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Saiko is sacrilege

BY: Godfrey Baidoo-Tsibu

Saiko is a term used in the Ghanaian fishing industry to refer to the fish considered unwanted by industrial trawlers which are passed on (transshipped) to canoe operators at sea. The phenomenon has existed for about three decades, initially conducted in the form of barter, involving exchange for small supplies of food and freshwater. Currently it has assumed an organized commercial enterprise but remains unauthorized.

An online publication on Ghanaweb on 12 October 2018, entitled “Saiko Fishing gets Green light to operate in Ghana”, which went viral, sought to suggest that Saiko has been legalized in Ghana. So far there has not been any official confirmation from the Ministry of Fisheries and Aquaculture Development or the Fisheries Commission about the veracity of the claim. The information in the publication could therefore be viewed as a hoax or propaganda by those who in a way benefit economically from Saiko.

Nevertheless, Saiko is sacrilege judging from the extent of damage caused to the sardinella and chub mackerel fish stocks (small pelagics) in Ghanaian waters which are landed as incidental catch by the Ghanaian-flagged trawl fleet. Sardinella and chub mackerel mainly serve as the lifeline of the canoe fishing industry in Ghana.

In 2006, the canoe fishing industry landed 120,000 metric tonnes of small pelagic fish with a fishing effort of 8,000 canoes, but only 20,000 metric tonnes was landed in 2016, with a rather high fishing effort of 12,000 canoes.

The irony of saiko is that purposely-built wooden canoes go to sea without any fishing gear (nets, etc.) or refrigeration, but return to shore with hundreds of slabs of well frozen fish. Saiko fish which is sold domestically, is of low economic value and tend to disrupt the prices of fish landed by the artisanal fleet.

The specially-built canoes are illegal fishing vessels in accordance with the Fisheries Act 2002 (Act 625) because they have not been licensed by the Fisheries Commission for the purpose of carrying or transporting fish. The question is how are such vessels able to obtain fish whereas canoe fishermen who go with nets come back with considerably less amounts of fish after enduring long hours of fishing?

Saiko fish is obtained when trawlers transship unwanted pelagic fish (discards??) to these specially built wooden canoes through pre-arranged transactions. Such transshipment at sea is illegal according to Regulation 33 (2) of the Fisheries Regulation, 2010 (L.I. 1968): “A person shall not transship fish from a Ghanaian industrial vessel to a semi-industrial vessel or to canoes or vice-versa.” Section 132 of the Fisheries Act, 2002 (Act 625) requires written authorization from the Fisheries Commission.

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In addition, Regulation 33 (8) of the Fisheries Regulation, 2010 (L.I. 1968) indicate that “Transshipment of fish can only be undertaken at authorized ports”. Ghana’s authorized ports are Tema and Takoradi ports, but these transshipments do not take place there but on the high seas. Saiko fish are landed rather in Elmina and Apam landing beaches by the specially-built wooden canoes.

What makes the phenomenon of saiko rather destructive to the small pelagic fish, and therefore sacrilegious, is the fact that the transshipment enables the trawler vessels which are licensed to catch bottom fish to stay far longer at sea without necessary filling their own fish hatches with the target bottom fish. They may stay up to 40 days and are able to concentrate on the small pelagic fish which occur in the mid-water and continually transfer them in frozen form to the specialized canoes.

Moreover, such substantial catch of small-pelagic fish is unreported and does not feature in marine fishery statistics. Trawler vessels, therefore, could be said to be reporting only about a quarter to a third of the actual catch and therefore committing infractions regarding non-reporting of catch.

Are these saiko fish actually incidental or by-catch? In a multi-species fishery such as occurs in Ghanaian marine waters, there is bound to be catches of incidental catches besides the target fish. However, incidental catches occurring under responsible fishing practices are substantially small in quantity compared to the target fish. Gauging from the colossal landings of saiko, it is without doubt that trawling is done rather irresponsibly, without any effort on the part of the operators of the trawlers to avoid or prevent the catches of small pelagic fish which tend to be juvenile (immature).

It is therefore despicable for a niche market to be created for such fish which are of low economic value but rather present a high cost to marine biodiversity. The landing of such immature small pelagic fish ultimately deprive the artisanal canoe fishers the opportunity of catching these fishes which tend to be the main target of that industry, when they mature.

It can therefore be said that the industrial trawlers are in strong competition with the artisanal canoe fleet despite the fact that the trawlers may be fishing outside the 30m depth Inshore Exclusive Zone (IEZ). In scrutinizing the trawl sector which in accordance with the Fisheries Act, 2002 (Act 625), should be fully Ghanaian-owned and operated, one comes across beneficiary owners who are non-Ghanaian.

With such skewed competition from non-Ghanaian beneficiary owners for small pelagic fish against the artisanal fleet which is fully Ghanaian owned, saiko proves to be ominous against the prospect of rejuvenating the declining small-pelagic fish stocks in Ghanaian waters, and also limiting Ghanaian participation in industrial fishing. It also consigns the teeming artisanal sector into a non-profitable economic venture.

There is the need to stop saiko fully as has been publicized by the Ministry of Fisheries and Aquaculture Development and the Fisheries Commission in the past few years with the support of the World Bank-funded West African Regional Fisheries Project (WARFP), the USAID-funded Sustainable Fisheries Management Project (SFMP) and the European Union-funded Far Ban Bo, etc.

Many local festivals in the Greater Accra, Central and Western Regions have championed campaigns against saiko and other illegal fishing practices. Along the beach road linking Accra and Takoradi, there are bill boards which communicate the ill-effects of saiko and other illegal fishing methods and encourage compliance with the fisheries laws and regulations.

What needs to be done is to control effectively the fishing effort of the trawlers by assigning limited fishing days up to two weeks within which the vessel must return to port to land all catch on board, including any by-catch. This will be in line with the measures in the National Marine Fisheries Management Plan which stipulates 50% reduction in fishing days.

Currently, the trawl fishing license does not restrict trawling hours or days and trawling can be as long as 4 continuous hours and may occur many times per day, whereas fishing can last as long as 40 days. Other measures including prohibition of transshipment from trawler to canoe on the high seas should be fully implemented.

In addition, the trawl net should be evaluated and necessary modifications, such as the incorporation of square panel nets be introduced to improve selectivity. The square panels unlike the diamond meshes of the trawl nets would not stretch to close and would enable non-target fish to escape.

 The writer is the Western Regional Director of the Fisheries Commission.