Chinese Trawling Fleet Posing As Domestic Operators Drains Fish from Ghanaian Waters

Chinese Trawl Vessel in Ghana Photo: EJF

By Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

West Africa’s fishing grounds are quickly being monopolized by the Chinese distant-waters fishing industry, according to a new report released by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF). In Ghana, an estimated 90% of the country’s coastal trawlers are, for all intents and purposes, owned by Chinese corporations despite laws banning foreign ownership. Experts say that overfishing by these “false flagged” vessels is not only siphoning fish and capital out of countries like Ghana but also destroying the local ecosystems that Ghanaians need to survive. 

Why This Matters: In Ghana, the local fishing economy relies on coastal fishing for food and income. As Chinese industrial fishing operations encroach on these resources and expand operations they contribute to wide-scale ecosystem destruction. Climate change in Ghana is already impacting other food sources as well; the country’s most fertile agricultural lands are suffering from erratic rainfall and rising temperatures. EJF found that if the Ghanaian government closes the loophole in its license system that the Chinese trawlers are exploiting, Ghana could reduce trawler numbers by around 87% from 75 to 10 vessels and still double the revenue generated in 2018. 

By the Numbers

EJF found that Ghana is losing millions of dollars each year in arrangements with Chinese fishing companies, many of whom are subsidized by the Chinese government. Ghana’s licensing fees are some of the lowest in West Africa, and foreign companies are taking advantage, obtaining licenses to fly under the Ghanaian flag through front companies and opaque corporate structures. In 2019, eight Chinese companies operated 75% of the trawlers in Ghana, with just two of them accounting for 44% of trawlers.

The report found that by increasing licensing fees and enforcement for fisheries-related infringements, Ghana could generate an additional $14.4 to 23.7 million annually. But that’s easier said than done. In 2020, Ghana increased its licensing fees to $30,000 per year per vessel, but industrial trawler operators lobbied to have the fees reduced and won. Additionally, Ghana could increase its revenue by enforcing financial penalties against operators and vessels conducting illegal activities. In 2018, the report estimates that uncollected penalty fees accounted for $17 million in lost revenue.

The report found that these changes, among others, would allow Ghana to reduce its fleet by 87% while doubling its revenue. Reducing the fleet would slash Ghana’s carbon footprint and reduce the long-term economic, social, and environmental impacts of overfishing. But EJF Executive Director Steve Trent warns that without a strong and thoughtful system of enforcement, this exploitation will simply take on a new form. “Any new and additional fishing effort must be matched by fit-for-purpose monitoring, control, and surveillance with transparency at its core, and combined with this, a robust enforcement regime designed to build regional collaboration,” he said. “Failure in this vital area will almost certainly lead to greater unsustainable and illegal fishing activity. Currently, this is not in place.”

These industrial fishing operations also add carbon emissions in the region. Trawling across the world releases as much carbon as the aviation industry, and as operations scale up, local communities face the most consequences.

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