When it comes to abuse and corruption on Chinese fishing vessels in Ghana, Bright Tsai Kweku has seen it all. He has seen Chinese crew treating local fishermen like “slaves”, he says.
“They beat them, they spit on them, they kick them,” Kweku says. “I have been through that before.”
Mr Kweku works as a bosun – an officer in charge of equipment and the crew. He says he has been forced to work for three days without sleep, had food withheld from him and been forced to drink dirty water.
The fate of some of his fellow fishermen has been even worse, he says. Kweku says one of his colleagues fell sick with cholera on board a Chinese vessel but the crew refused to bring him back to shore for treatment. He didn’t make it back alive.
He saw another get badly burned on a vessel after a fire ignited onboard. Another colleague got caught by a propeller. Neither survived and the families have not received proper compensation, he says. These are just a few examples of the alleged widespread abuse and neglect linked to Chinese fishing vessels operating off Ghanaian shores.
The UK-based Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) says at least 90 per cent of the industrial trawlers operating in Ghana are owned by Chinese corporations, in contravention of Ghanaian laws on the ownership of vessels fishing under the local flag. A substantial proportion of these vessels have engaged in illegal practices, EJF says.
A recent EJF report investigates what it says are illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and human rights abuses by China’s Distant Water Fishing (DWF) fleet in Ghana. The ownership and operational control of China’s DWF fleet is complex and opaque, and is the largest in the world.
All 36 crew members interviewed by EJF had been forced to work more than 14 hours a day and received inadequate food. The report says 94 per cent had received inadequate medicine or witnessed verbal abuse, while 86per cent reported inadequate living conditions, 81 per cent had witnessed physical abuse and 75 per cent had seen serious injury at sea.
In response, China’s embassy says it is a “responsible fishing country”.
“We have always worked with other members of the international community to crack down on illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, and have done a lot in effectively combating illegal fishing,” its press office tells the BBC.
One of the worst disasters involving a Chinese vessel in Ghanaian waters took place eight months ago.
On May 6, the MV Comforter 2 sank in stormy conditions. Fourteen crew were rescued, but 11 remain missing, presumed dead, including the state-appointed observer. The body of the Chinese captain was found.
One of the survivors, who requested anonymity and we will call Michael, recalls the horrors that unfolded that day. Despite storms getting increasingly worse, he says the Chinese crew told the fishermen to pull in an excessive haul in one go. The boat already had a lot of fish on board, and it lost control, capsizing under the weight of the haul and the choppy waters.
Michael and nine others managed to grab hold of a floating oil drum for almost 24 hours, before a fisherman found them.
“It was a terrifying night,” he says. “We didn’t know whether we would make it or not.”
Michael hasn’t recovered physically or mentally from the disaster and says the Ghanaian company officially in charge of the vessel, Boatacom, has not paid him any compensation.
“I’m not happy at all, the company keeps giving us excuses. Sometimes I feel pain all over my body. I need medical attention, but I don’t have money,” he says.
Kojo Ampratwum, managing director of Boatacom, tells the BBC the firm has submitted its reports to the insurance company and is waiting to hear back. Tracing who owns the MV Comforter 2 and other vessels operating in Ghana is complicated.
Foreign ownership of industrial trawl vessels operating under the Ghanaian flag is illegal, but some Chinese firms get around this via Ghanaian front companies. Through its research, EJF says the Chinese Dalian Mengxin Ocean Fishery Company is the ultimate owner of the MV Comforter 2 and that it is part of the Meng Xin fleet.
The Meng Xin fleet has also been linked to one of the most notorious cases on Ghanaian waters in recent times – the disappearance of fisheries observer Emmanuel Essien. Since 2018, Ghana has appointed fisheries observers on board all industrial trawlers operating under the Ghanaian flag. Their job is to collect data on fishing activities and report on illegal practices at sea.
Essien had earned a name as a dedicated and thorough observer, but this had led to problems. He got into a fight with a Chinese national who had stopped him from filming crew illegally discarding fish at sea, says his brother James Essien.
Emmanuel’s final report to the Fisheries Commission was on June 24, 2019. In the report – a copy of which was provided to the BBC – he outlines illegal fishing activities and states: “I humbly plead with the police to investigate further.”
- BBC report