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Story Publication logo June 10, 2011

Fish vs. Oil: Officials Respond to Fishermen



In December 2010, Ghana joined the league of oil-producers, determined to make oil a blessing and...

Signs point to Ghana's ministries of environment and tourism. Image by Christiane Badgley. Ghana, 2011.

The fishermen I've met around Sekondi-Takoradi are angry about oil, blaming the development of Ghana's Jubilee Field for decreased catch levels.

They acknowledge that overfishing has hurt fish stocks in recent years, but insist that the no-fishing zone around the offshore rig and increased shipping traffic have had a harmful impact on their catch.

Getting the facts sorted out is not easy. There is no definitive data available on catch levels around the Jubilee Field before or after oil development. Government officials are reluctant to talk about this issue.

Last month I attended the launch of Ghana's "Readiness Report Card" in Accra. This progress report, prepared by the Civil Society Platform on Oil and Gas, gave Ghana's fledgling oil industry its first grades on everything from licensing and contracts to public financial management of the oil sector. Although the country received an overall "C" grade, it got a "D" for its handling of social and environmental issues.

At the press conference following the report launch, I asked a government official and a Tullow Oil official about the fishermen's dilemma. The Tullow Oil official declined to answer, but Alhaji Inusah Fuseini, the Deputy Minister of Energy and Mines, responded.

Of course the distance between the shore and the FPSO Kwame Nkrumah depends on one's departure port, but the most widely cited figure is 60 km (or 37 miles or 32 nautical miles). The Deputy Minister's contention that fishermen did not go near the Jubilee Field prior to oil development contradicts what fishermen, activists, researchers and journalists have repeatedly told me.

The following day, I had an opportunity to interview Daniel Amlalo, the Acting Executive Director of Ghana's EPA. Amlalo acknowledged that fishermen were present in the Jubilee Field area before oil development, but downplayed the impact of oil development on their activity.

Amlalo said that overfishing is the real culprit, not oil. He went on to suggest that the no-fishing zones could help Ghana's fishing industry, proposing that the areas around oil rigs be designated marine protected zones.

Amlalo has been with the EPA for years and certainly knows what he's talking about, but even if what he says is true, it's troubling that the government has shown so little interest in communicating with fishermen.

To argue that fishermen have not really been hurt by oil, that this is only their perception, seems to miss a significant point.

If the oil companies and the government can not convince the fishermen that oil development is not harming the fishing industry, fishermen will ignore the no-fishing directives, putting themselves, their equipment and oil production lines at risk. Authorities have already seized the canoes, nets and outboard motors of fishermen who ventured inside the no-fishing zone and the regional Naval Command now says any fishermen entering the no-go area will be arrested. Fishermen have reported being beaten by officials on several occasions. An encounter between fishermen and authorities at sea that results in serious injury or death would likely lead to major protests.

And why won't the government and the oil companies take the fishermen's complaints seriously? As the fishermen say, they were there before the oil industry. The fishermen I spoke with all told me they're waiting for answers and concrete proposals from officials.

As for marine protected areas, the government can create as many of them as it wants, but if the fishermen are not compensated for their loss, given other jobs or somehow incentivized not to fish, they'll violate the laws.

There's also something slightly ironic about the notion of designating the area around an oil drilling operation as a marine protected zone, especially in a country where many observers, including the authors of the Readiness Report, consider environmental regulation of the oil industry remains insufficient.

This story is a co-production of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.


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