Overfishing by foreign-owned vessels leaves Ghana with shrinking catch (2019)

Corruption, a lack of political will to enforce fishing laws, and a shortage of scientific and economic data hamper effective marine fisheries management in the West African country of Ghana. EfD researchers are investigating how Fisheries Performance Indicators - a global standard for measuring various economic, social, and economic factors associated with the industry - can help solve these problems.

What are the challenges?
Ghana has until recently been self-sufficient when it comes to seafood, and locally caught fish has been one of its major exports. However, according to a recent fisheries survey, the country now needs to import about 60 percent of the fish it needs for domestic consumption. One of the main reasons for the declining domestic catch is the increasing number of foreign vessels fishing in Ghanaian waters. Since Ghana’s laws do not permit foreign trawl vessels (using nets) to fish in its waters, Chinese and other foreign fish businesses buy fishing vessels and enter into phony hire-purchase agreements with Ghanaians. Foreign-owned off-shore deep-sea trawling also results in large by-catches (accidental catches) of non-target species, which in-shore artisanal fishers depend on for their livelihood.

Foreign vessel owners also pay minimal reimbursement to Ghanaian majority owners, meaning that, while foreign vessels are a major reason for overfishing, few of the profits remain in Ghana.

‘In reality, the owners are foreign businesses. So at the end of the day, the interest of the trawl vessels is influenced by these foreign businesses, and the Ghanaians who are fronting for them only receive paltry sums of about US $1,000 and some by-catch,’ according to Professor Wisdom Akpalu, senior fellow and director of the EfD new center in Ghana, based at the University of Ghana.

The money that the Ghanaians earn amounts to only about 5 per cent of what the foreign owners get, according to Akpalu, who says that Ghana has lost about $200 million within the past five years due to overfishing.

This is according to findings presented in the Fisheries Sector in Ghana report, published by the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, as well as data from the Country Environmental Analysis by the World Bank. Akpalu was a contributing researcher on both of these reports.

According to the professor, the biggest challenge confronting this over-extraction in the fisheries industry here is the lack of political will.

'Behind every trawl vessel are some political powers. If you catch a trawler engaging in any illegal fishing activity, they hardly get prosecuted,' he explains.

EfD is addressing the problem

There are many reasons why the Ghanaian government is struggling to manage overfishing in its waters, but one of the hurdles to better fisheries management and law enforcement is the lack of biological data. This shortage of data isn’t unique to Ghana. Many other developing countries have the same challenge.

Ghana’s data challenges also relate to the economic and social conditions of those working in the fisheries sector, and data on community development. As a result, it is difficult to evaluate the effectiveness of various policy changes, and even harder to identify common problems in poorly managed fisheries.

Through EfD´s collaborative research program Oceans and Marine Resources (OMR), researchers have initiated a data collection process in 10 countries. The starting point of the data-collection is the existing Fishery Performance Indicators (FPIs), a low-cost rapid assessment tool for evaluating fisheries even if general data are scarce. FPIs were developed by researchers based at the Universities of Washington and Florida, and the World Bank. The existing data base has data from more than 120 fisheries and OMR will contribute with more than 20 new fisheries studies. This data can be used to analyze various general questions, as well as to characterize an individual fishery in a particular country to track economic, community, and ecological outcomes.

A recent study used FPI data to analyze relations between economic, social, and ecological objectives, and whether or not trade-offs are necessary. The results indicated that the three objectives are likely independent. This implies, for instance, that clarifying who has the property rights to fish in a particular fishery can lead to improvements in all three aspects.[1]

Akpalu stresses the role of corruption in undermining fisheries management in Ghana. However, preliminary results from South African fisheries indicate that some fisheries are well-managed while others are not, which points in the direction of searching for additional factors in explaining management success.

‘The objective of the FPI project is to extend the existing database in order to analyse fisheries with common characteristics with data from different parts of the world,’ says Håkan Eggert, who heads EfD’s OMR program.

Individual country studies will also provide input for additional research and local studies on specific aspects of fisheries management.

What potential does this research have to influence policy?

‘Doing research on the Fishery Performance Indicators and local fisheries involves a lot of interaction with stakeholders and with responsible authorities, both at a local and national level,’ explains Eggert. ‘Not only is this important to get the necessary permits to carry out research, but also to make sure that decision makers are benefiting from the research design and that the research design benefits from their input.’

The project’s outreach will be ongoing, which will allow researchers to feed results directly to decision-makers.

What SDG does this research help to tackle?

SDG 14: Life below water

In particular, it relates to SDB 4.14: ‘By 2020, effectively regulate harvesting and end overfishing, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and destructive fishing practices and implement science-based management plans, in order to restore fish stocks in the shortest time feasible, at least to levels that can produce maximum sustainable yield as determined by their biological characteristics.’

Contributing to the indicator: ‘Proportion of fish stocks within biologically sustainable levels.’


Anderson, J. L., Anderson, C. M., et al. 2015. The fishery performance indicators: A management tool for triple bottom line outcomes. PLoS One, 10(5), e0122809.

Akpalu, W., Eriksen, S.S., & Vondolia, GK. 2018. The Fisheries Sector in Ghana. A Political Economy Analysis. Norwegian Institute of International Affairs. Vol. 7.

Asche, F., et al. 2018. Three Pillars of Sustainability in Fisheries. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Vol 115(44): 11221-11225.

Gyesi, ZK. 21 Jan 2019. Ghana Gets Only 5% of Profit Chinese Fishers Make on its Waters. Graphic Online. Available: https://www.graphic.com.gh/news/general-news/ghana-gets-only-5-of-profit-chinese-fishers-make-on-its-waters.html


Related information about EfD´s Oceans and Marine Resources Program







Story | 14 May 2019