How Ghana’s weak penalties are letting trawlers off the hook

About this investigation

  • Meng Xin vessels have been fined at least US$90,000 for fishery offences committed in Sierra Leone and more than $270,000 in Ghana;
  • Meng Xin vessels have committed at least 16 fishery offences since 2016;
  • A Chinese state enterprise is the ultimate owner of 35 Meng Xin-named vessels operating in West Africa, with at least 17 in Ghana, five in Sierra Leone and one in Guinea;
  • These offences are enabled by a transnational network that operates with little public scrutiny and causes huge ecological and socioeconomic costs.

 

“Illegal fishing off West Africa is one of the most pronounced sites of environmental crime today. It’s well known that external involvement is complex and cuts across sectors,” says Peter Stoett, an expert in transnational environmental crime at Ontario Tech University.

An estimated 26 million tonnes of fish, valued at US$10-23 billion, is caught each year via illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation.

Fisheries experts have identified a number of factors that enable vessels to engage in IUU around the world. Developing countries often lack the capacity to monitor their waters and ports, or enforce penalties due to corruption. Operators can easily change vessel names and country flags, and use complex business structures to protect the anonymity of the true owners.

Another emerging issue, according to Trygg Mat Tracking, an organisation providing fisheries intelligence, are vessels that are launched in large batches into East and West Africa straight from Chinese shipyards.

Fishing boats in the harbour at Elmina, Gold Coast, Ghana, Africa
Part one: Investigation ties foreign-owned trawlers to illegal fishing in Ghana

The organisation’s executive director, Duncan Copeland, describes these as “cookie-cutter” fleets. Vessels share the same dimensions, structures, instruments, gear and paint jobs, and common identifiers such as names often have a single numeral difference.

“A group of vessels will have a common base…

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