal fish. Trawlers now spend many weeks at sea in order to catch the small-pelagic fish to increase profits.

The purposeful targeting by industrial trawlers has been as a result of rising demand for fish due to low landings by the artisanal fishers. It is therefore a major contributing factor to the drastic decline in the landings of the artisanal fishers to the extent that the usual seasonality associated with small-pelagic fish landings in July-September has been completely lost.

Saiko fish is illegally transshipped at sea from industrial trawlers to specially-built wooden canoes at Elmina and Apam beaches, and now serves as a source of supply to fill the market-demand gap for the small pelagic fish.

This, however, presents a dilemma to poor fishing communities who now have to buy illegal Saiko fish instead of consuming fish from their own fishing canoes. It has also motivated the artisanal fishers, out of desperation, to adopt other illegal fishing methods such as light fishing, dynamite, poisons and the use of very small meshed nets which also contribute to the already dire situation.

In order to unravel the reason for the colossal landings of small-pelagic fish by the industrial bottom trawlers, a Trawl Gear Audit was commissioned by the Fisheries Commission in 2019 to examine the design and technical specifications of bottom trawls used by the industrial vessels and make suggestions for improvement where necessary.

The audit report has revealed that the trawl nets have cod-ends constructed with stiff twines which prevent the escape of small-sized fish. Some of the trawl nets have cod-ends and chafers with mesh sizes smaller than the approved 60mm.

The Gear Audit also found the proportion of pelagic fish, particularly chub mackerel, in the landings of the trawl net rather disturbing. The report has therefore recommended the immediate removal of the trawl gear with the non-selective cod-ends from the fishery to protect juvenile fish.

Since the existing fisheries legislation only emphasizes the 60mm mesh size control measures, without any provisions regarding the size, gape, length and breadth of the trawl net, Ghanaian operators of industrial trawlers, partnered by Chinese benefactors and beneficiaries, have used trawl nets capable of targeting small pelagic fish resulting in landings which far exceed their retained catches by as much as three times.

This is what has fueled the illegal transshipment of the small pelagic fish at sea to specially-built wooden canoes and also the dumping of colossal quantities into the sea. It is therefore required that the law regarding the trawl net be amended.

The persistent decline in the landings of small pelagic fish by the artisanal fleet over nearly two decades has been studied and discussed broadly and served as the basis for the Scientific and Technical Working Group (STWG, established and funded under the USAID Sustainable Fisheries Management Project and comprised of fishers, fisheries scientists, and practitioners) in 2017, to predict the imminent collapse of the small pelagic fishery by 2020.

Based on the advice of the STWG, the Fisheries Commission implemented the first fishing closed season for three fishing fleets (artisanal, semi-industrial, and industrial trawlers) in 2019. Prior to this, only the trawl fleet had implemented closed seasons ranging from one to two months from 2016 to 2018.

The 2019 closed season for the artisanal and semi-industrial fleet was from 15 May to 15 June, whereas the period for the trawlers was 1 August to 30 September. As contained in the National Fisheries Management Plan (2015-19), the fishing closed seasons should be implemented (incrementally from one to four months) annually over many years to enable the overexploited small pelagic fish stocks to be rebuilt.

However, due to Covid-19 restrictions, the fishing closed season for 2020 has been postponed by the Ministry of Fisheries and Aquaculture Development. It is hoped that conditions will be normalized to enable the fishing closed seasons to resume as early as 2021.

The artisanal fishers have been raising concerns for several years about the activities of the trawlers regarding the illegal landing, discarding, dumping and transshipment at sea which has deprived them of a sustainable and profitable small pelagic fishery.

Their agitation about Saiko reached a crescendo in August 2020, when they organized protests against the activities of the industrial trawlers in all four regions in Ghana with the call to the government to fulfil the promised ban on Saiko activities by the end of 2020, as contained in the 2020 Budget Statement.

What the over 300,000 artisanal fishers are demanding regarding Saiko, what the scientific community have cautioned, and what government has proposed to do in response, do not conflict each other. This is the only way by which the dying fishing industry would be saved for posterity, and also to curb the importation of fish costing over USD100 million annually.

It is required that actions already guaranteed in existing Fisheries Regulation be expeditiously taken irrespective of how it all started.A stitch in time saves nine.