Oil is expected to account for about five percent of Ghana's GDP once production gets up to speed in the next few months. That figure will likely increase as drilling develops, and high oil prices will certainly add to revenues. But fishing, which generates none of the excitement or fantasies of oil, also generates close to five percent of Ghana's GDP.
The number of jobs for Ghanaians that the oil industry will create is still unknown, but is not expected to exceed more than several hundred in the next few years. Fishing, on the other hand, supports millions of Ghanaians. Up to ten percent of the country's population depend directly or indirectly on fishing for their livelihood. That's huge, but in the Western Region fishing communities have to accommodate the oil industry. The oil industry, meanwhile, doesn't have to do anything for the fishermen.
When one talks about offshore oil and fishing, the first thing that comes up is spills. Look at the number of fishing operations grounded during the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico. It was a disaster for local businesses, but in the U.S. there was at least compensation available (even if there are ongoing compensation problems). If there is a major oil spill off the coast of Ghana, or elsewhere in the Gulf of Guinea region, millions of people would be left with nothing. Fishermen, buyers, fish smoking and reselling operations—a significant segment of the local population would be left with nothing for months or longer.
The oil industry impacts fishing even when everything is going well, and this is something we rarely hear about if we live outside fishing communities.
In Ghana, fishermen are angry about the 500-meter no-fishing zone that surrounds the Jubilee field drilling operations. As one fisherman explained to me, they don't necessarily want to go fishing around the oil production area, but they have to follow the fish. The powerful, 24-hour-a-day lighting on the Kwame Nkrumah (that's the refitted tanker that serves as the oil storage and off-loading vessel) attracts the fish, so that's where the fishermen go. The navy has seized fishermen, their boats and motors, causing great financial distress.
Fishermen also talk about increased tanker and shipping traffic in the region, as well as signs of pollution. Several months ago, tar balls washed ashore along the coast near the town of Axim. The fishermen said they had never seen this before and thought it must be related to the drilling. The government apparently tested the tar and said it was not from drilling but dumped from ships. No one around here seems convinced.
A number of officials have told me that the fishermen's claims are unfounded or exaggerated. "The ocean is vast and the Jubilee field is so small," I've heard from several people, including a Tullow Oil spokesperson. "The Jubilee field is 60 kilometers offshore; no one goes fishing there," I'm told, directly contradicting what fishermen tell me.
At the Ghanaian Environmental Protection Agency, officials recognize the fishermen's dilemma, but think the no-fishing zone is a good idea since "Ghana's fish stocks need protection." Ghana's fish stocks do need protection. Overfishing is a major problem throughout the Gulf of Guinea, but letting the oil companies off the hook this way doesn't help anyone. And it's not as if the EPA is proposing to pay fishermen not to fish.
In the past months there have been regular announcements of oil finds off Ghana's coast. New drilling will begin soon, leading to more no-fishing zones, more tanker traffic and increased environmental risk. In the mad rush to develop Ghana's oil, it's hard to find any officials speaking out for the environment or the fishing communities. I hear all around me that Ghana's oil will not be a curse. If that is the case, then government officials will have to get serious about looking out for citizens' interests.