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Coastal Ghana: increased effort needed to combat environmental threats

By Mebrahtu Ateweberhan - 29 Jun 2012 12:29:40 GMT
Coastal Ghana: increased effort needed to combat environmental threats

Anchovy boats; Credit: © Mebrahtu Ateweberhan, PhD

I spent the last two months in Western Ghana as part of a research team conducting marine ecological and fisheries surveys. Although a two-month stay is barely enough to give a full understanding of the culture and people, I learnt some important lessons while talking to fishers and local community members about their perspectives on local and regional economics, government and most of all the environment.

Ghana has impressed the world with its fast growing economy, its being on course to meet the Millennium Development Goals, and especially by its fully fledging democracy and investment in educating its children. The excitement in the air about the rewards of a fast growing economy supported by oil and mining, mixed together with fear of what the 'black gold' could do to their country is there for all to see. In almost every village that we visited there are heated discussions around the same subjects - fish, oil and environment.

In order to understand the socio-economic context of our ecological study, we conducted some basic social surveys on observations and perceptions of the fishing community. A preliminary analysis of our survey presents some unique data, but importantly there are no unexpected results that the coastal communities or fisheries managers do not already know - our findings corroborate a longstanding observation of dwindling fisheries resources and changing coastal ecosystems. Ghana's coastal waters, once depicted as bountiful with fish and other marine resources for centuries, are today suffering from overfishing with significant effects on the livelihoods of the coastal communities, made more noticeable by fishermen increasingly resorting to illegal means of fishing out of desperation, and a community unsure of how to tackle this serious environmental threat.

From Axim to Cape Three Points and Busia-Butre and beyond the story is the same: "A few decades ago, there were fewer fishers and lower numbers of boats in general. There were only a small number of semi-industrial and industrial boats. The fishing gear was very simple. Now we use larger nets with smaller mesh sizes and travel farther to the open sea, spending more and more time out at sea."

Despite this increase in effort, the amount of fish caught is declining or at best has remained the same. The fish caught are smaller in size and fishermen are increasingly using illegal means, such as dynamite and poison fishing, light fishing and illegal gear types. And due to a lack of adequate monitoring of industrial boats, we have no idea how much or what kinds of fish are caught by these fleets, which are mostly foreign owned. These boats are not inspected properly and the reports given by the boat captains are accepted at face value, despite clear indications of misreporting of catches.

Ghana has a long history of seafaring and traditional fishing and the whole coast is dotted with fishing villages whose way of life is highly dependent on marine resources. These communities contribute to at least 50% of the fish consumed in the country, a staggering 300,000 tonnes. This history is severely threatened, along with its contribution to Ghana's food security and GDP, as well as the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of coastal people, fishmongers and traders that are spread throughout the country.

This observation is not an isolated story and is by no means unique to Ghana. Global fisheries, from Alaska to Antarctica and from the far Pacific to the Indian Ocean, are rife with examples of overfishing. It is a familiar problem in which impacts spiral out of control because no one feels responsible for management of a common access resource.

Both in and outside the water we observed enormous amounts of rubbish, mostly composed of plastic and other urban waste. Environmental awareness is very low and many locals, including school children, wantonly discard plastic bags and other litter. The most notorious of these is the square-shaped water bag, locally known as 'ice water'. Although the easy-to-use bag made of inexpensive material makes it all handy, the downside is the very light empty plastic bags, easily carried by wind and water, have only one place to end up - the sea. Plastics are notorious for being non biodegradable (persisting for a long time in the environment and passing through marine food chains fishing nets and fishermen are being forced to spend much of their precious time in cleaning nets.

Many areas of the near-shore sea bottom are also littered by lost or discarded nets (also called ghost nets) that continue killing fish, and will keep doing so until they themselves biodegrade.

Almost all the sandy and rocky beaches that we visited show signs of oil pollution, manifested by the presence of tar balls, and in some cases, such as the break water of Paradise Beach near Miemia Village, these become larger, perhaps signalling a recent oil slick. The recent environmental catastrophe witnessed in the Gulf of Mexico and close to home in the Niger Delta is a stark reminder of what could happen when exploitation of oil and other natural wealth is unwisely managed.

All these problems are a manifestation of a bigger underlying quandary that stems from a lack of appropriate environmental stewardship. It compounds pre-existing environmental problems in the western coast of Ghana linked with mining related pollution and expansion of rubber plantation. This monoculture is expanding at the expense of natural forests and wildlife and land share by other livelihoods, such as traditional small scale farming (cassava, plantain, yam, etc) that feeds the country's increasingly growing population.

In Ghana, whatever traditional community controls of marine resource there were, seem to have significantly deteriorated for some known and other unknown reasons. Although this poses a major challenge to any management body that seeks to develop a comprehensive environmental policy framework, all hope is not lost; many communities have a desire to take action to address the environmental threats. The chief fisherman at Butre describes this in a more compelling and eloquent way: "Our community knows that our marine resources are diminishing. Everyone knows that there are fishers that use illegal means such as dynamite fishing and carbide and ground mosquito coils that are used to poison fish. We want to stop them and we can stop them but we need support from the government to do that. If these people are not stopped, then each law-abiding person will feel that he/she is losing and will want to do the same. Management regulations need to be enforced everywhere; you cannot successfully enforce management while leaving others benefit from illegal fishing."

The awareness of environmental threats and the willingness and readiness to stand up to the challenge by local communities is a good starting point for any fisheries or coastal management action. Small and tight communities such as the ones we have seen in Butre coordinate their actions relatively easily - making collective decisions easier. Experience from other countries shows the sense of 'neighbourhood' created by communities rewarded for protecting their resources, results in other social positive feedbacks where the number of community members complying with rules and regulations keeps on growing.

The key question is whether Ghana is doing sufficient to promote community based coastal management? Currently, the answer is no. All the above-mentioned observations point to the presence of a clear gap between Ghana's potential for environmental stewardship and the environmental status of its coastal area. With a rapidly growing economy and relatively far better government institutions than in many other parts of Africa, Ghana should definitely be doing more for its coasts and ocean. The rewards of a growing economy should include a responsibility that development be sustainable and environmentally sound, an objective that is undeniably the primary interest of future generations of Ghanaians.

All the heated discussions and debates by local communities about oil, overfishing and the environment in general are an important potential ingredient for improved environmental governance, and why I think Ghana could do better in its coastal environmental stewardship. What is missing is that tiny push from the government.

Dr Ateweberhan is a marine scientist and was in western Ghana as part of Blue Ventures Conservation team. The study was commissioned by the Coastal Resource Centre (University of Rhode Island) which is endeavouring to establish Ghana's first marine protected area (MPA) through ecosystem based approaches and engaging coastal communities.

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Topics: Sustainability