Shark Exploitation in Ghana Hastens Global Collapse

By Mike Anane

ACCRA, Ghana, August 27, 2001 (ENS) - Ghana's fish harvest season has begun, and expectations are that for the next four months local fishermen will flood the country's markets with the usual herrings, anchovies, mackerel and tuna.

But a growing number of the country's fishermen are turning their backs on these traditional food fishes and joining a network of big time shark fishermen known as Nifa Nifa to chase sharks that inhabit the country’s waters.

"Shark fins bring us fast money, it's good business, my brother," fisherman Nii Attoh, 42, explained. "We need money to acquire new fishing gear, our canoes are leaking, we have been using these same old fishing nets for years, our outboard motors are old, we need quick cash which herrings and anchovies cannot provide readily."

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Sharks are a valuable fishery for their fins, a delicacy in Asia. (Photo courtesy NOAA)
With their powerful jaws equipped with razor-sharp teeth and nostrils that can smell one drop of blood in 25 gallons of water, sharks are feared and hated by many. But veteran shark hunters in Ghana are quick to say that sharks do not live up to their public image as dangerous and menacing predators that will attack anything on the slightest provocation.

"In fact sharks bring us luck, some of us have been catching them for years now and we don’t fear them," said shark fisherman Kweku Essuman, 59, as he relaxed in the sand at the palm fringed beach at Dixcove in Ghana's Western Region.

Faced with depleting shark stocks in their own countries, stringent controls, and an all time high demand for fins, foreign shark fin traders are increasingly turning their attention to sharks in southern waters. Ghana's fishermen are willing and eager to work, and shark fishing and finning regulations are non-existent.

Conservation groups worldwide are alarmed at the rapid decline in shark species due to direct and indirect fishing pressure and practices such as shark finning.

A proposed finning ban in Ghana and other measures to conserve sharks in the country's waters would be consistent with international conventions and agreements intended to protect sharks. But such concerns are not of much interest to the shark fishermen.

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The Gold Coast of Ghana at Cape Coast on the Bay of Guinea (Photo courtesy Jorge)
Promises of state of the art fishing gear by these sleek foreign shark fin traders and their fast talking Ghanaian middlemen are effective. Cash strapped local fishermen are wasting no time in combing the high seas at Prampram, Ahwiam, Ningo, Shama, Apam, Abandze, Axim and Dixcove in search of sharks.

Fishermen chop off their fins for export to satisfy the fast growing demand for shark fin soup on dinner tables in homes and restaurants in Asia.

As these coastal towns in Ghana play host to a frenzy of fishing activities this harvest season, women and children can be seen sorting out the carpet of flicking fish that has been hauled to the beaches along with the sharks.

The clack of axes and knives hitting chopping blocks fills the air as the fishermen hack off the fins of the sharks and cut off other parts of the body to be salted, dried and sold in the local markets as momone.

A greater chunk of the worthless carcass is however thrown back into the sea or dumped in putrid piles at the beach and left to rot while the crescent shaped teeth of the sharks are kept for rituals.

Due to growing public concern over the indiscriminate disposal of the carcasses, some local fishermen now hack off fins from live sharks and the hapless creatures are tossed back into the sea and left to their fate.

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Great white shark (Photo courtesy NOAA)
The Great white shark, often referred to as the "man-eater," with its bluish grey black and white belly remains the favourite of most shark fishermen here since it has larger fins that fetch the most money.

Other species of shark - hammerhead, dogfish, tiger, bluntnose, sixgill and a host of others abound in Ghana's waters.

"At least we get paid between $30 and $40 for every kilogram of dried shark fins we supply, this is not bad," Kweku Essuman disclosed with a smile.

But in Singapore, Taiwan and Hongkong, the largest centers for the sharkfin trade, middlemen are paid $265 to $300 for the same kilogram of dried shark fins.

Soup is made by boiling the fins with vinegar, starch and flavoring and sold for between US$100 to $120 a bowl. Once considered a delicacy for royalty and the wealthy in Asia, sharkfin soup is now a prized delicacy among the middle class in Taiwan, Hongkong and Singapore. It is affordable due to the economic boom that Pacific Rim countries have enjoyed in recent times.

Often derided by non Asians as "tasteless and almost like chewing your nails or hair" shark fin soup is fast winning converts in Ghana, for 40,000 Cedis ($US6), customers in Ghana can warm their throats with some few teaspoons of shark fin soup served in some of the restaurants along Ghana's "Oxford Street" at Osu in Accra.

Though the shark fin business has been going on for years in Ghana, it was limited to a small number of fishermen who cut off the fins of sharks caught accidentally while they pursued other species.

Now, exploitation of sharks for their fins is big business and widespread in Ghana. There is an influx of dozens of expert Ghanaian shark fishermen who once lived in Sierra Leone and operated in the waters there.

Fleeing from that war torn country, these fishermen, who have been running after sharks for decades, are back in Ghana. Not only have they swelled the number of fishermen hunting sharks in Ghanaian waters, they are recruiting more fishermen and offering them free tutorials on "effective shark hunting techniques," said one fisherman.

When asked why they are pursuing sharks instead of the traditional food fishes which are consumed widely in Ghana, Kobla Attoh, a shark fisherman at Axim in the Western Region fumed, "All fish be fish, why are you also interested in Sharks alone?"

But the keen interest in the conservation of sharks is due in large part to their life history and characteristics.

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Shark fins on sale in Hong Kong market. (Photo by Brad Wetherbee courtesy IUCN Shark Specialist Group
Dr. Ofori Danson, senior research officer at the Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research in Ghana, explains, "A shark is a fish but of a very unusual sort. What makes them noteworthy is their biological vulnerability to over fishing. Sharks also grow slowly, mature late, have very low reproductive rates when they do spawn and live for long periods. It also takes the population a long time to replace captured sharks. Unlike other fish species, most sharks do not reach sexual maturity until seven to 12 years of age and then only give birth to a small litter of young ones. Thus, sharks cannot rebuild their populations quickly once they are over fished."

Danson said shark fishing in Ghana is contributes to the reduction of dolphin populations in Ghanian waters since the local fishermen kill dolphins and use their meat as bait to catch the sharks.

"Sharks prefer bloody meat, and dolphin meat is very bloody and attracts the sharks very fast," said Danson. "But the reality is that the killing of dolphins by these fishermen is making dolphin conservation in Ghana very difficult," he said.

Jason Bell, the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s (IFAW) regional director for Southern Africa, explained shark reality to a workshop on shark conservation in May by IFAW in Cape Town, South Africa to discuss the future of shark species. "As top predators, sharks are extremely important as they play the role of keystone species in many marine ecosystems. Drastic changes in shark population will thus have profound ramifications throughout the food web, thus affecting the functioning of the entire system."

A recent report by TRAFFIC, the wildlife monitoring branch of the IUCN - World Conservation Union, and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) states that between 30 and 70 million sharks are being caught worldwide each year. IUCN shark specialists report that more than 100 million sharks were caught worldwide in 1989 alone.

Statistics available at the Export Promotion Council in Ghana indicate that in 1993, 14,760 metric tonnes of shark fins was exported by six local businessmen and this earned them $206,215. As the shark population in the country's waters begun to dwindle, only 2,640 metric tonnes of sharkfins were exported in 1998 and the exporter earned $103,600. The year 2000 saw a drastic decline in the export of sharkfins from Ghana due to overfishing, the exporter however managed to secure 0.931 metric tonnes of dried fins which was sold for $2,025.

This unlimited demand for shark products, such as fins, and the near total lack of management of shark fisheries has already led to the collapse of shark populations in many parts of the world.

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Shark fins (Photo courtesy South African White Shark Research Institute)
In Ghana, some of the shark fin business men are already grumbling about the decreasing size of the shark fins sold to them these days by the Nifa Nifa fishermen - a sign that the sharks in Ghanian waters are being overfished.

"Judging from the size of the shark fins being exported from Ghana these days, it's obvious that the shark population in the country’s waters are in trouble and even baby sharks are not being spared their fins," Gerald Nyarko Mensah, head of the Agriculture Department of the Export Promotion Council lamented in an interview.

But despite the growing concern of the dangers facing sharks worldwide, and the obvious threats that confront sharks in Ghana’s water’s, and the urgent need for conservation measures, the shark fishing and the fin trade in Ghana continues in the open with no rules and regulations issued by the relevant authorities.

All government and donor assisted project personnel in Ghana's fisheries sector are silent on the need for shark research, management plans and conservation.

Fisheries Minister Ishmael Ashitey admits, "The shark fin trade is something that nobody has taken up seriously in this country. In fact, there is no legislation on that. But I know that the community based management groups, which is made up of artisanal fishermen, are handling some of these issues but we need to do more."

Ashitey disclosed that a bill to establish a Fisheries Commission will be placed before Parliament very soon. "We will then leave some of these issues to the experts at the Commission who will advise us on how to tackle the problem," he said.

Daniel Quaynor, deputy director of the Department of Fisheries, said a World Bank Project, the Fisheries Sub-sector Capacity Building project is underway to strengthen the Monitoring, Surveillance, Control and Enforcement Unit of the Department of Fisheries to deal with some of these issues. "So far, the emphasis has been on poaching, correct methods of fishing, and fisheries which are being threatened by trawlers and shrimpers," Quaynor said.

Some conservationists interviewed did not hide their dismay at what they described as the insensitivity of the authorities to the shark fin trade in Ghana.

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Fishing boats on the beach at Prampram, Ghana (Photo courtesy Global Volunteers)
Joshua Awuku Appau of the GreenEarth Organization said, "We have good reasons to worry about the rate at which local fishermen are jumping into the high seas to pursue the sharks, particularly in the western and central regions of the country. This uncontrolled and largely unregulated could contribute greatly to the drastic decline in global shark stocks."

The government has to regulate or set limits on shark fishing, Appau urges. "Legislation can be pivotal to the conservation of sharks in Ghana’s waters. We need to take action on this issue before our shark populations are devastated by the fin trade, as is occurring in many other waters of the world."

"We urge the government to do even more to ensure that fishing operations do not threaten the long-term survival of these exceptionally vulnerable fish," Appau said.

Gerald Nyarko Mensah, head of the Agriculture Department of Ghana's Export Promotion Council, recognizes that shark fins are valuable compared to what the country earns from the exports of shrimps, tuna and other seafood. "The problem is with sustainabilty. That is why we need to be responsible and conserve what is left, then it could become a major income earner for the country," he advised.

"If the number of sharks in the sea are being reduced, then the trade needs to be controlled. The export of shark fins can be monitored so that the state can benefit by way of taxes," said Nii Abeo Kyerekuandah, executive secretary of the Ghana National Canoe Fishermen Council.

Others argue that a total ban is needed - not controls or regulations. This, they say, would be a major step in the sustainable management of shark fisheries and the best way to reduce the increasing prevalence of shark finning in the country which most people see as cruel and wasteful.

Another conservationist characterized fighting in Ghana against issues such as the shark fin trade, the illegal capture and slaughter of dolphins, and regulations on the bush meat trade is like wrestling with a jelly fish or chasing the wind.

Africa's marine environments are frequently neglected on the world conservation stage, say Ghanian conservationists who say a major breakthrough to protect sharks in African waters would be the creation of a solid foundation for cooperation in establishing a regional shark management plan for Africa.

There is progress in that direction. A high powered delegation representing 18 African countries unanimously agreed in May at the IFAW shark workshop that it is vital to establish a regional and continental shark management forum to protect the species.

The Nifa Nifa shark fishermen maintain that they have found the surest way to economic salvation, and no one should disturb them. Nii Blofo, who described himself as the oldest and most handsome shark fisherman in Ghana, said, "After all, sea never dry, and sharks will never finish in the sea. Those who envy us us should join us in chopping off the shark fins or leave us alone in tranquility."