The sinister side of Ghana’s fishing Industry

Ghana’s coast is lined with fishing villages large and small. Fish are big business, and one of Ghana’s biggest export commodities, earning about 318 million US dollars in 2014. As well as salt water fishing, the largest man made reservoir in the world, Lake Volta – which covers 8500 square kilometers – is also lined with many fishing villages.

At some point in Ghana’s history certain religious rituals were developed in connection with fishing. To this day fishermen observe Tuesday as a sacred day and their day of rest, or use the time for repairs. It is forbidden to sell fresh fish at the market on a Tuesday. In the past this was enforced with penalties, but perhaps more worrying were the stories shared of the River and Sea Gods who would bring to the individual and community frightful disasters, such as gales and drowning. It is also believed that wearing shoes or cooking fish on the beach will drive the fish away, although some younger generations are now flouting these taboos. No one knows how long these beliefs will last but for now fishermen are called to account by tribal leaders if they are found to be breaking these traditions.

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Ocean fishing usually involves wooden canoes, built by hand in the forest regions of Ghana. These are either rowed by hand, or if finances allow, powered by a small outboard motor. Nets are cast and the canoes rowed back to shore. Large groups of people will then manually pull the nets onshore, usually with some singing and cheering.

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At first glance this is a bright, bustling and colourful business. However, according to authorities Ghana’s thriving fishing industry is primarily powered by as many as 50,000 children, a significant proportion of which have been sold and trafficked for slave labour.

In 1966 the Akosombo dam was completed and 8000 square kilometers of fertile land was flooded to create the Volta reservoir. Many trees suddenly became partially submerged underwater and consequently died. Their pale stumps now rise from the water like some sort of tree graveyard. These stumps pose a big problem to fishermen because their nets become tangled and caught on the branches underwater. Often the children are sent to dive down and free the nets, a process which can be deadly. In addition, many of the children are spending long hours in the water carry out back breaking work, are improperly cared for and not attending school. In 2013 ten were rescued from slavery, the youngest was just 5 years old.

The traffickers pray on poor families and the parents are told the children will receive an education in exchange for a few hours work. In reality they are probably doing 14 hour days with little food and no education.

Slavery is still a huge issue worldwide and although Ghana may have moved on the days of Trans Atlantic slave trade, these smaller pockets of slavery still exist, both in fishing and mining. If you want to help, take a look at Free The Slaves.

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