Thu, Nov 21, 2019 - Page 9 News List

The vanishing: Ghanaian protecting the ‘people’s’ fish goes missing

Illegal fishing by Chinese-owned trawlers is costing Ghana millions — and one of the officials trying to stop it mysteriously disappeared months ago

By Karen McVeigh in Accra and Nancy Dzradosi  /  The Observer

Illustration: Mountain People

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.

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.

This story has been viewed 11253 times.

Comments will be moderated. Keep comments relevant to the article. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned. Final decision will be at the discretion of the Taipei Times.

TOP top