Saiko covered canoe used for transshipping semi-pelagic fish from Ghanaian flagged industrial trawlers
Saiko covered canoe used for transshipping semi-pelagic fish from Ghanaian flagged industrial trawlers

Don't bring back 'Saiko' again

I was stunned by the online publication by Modern Ghana on 9 July 2023, captioned, “Legalise Saiko – Elmina chief tells government”.


The reportage indicated that the Omanhen of the Edina (Elmina) Traditional Area at the Bakatue festival which climaxed on 8 July 2023, “called on the government to lift the ban on Saiko”, citing that “the ban had thrown many canoe fishers out of business and worsened their plights”.

The reportage further indicated that, “Mr. Sammi Awuku, the Director General of the National Lottery Authority (NLA), who represented the Vice President, indicated that even though Saiko contributed to the depletion of the fish stock, he would relay the request to the relevant authorities for consideration”. 

My exasperation about this alleged request to bring back Saiko is because of the long distance this issue of Saiko had travelled until it appeared to have been stopped through Government directives and actions in the past two years. 

Bakatue festival, dating as far back as 1847, is used to mark the beginning of the fishing season in Elmina. The celebration of the festival was instituted to commemorate the founding of Elmina by the Portuguese in the early days of the colonization of the then Gold Coast. The festival is also used to offer thanks and prayers to the gods for a good fishing year. The 2023 Bakatue festival was under the theme “Buy made-in-Ghana products and support Ghanaian industries and create employment for the youth”.

Incidentally, the 2023 marine fishing closed season was launched in Elmina on 1 July 2023 by the Minister of Fisheries and Aquaculture Development, Hon. Mavis Koomson, who intimated that Elmina was important for the launch because of its rich culture and historical structures such as the Elmina Castle, and most significantly, as an important fishing community, for which the Elmina Fishing Port Rehabilitation and Expansion Project was commissioned by the government in May 2023.

The minister also attested to the fact that “the marine fisheries subsector had experienced a decline in fish stock levels and sizes due to activities of overexploitation and Illegal, Unregulated, and Unreported fishing (IUU), among others, and that the livelihoods of the over 3,000,000 people and 187 coastal fishing communities that depend on fisheries resources are being threatened by the depletion or decline of fish stocks”. 

Saiko in Retrospect

Saiko in short is IUU fishing, in contravention of Ghana’s fishing legislation, but prevailed in Ghana’s marine fishing sector for many decades, until it was stopped by the Ministry of Fisheries and Aquaculture Development about two years ago. It comprised the illegal fishing of small pelagic fish stocks comprising, Sardinella, Mackerel and Anchovy by industrial trawlers, (licensed to fish demersal fish), and transshipment of same in frozen form to specialized wooden haulage canoes and landed in Elmina, Apam and Axim.

The European Commission’s press release on 2 June 2021, indicated that “illegal transshipments at sea of large quantities of undersized juvenile pelagic species between industrial trawl vessels and canoes in Ghanaian waters”, was one of the reasons the European Commission imposed a yellow card on Ghana for the second time in one decade. 

By 2018, prior to the first scheduled fishing closed season for the canoe and semi-industrial sector (this fishing closed season was postponed to 2019 at the very last minute at the request of the fishers), the Scientific and Technical Working Group made up of academicians, fisheries scientists and fisherfolk, under the USAID Sustainable Fisheries Management Project (SFMP), had cautioned that the small pelagic fish stocks risked collapse by 2020 (see chart in Figure 2).

Saiko data 

The National Fisheries Management Plan (2015-2019) had anticipated fishing closed seasons as part of conservation and management measures (CMM), in addition to fleet size reduction. In response to the colossal landing of small pelagic fish and the transshipment to specialized canoes at sea, and also dumping at sea, the Ministry of Fisheries and Aquaculture Development instituted a study of the then existing trawl net in 2018. Following recommendations from the study, the Ministry proposed and implemented in 2022 a new trawl gear with a gape of 10m aimed at drastically reducing by-catches of small pelagic fish. 

Now let’s take a look at the statement alleged to have been made by the Omanhen of Elmina regarding the call to government to lift the ban on Saiko. Perhaps we need to understand well what Saiko is all about. In the article, “Saiko is Sacrilege”, which I authored in 2019 (, I described the phenomenon as sacrilegious, because it offends the integrity of the deities and mars the dignity of stakeholders engaged in it, gauging from the excessive destruction to important fish stocks and the attendant deprivation of fish landings to canoe fishermen whose livelihood depends on the same fish stocks. 

I have earlier on indicated that Saiko is illegal in contravention of Ghana’s fisheries legislation. It is illegal because it is juvenile fish caught in manipulated trawl nets as was revealed in the Gear Study instituted by the Ministry of Fisheries and Aquaculture Development in 2018. Because of the manipulation of the gape of the trawl net and the use of small meshed nets in the cod-end of the trawl net, colossal amounts of small pelagic fish were targeted (not by-catch) and this fuelled the Saiko trade at sea which culminated in the formation of an association for the collection of fish by-catch from industrial trawlers at sea, which began pressurizing government for legitimacy in 2018. Meanwhile, the industrial trawlers were only licensed and authorized to catch demersal fish, and not small pelagic fish.

In order to obtain unwarranted profits from Saiko, the industrial trawlers spent far longer periods (up to 6 to 8 weeks) during fishing trips, and targeted illegally the juvenile small pelagic fish which were quickly frozen and illegally transshipped to specialized wooden covered canoes.

According to a study conducted by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) and Hen Mpoano in 2019, (Stolen at sea. How illegal 'saiko' fishing is fuelling the collapse of Ghana's fisheries), a single Saiko canoe transshipment trip could land the equivalent of fish caught by 450 fishing canoes! It was estimated by the study that annual Saiko landings was 100,000 metric tonnes valued at between USD40.6 and USD50.7 million, and between USD52.7 and USD81.1 million when sold at the landing site. Unfortunately, such colossal catch of small-pelagic fish did not form part of fisheries statistics. Landing of juvenile fish contradicts Regulation 14 of Fisheries Regulation (L.I. 1968) of 2010.

It should be noted that the specialized wooden covered haulage canoes were not the same as the open fishing canoes. Whereas the open fishing canoes were registered and authorized by the Fisheries Commission for fishing, the specialized wooden covered canoes used for transporting Saiko fish were not registered by the Fisheries Commission or any other competent authority, and were illegal. Transshipping from a trawler to a canoe at sea is also illegal in accordance with Section 132(1) of the Fisheries Act 625 of 2002 and Regulation 33 of the Fisheries Regulations (L.I. 1968) of 2010.

The small pelagic fish caught by the trawlers which could not be packaged and frozen because of their miniscule sizes were illegally dumped in large quantities, in contravention of Ghana’s Fisheries legislation. This was the basis for an association for the collection of fish by-catch to request authorization to collect such fish for sale on the domestic market. This association is not listed among fishing associations in the National Fisheries Management Plan (2022-2026). We should not lose sight of the fact that the small pelagic fish were juveniles caught using manipulated trawl nets, and new trawl net specification have been proposed by the Ministry of Fisheries and Aquaculture Development in 2022, following the Gear Study conducted in 2018. 

Ultimate Beneficiaries of Saiko

The Chief of Elmina, in the Modern Ghana publication was alleged to have reasoned that “the ban had thrown many canoe fishers out of business and worsened their plights”. In other words, the canoe fishers in Elmina could no longer benefit from the Saiko trade. I will like to reiterate that there is a clear distinction between registered and authorized fishing canoes used for fishing by artisanal fishers, and unregistered and unauthorized wooden fish haulage covered wooden canoes used to receive and transport illegally transshipped fish from industrial trawlers. The latter (who are just a handful of individuals), may have lost an illegitimate business, but the former (about 300,000 fishers), had always been at the mercy of the Saiko trade because they were deprived of their legitimate catch of small pelagic fish and continue to suffer the consequences up to date (see chart in Figure 2). 

I have indicated earlier on that the STWG in 2018 warned of the imminent collapse of the small pelagic fish stocks by 2020 due to overexploitation, overfishing and IUU. The Minister for Fisheries and Aquaculture Development at the launch of the 2023 fishing closed season on 1 July indicated that “marine fisheries subsector had experienced a decline in fish stock levels and sizes due to activities of overexploitation and Illegal, Unregulated, and Unreported fishing (IUU), among others, and that the livelihoods of the over 3,000,000 people and 187 coastal fishing communities that depend on fisheries resources are being threatened by the depletion or decline of fish stocks”.

This brings to the fore who were/are the ultimate beneficiaries of the illegal Saiko trade, which depended on the illegal catches of semi pelagic fish by Ghanaian flagged industrial trawlers, and could be behind such a diabolic agenda. Separate investigations by EJF, Trygg Mat Tracking (TMT) and C4ADS, and China Dialogue Ocean into the activities of Ghanaian flagged trawlers have revealed that some of their current or past ultimate beneficiary owners (UBOs) are Chinese, despite the listed owners in Ghana’s fisheries registry being Ghanaian (EJF, 2021: At what cost?


How Ghana is losing out in fishing arrangements with China’s distant water fleet; TMT and C4ADS: Spotlight on The Exploitation of Company Structures by Illegal Fishing Operators; China Dialogue Ocean: How Ghana’s weak Penalties are letting trawlers off the Hook). Parallels can be drawn between illegal mining in Ghana (galamsey) whose ultimate foreign beneficiaries do not care a hoot about what happens to virgin reserved forests, prime cocoa farms, and important rivers like Pra, Ankobra and Densu whose waters have been polluted beyond recognition and utility.


Might we be calling for Saiko again? The answer is an overwhelming NO. It is hoped that the recent efforts by government to sanitize the industrial trawl sector with the introduction of a new trawl gear, combined with enhanced inspections of industrial trawlers by the Fisheries Enforcement Unit will ensure that semi-pelagic fish by-catches of industrial trawlers are reduced to negligible levels. It is expected that the Ministry of Fisheries and Aquaculture Development would continue to monitor the new trawl gear and refine it to improve its selectivity to catch only demersal fish in line with the trawl license. This will also protect and rejuvenate the small pelagic fish stocks to ensure landings by the artisanal canoe fishery are improved considerably. 

The essence of Ghana implementing the fishing closed season, since 2016 for the trawl fleet, and since 2019 for the artisanal fleet, in line with the National Fisheries Management Plans (2015-2019) and 2022-2026, (and extended to the Fisheries Committee for the West Central Gulf of Guinea subregion in 2023), is to reduce fishing effort and enable replenishment of declining shared small pelagic fish stocks, (sardinella, anchovies, mackerel).

The National Fisheries Management Plan (2022-2026) has proposed a 3-month duration for the fishing closed season. By now, the positive impacts of previous fishing closed seasons should begin to be realized, and all efforts should be made by all stakeholders to prevent erosion of those positive impacts in accordance with national fisheries policies and legislation.


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