Illegal fishing by Chinese-owned trawlers is expensing the country millions and one of the officials trying to stop it has now been missing for months
In his cramped living room in an Accra backstreet, Bernard Essien pullings out a sheet of paper- a statement signed by his elder brother Emmanuel and addressed to the Ghanaian police. Two weeks before 28 -year-old Emmanuel faded at sea, his handwritten account and accompanying video footage alleged illegal angling by a trawler he had been working on. If the allegation was proved true, the ship’s captain faced a minimum fine of$ 1m.
Emmanuel Essien was a fishing observer, one of Ghana’s frontline defenders against an overfishing crisis that is among the worst in west Africa. Illegal and destructive practises by foreign-owned trawlers are draining the Ghanaian economy of an estimated PS50m a year. Along its 350 -mile coastline, overfishing has driven small pelagic species known as” people’s fish”, the staple diet, to the verge of collapse.
In 2015, as part of a $55 m World Bank project, Ghana placed an observer on every industrial trawler, to collect data and report violations of fisheries statute. Around the world, the work of these observers is becoming ever more dangerous. In 2017, a report by Human Rights At Seafound six cases of disappearances of observers in the Pacific. It concluded their work was hampered by” inadequate legal protection” and” physical hazard “.
Essien’s diligence induced him popular with the fisheries commission, according to his brother. His report on the penultimate boat he worked on, dated 24 June, objective:” I meekly plead with the police to investigate further .”
But his disappearance on 5 July from a trawler called Meng Xin 15, and the failure of the authorities to find out what happened, has devastated his family and shocked Ghana’s fishing community.
An Observer investigation has found serious allegations of violence, drug-taking and bribery aboard the industrial fleet that trawls this part of west Africa. Interviews with fishermen, observers and sources in the commission suggest criminality is ignored, creating questions over whether the lives of observers are being put at risk.
Essien’s household are no nearer learning the truth. Bernard, a barber, has lost weight and has been having difficulty sleeping since his brother disappeared. They all appeared up to Emmanuel, their main breadwinner. Four months on, his daughter, Faustina, six, asks for him constantly, while his son, Takyi, 12, and his four brothers and two sisters wait for answers.
” The little one maintains asking questions ,” said James, 34, Essien’s elder brother.” We informed her that her parent has gone to work and he is not back. My mother keeps calling me, saying:’ Have you heard from the police? Tell them to bring back my son .’ We are waiting for the results of the investigation. We are all trying to cope .”
An investigation report, which has not been made available to the public, is now with the attorney general.
It is taking too long, the family say.
Essien was reported missing on 5 July, after failing to return to the cabin he shared with three Chinese crew- the chief officer, second chief officer and the cook. A police investigation find” no signs of violence or anything incriminating “.