In his cramped living room in an Accra backstreet, Bernard Essien pulled out a sheet of paper — a statement signed by his elder brother, Emmanuel Essien, and addressed to the Ghana Police Service. Two weeks before 28-year-old Emmanuel Essien vanished at sea, his handwritten account and accompanying video footage alleged illegal fishing by a trawler he had been working on.
If the allegation was proved true, the ship’s captain faced a minimum fine of US$1 million.
Emmanuel Essien was a fishing observer, one of Ghana’s frontline defenders against an overfishing crisis that is among the worst in west Africa.
Illustration: Mountain People
Illegal and destructive practices by foreign-owned trawlers are draining the Ghanaian economy of an estimated US$64.6 million each year. For those living along Ghana’s 560km 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 US$55 million World Bank project, Ghana placed an observer on every industrial trawler to collect data and report breaches of fisheries law.
Their work is ever more dangerous.
In 2017, a report by Human Rights at Sea found six cases of disappearances of observers in the Pacific region. It concluded that their work was hampered by “inadequate legal protection” and “physical danger.”
Emmanuel Essien’s diligence made him popular with the Ghanaian Fisheries Commission, Bernard Essien said.
His report on the penultimate vessel he worked on, dated June 24, ended: “I humbly plead with the police to investigate further.”
However, his disappearance on July 5 from a trawler called Meng Xin 15, and the failure by 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 that criminality is ignored, raising questions over whether it is risking the lives of officials.
Emmanuel Essien’s family is no nearer to learning the truth.
Four months on, his six-year-old daughter, Faustina, asks for him constantly, while his 12-year-old son, Takyi, and his four brothers and two sisters wait for answers.
“The little one keeps asking questions,” said 34-year-old James Essien, Emmanuel Essien’s elder brother. “We tell her her father 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 public, is now with the attorney general.
It is taking too long, the family said.
Emmanuel Essien was reported missing on July 5, after not returning to the cabin he shared with three Chinese crew — the chief officer, second chief officer and the cook.
A police investigation found “no signs of violence or anything incriminating.”
“I don’t believe the government and the authorities valued the work my brother was doing,” James Essien said. “If they did, they would attach some seriousness and urgency to the investigation. We know nothing. We don’t understand how it can take so long.”
Emmanuel Essien had been threatened, his family said, for reporting illegality on trawlers and was about to quit.
“There were days he came back and said he was worried,” said 24-year-old Bernard Essien, the youngest brother. “The job of an observer is to make sure they are obeying the laws. There were times those in charge of the vessel got angry at him for doing that. They told him not to. He told me it was difficult. He wasn’t comfortable. He said it was dangerous work.”
Bernard Essien, a barber, has lost weight and has been having difficulty sleeping since his brother disappeared. The family all looked up to Emmanuel Essien, their main breadwinner.
In a hotel in Accra, several trawlermen from Tema, 25km to the east, talked to reporters on condition of anonymity.
Illegal fishing is common, they said, confirming reports of the widespread targeting of small pelagic fish, or saiko, by trawlers, an illegal trade revealed by the non-governmental Environmental Justice Foundation this year.
Two of them said that they witnessed observers taking bribes.
Some had been beaten by the Chinese crew, they said.
One described the role of an observer as being “like a spy” aboard the vessels, which are estimated to be 90 percent Chinese-owned.
“They are there to report bad behavior,” one fisher said. “It is like being a spy. When we heard about an observer going missing, we were very unhappy. It is very dangerous.”
It was not easy for an observer to simply fall overboard, the fishers said.
“It would be very hard,” one said. “He is not working on deck like the fishermen.”
James Essien agreed, saying: “I don’t believe my brother threw himself off the boat into the sea. There is no way he would do that. I suspect there was a coordinated attempt to take him off. He was going to write up a report.”
“Perhaps there was a disagreement. Perhaps the Chinese didn’t like it,” Bernard Essien said, adding that Emmanuel Essien planned to quit his job.
The Meng Xin 15 belongs to a Chinese state-owned enterprise, Dalian Meng Xin Ocean Fisheries, according to an investigation by China Dialogue Ocean, which found that the fleet has committed 16 fishing offenses in Ghana since 2016.
Its special status as an “offshore fishery enterprise of the [Chinese] Ministry of Agriculture” gives its access to subsidies and tax exemptions, the investigation found.
One former fishing observer said that he quit his job after hearing about Emmanuel Essien.
“It’s not safe. When I found out Emmanuel was missing, I thought the same thing could happen to me,” he said.
Showing a photograph on his cellphone of a crew member dumping a basket of fish overboard, he said that he had to perform his duties covertly.
“I have to hide when I am taking pictures, because if they see me, they might hit me,” he added.
Observers shared a cabin with Chinese crew who were closer to the management than their Ghanaian counterparts, he said, adding that there were about 20 Ghanaians and six Chinese, including the captain and first officer.
The observer admitted to once taking a bribe of 1,000 cedis (US$180), about two-thirds of his monthly wage, from a captain to not report the illegal transshipment of pelagic fish.
The dangers of working for the enforcement agencies, offshore but without protection, are recognized.
A source at the monitoring, surveillance and control unit of the commission said that observers are warned of “hostility” on vessels.
“We tell them, don’t expose yourselves too much. In the sense that onboard the vessel, there’s no policemen. All the boys are there smoking weed. The Chinese are always drinking whisky. The situation is very hostile,” the source said.
When they film alleged illegalities, they are threatened “most of the time,” the source said, adding: “It is a very dangerous job.”
About 80 to 90 percent of reports by observers contain incriminating evidence of illegal fishing, the source said.
Despite such allegations, only 23 trawlers were sanctioned for illegal fishing last year and prosecutions were subject to political interference, the source said.
“We choose the observers, but politicians call our bosses and tell us ‘don’t prosecute these people,’” the source added.
The Ghanaian government said that the observers’ reports are investigated and prosecutions continue, but declined to provide any official data.
Last month, in what was hailed as a sign that Ghana was beginning to take action, a trawler was fined US$1 million for catching almost 14 tonnes of small pelagic fish in a single day. It was the first such fine under the 2014 fisheries act.
Earlier this year, the World Bank highlighted Ghana’s “weak commitment” to reducing the number of industrial trawlers and its “less than agreed” law enforcement, including “partial prosecution of offenses and collection of fines.”
In a statement, commission Director Michael Arthur-Dadzie said that its monitoring unit had tried to investigate allegations of bribery and extortion, but officers did not get “much needed cooperation.”
“These, therefore, remain allegations,” he said.
He said that he did not know of any observers reporting being threatened for filming or violence from Chinese crew, adding that he was also unaware of crews being forced to carry out illegal fishing.
Asked if his brother had expressed fear over his job, Bernard Essien said: “He didn’t say afraid, but he was worried. After his last trip but one, our sister asked him why. He said: ‘There’s blood, there’s blood all over,’ but he wouldn’t say anything more.”
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