Oil exploration firms in Ghana’s western region are accused of impeding the livelihoods of fishermen.
Beyond a busy harbourside market in the twin cities of Sekondi-Takoradi, where hundreds of fishermen scurry past pans sizzling with sardines, mackerels and moonfish, sit two offshore rigs that serve as a constant reminder of Ghana’s looming energy boom.
Many in the country’s western region, the epicentre of the fishing industry, had been optimistic that oil production would bring jobs, cheaper fuel and economic prosperity. But now, they say oil exploration programmes are impeding their livelihoods.
“Our fish catch has reduced drastically since oil exploration started here,” says Kofi al-Haji Musa, 43, who has been fishing in the area for 31 years. “Before oil exploration started I could fill my canoe with fish three times every day. Now, I can’t even manage one load,” he says.
Fishermen and activists say a planned seismic survey by ESL Consulting and Medea Development will disrupt their work during the height of the season, ruining the prospect of a profitable harvest. The survey is due to start next week and continue until November.
“Seismic surveys will obstruct fishing and deny fishermen the opportunity to fish,” says Kyei Yamoah, programme coordinator for natural resources management at Friends of the Nation. “They are causing a lot of problems because they are denying fishermen access to fish at a very opportune time.”
Foreign firms exploring for oil and gas are forcing fishermen out of the waters they have trawled for centuries, fishermen say, lamenting that the government has sidelined them in pursuit of an energy boom that is expected to earn the country up to $1bn a year when it hits peak production, up from $707m in the first three-quarters of 2013 (pdf).
“We were excited when the oil companies told us we were going to share the sea – we thought the price of petrol would go down. But now, the companies and the government are not treating us fairly. We have not been consulted [in their plans],” says Nana Kobina Asmah, chief fisherman for Sekondi.
Exports from Ghana’s fishing industry total about $60m a year, providing income for 10% of the population, according to government estimates. The ministry of food and agriculture says: “The fishing sector … contributes significantly to national economic development objectives related to employment, livelihood support, poverty reduction, food security, foreign exchange earnings and resource sustainability.”
But fishermen say they have not been consulted by the government, and no one has been willing to hear their grievances. “They don’t want us to talk; they are using political means to kill us,” says Joseph Eshun, secretary of the Sekondi Canoe Owners Association. “In the next 10 years we all know our fishing industry will be dead.”
Ghana National Petroleum Corporation (GNPC), which oversees exploration, says seismic surveys will not disrupt fishing. “We have been engaging the association of fishermen on this project,” says a GNPC spokesman. “The fishermen need to understand there is a new entrant into the sea and that there is a need for that coexistence.”
A spokesman for Medea says the survey will not permanently disrupt Ghana’s fishing industry. “The seismic survey could potentially result in a temporary drop in catch levels of fish and other types of catch normally caught by artisanal and semi-industrial fisheries as a result of the movement of fish schools away from the areas undergoing seismic surveys,” he says.
But Ghana’s opposition has condemned the ruling party for failing to properly address the needs of fishermen, dismissing the initial audits as flawed. “The environmental impact assessment [of oil exploration] was not properly done,” says Kwabena Okyere Darko-Mensah of the New Patriotic party, who is the MP for Takoradi. “The public forum that was held was rushed through, and therefore many of the local concerns were not addressed. It also did not make provisions for alternative livelihoods for fisherman affected by oil and gas exploration – that’s where we need to concentrate.”
GNPC says: “We have plans to assess the dynamics as far as alternative livelihoods are concerned.”
Ghana’s fishing community is worried that their industry will go the same way as that of neighbouring Nigeria, where fishermen have been displaced by oil production.
Eshun says: “In Nigeria once oil production started, it was the end of the fishing industry.”
Yamoah also sees the clock ticking for Ghana’s fishermen: “There is no marine protected area, there is no law saying that this area is reserved for only fishermen and no oil firms can explore there. The laws that are being made now are designed to allow all areas to be exploited by oil and gas companies. Eventually, Ghana’s fishing industry will collapse – especially in the western region – and fishermen will have to look for other things to do.”
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