Chronicles from the coast of Ghana

Saiko, fishy plastic and 7% Guiness in a bottle

My name is Eoghan, I make the films for Ecohustler. In April 2023 I was in Ghana. As part of this trip I found the time to get out and explore some of the complex issues that face the coastal communities. As a filmmaker I am interested in culture and environment especially where people, oceans, rivers and biodiversity intersect.

Where does human activity, be that consumption, cultural traditions, habits or our livelihoods meet the environments in which we live?

As a long time admirer of Sea Shepherd, the Environmental Justice Foundation and the work of Ian Urbina’s initiative The Outlaw Ocean Project I was aware of the long standing challenges the west african artisanal fishing communities have been facing in terms of competing with unregulated illegal trawling up and down the coast of Gulf of Guinea.

Landing in Accra

Accra, the capital of Ghana, greeted me with open arms. The streets were alive with music, the air filled with the enticing aroma of street food, delicious 7% ice cold Guinness and the vibrant colors of traditional fabrics adorned the bustling markets.

It’s not often you get to visit the place where music you’ve been playing on repeat back in the UK is actually from. So it was like a dream to stroll down the back streets of Osu with the bars playing songs like ‘Countryside’ by Black Sherif and Sarkodie. A special sense of time and place.

We visited some of the spots; James Town, with its boxing gyms and laid-back community, Labadi Beach, where Burna Boy swears you'll find God between the sky and the horizon, Makola market where you can buy beautiful Togolese and Ghanaian print cloth juxtaposed with mountains of bundles of beige fast fashion sometimes double over head (another story all together) or the expansive views offered up by Shai Hills where you can climb the rocks surrounded by Boabab trees and under foot are ancient circles made by Shai women as they used it as a pestle and mortar to prepare food over 1000 years ago..

The nights came alive in Osu (the main nightlife area in Accra), where the latest Afrobeats and Amapiano hits pulsed through the clubs and bars. These experiences were electrifying, but little did I know that a vastly different world awaited me just off the beaten path.

The Reality of Plastic Pollution

On Easter Monday I went to Makola market and cut down onto the beach near James Town. It was about a 3km walk back towards Osu along the beach, I stumbled upon a scene that would haunt me. The beach was meant to host a wild celebration, with thousands of Ghanaians gathering to revel in their day off. However, what I encountered was disheartening - trash littered the beach even before the festivities had commenced.

I know that safe drinking water is a big issue in Ghana and this alone generates the need for a lot of single use plastics, namely water sachets the locals call ‘pure water’. As I walked in the midday heat I was thinking, I guess this is what it looks like when you don’t have the infrastructure to hide the waste we create in a city? Is this because of rapid urbanization? Is this what the UK or anywhere for that matter would look like if we didn’t ship our waste abroad… so it’s out of sight out of mind? Bristol looks like a wasteland before bin day, if this was left for a few months what would it look like?

Exploring Accra's Coastal Communities

My journey led me past a waterway that flowed from the city to the beach. It was choked with water sachets, plastic bags, and untreated waste. Beneath this was a lagoon fed by this waterway and the ocean, in it children played, and livestock grazed and people walked on by. This surreal juxtaposition of white sandy beaches, polluted waters, plastic and everyday life left an indelible mark on me.

Accra's coastline is home to communities that started settling in the late 70’s as an alternative to the high inner city prices. The area is covered with shanty structures built right on to the beach, sometimes on stilts. While the living areas and communal spaces were all brushed and tidy, the lagoons and waterways within these communities were clogged with plastic waste, blocking the flow of water into the sea.

A Lagoon of Plastic

Amidst this surreal landscape, I contemplated how I might approach interviewing someone living next to these reservoirs of plastic waste without implicating them in the issue. Nuance and proper thought would be needed, However, at that moment, I lacked the courage and contextual understanding to initiate such a conversation. These thoughts remained dormant, unrealised.

A Journey Down the Coast

The impact of the plastic pollution in Accra weighed heavily on my mind, and I felt compelled to venture further down Ghana's coastline. My girlfriend and I set our sights on Cape Coast and Elmina, two destinations steeped in history and coastal charm.

I wanted to connect with people from the coastal fishing communities and hear about how their livelihoods were going in the face of overfishing and trawling. With the allure of Ghana's vibrant culture, the prospect of enjoying 7% Guinness, and countless other adventures, I remained uncertain about the feasibility of such an opportunity.

Cape Coast and Its Dark History

Our journey brought us to Cape Coast, a town deeply intertwined with Ghana's colonial history. The castles in Cape Coast and nearby Elmina represent some of West Africa's oldest standing structures, with Elmina castle being the first permanent European slave trading post in all of sub-saharan Africa.

We embarked on a harrowing tour of these castles, guided through the dungeons where hundreds of thousands of slaves were processed before being shipped to the "new world." Our tour guide, a young woman on national service, led us through the dungeons, showing us the infamous "door of no return" and the lines on the walls marking where human excrement used to reach. The castles once held up to 1000 male and 500 female slaves in unimaginable conditions. While traders lived comfortably in spacious ocean-view rooms above, the suffering below beyond comprehension.

I should also mention that many people from the West African diaspora have chosen to revisit the castle, reentering through the ‘Door of Return’. The renaming of this door signifies a concerted initiative to strengthen the bond between Africa and its diaspora.

Detailing this experience is crucial, as it leaves an indelible somber feeling that stays with you long after the tour concludes. While it can never equate to the suffering endured by millions during the slave trade, the tour offers a unique perspective, one that transcends what any textbook can impart.

We headed down to the beach to get amongst the cape coast fishing boats, something I'd dreamt of seeing in real life - It's full of beautiful wooden boats, colorful flags bobbing gently in the swell… we went and sat on the rocks and decompressed after an intense few hours.

The next day we went to Elmina. Elmina, also known as Edina by the local Fante, is one of the busiest fishing ports in west Africa. Prior to European arrival Elmina was called Anomansa which translates to ‘Inexhaustible Water’ In the 15th century it became the first European settlement in West Africa and has a population of 34,000.

A Date with Elmina's Fishy Aroma

We jumped out of the taxi, and we were immediately hit with a 35 celcius hit of the most pungent fish related smell you can imagine. I am nursing a bit of a hangover and as we enter the market it gets ten times worse. There’s probably over a thousand people sitting next to bowls of fish or walking around with them on their heads. The port goes on for over a km with hundreds of boats densely packed in gently nudging past each other. It was an incredible sight.

We walk around exploring the back allies dodging puddles of fish water - we go past ship builders, traders, drying racks - every part of the artisanal fish industry has specific areas in this place. There’s clearly a well oiled system but it was overwhelming to think of starting a conversation with someone about making a film.

Meeting Francis, the local guide and savior!

Amidst the hustle and bustle of the Elmina fishing port, I started to regret my obsession with Guiness and my hangover began to intensify. In my state of discomfort, a local guide named Francis approached us. He asked where we were from beaming ear to ear, and, with a sense of pragmatism, I decided to work with him rather than shake him off. Perhaps he could help me locate a usable restroom in this fishy maelstrom. The idea of making a film about artisanal fishing seemed distant.

"Francis, can we find a toilet, and I can hear the distinct sound of football on TV being played nearby. Could you take us there? I'll buy you a beer."

Long story short, Francis turned out to be absolutely great. He led us to a nearby bar, and after a toilet break and a couple of club lagers, we began discussing the possibility of organizing and filming a fishing trip. I explained my intention to get permission to fly my drone, join a fishing trip, and document the casting of nets. I also asked Francis if he could arrange interviews with a fisherwoman and the captain of a fishing boat willing to take me on this adventure. Francis assured me that it could all be easily organised, and we exchanged phone numbers before heading back to Cape Coast.

A Fishing Trip Takes Shape

Around 11 p.m. that night, I received a text message from Francis that read, "We're good to go for 8 a.m. tomorrow!" Excitement and anticipation filled the air as I prepared to return to Elmina at 6 a.m. the following day. Francis was beaming with enthusiasm, knowing that a full day's work awaited him. He had gone above and beyond to secure not only the interviews but also a fishing trip, and for that, I was immensely grateful.

I had read up on the challenges facing fish stocks in Ghana and west africa more broadly but I didn’t have the latest information, so chatting with Francis was enlightening.

The Ecological Precipice of Elmina's Fishing Community

The context of Elmina's fishing community is alarming. It stands on the precipice of an ecological disaster that extends along the entire West African coast, from Gambia to Benin. Trawling has been a reality for decades, but in Ghana, it has reached a breaking point.

Distant water fishing, with vessels that travel the globe hunting seafood on the high seas and and in other countries’ waters is a notoriously opaque and poorly regulated sector. One trawler in Ghana can catch five times as many fish in a day as one small local fishing crew can in a year. One of the biggest current perpetrators of this is the Chinese, but other fleets including European ones such as the Spanish have also exploited West African waters over the past 20 years. Making massive profits from nature and leaving it in ruins in the process.

Corruption, inadequate regulation, and a lack of resources for effective monitoring and enforcement have allowed distant fishing fleets to operate with impunity. These fleets were initially dubiously licensed to catch larger fish for the international market, but as these stocks dwindled, they began targeting smaller open water fish traditionally relied upon by local artisanal fishermen.

And so began a trade which is locally called ‘saiko’ - a vulgar situation where trawlers fish for the stocks usually caught by the local fishermen like sardinella, mackerel and anchovies then sell these catches back to the local fishermen for a profit. Something so morally repugnant it’s hard to believe it’s true.

I can’t comment on the long term sustainability of artisanal fishing in the gulf of guinea but I can’t imagine it’s anywhere near as destructive as ‘saiko’.

This unsustainable fishing practice has far-reaching socio-economic and environmental consequences, disrupting the marine food chain and harming the ecosystem, not to mention the local artisanal fishermen and market women who rely on these small pelagic fish for their income.

Fast forward to April 2023 and Francis tells me that ‘Saiko’ is now completely banned, with heavy fines for those found to be still doing it. You can easily spot ‘Saiko’ fish as they are given to the local fishermen in frozen blocks, and you can see them as they are decanted into a hot sweaty market which has no refrigeration. Even though totally banned we still saw plenty thawing on the round wooden plates they use for display and in the silver tin bowls balanced perfectly on heads wherever you look.

But this is where things get really messy. The practice of Saiko even though it’s banned is so deeply entrenched and relied upon financially by the local community that the knock on effects are being felt by everyone involved. The scarcity of fish left in the ocean have pushed local fishermen to adopt illegal fishing practices such as;

Use of Dynamite and Poison: Although less common, some local fishermen resort to using dynamite or poisonous substances to stun or kill fish, which can lead to widespread environmental damage and the depletion of fish populations.

Light Fishing: This practice involves the use of bright lights to attract fish at night, making them easier to catch. It is illegal in Ghana and is known to disrupt fish behavior and impact non-target species, including juveniles.

And as we’ll hear in the film from Martha the fisherwoman, the newly instated ban on Saiko means the women in the market who process the fish are defaulting on loans pushing them towards loan sharks and making them very financially vulnerable.

Meeting Eric, Our Laidback Captain

Francis led me to the same football bar nestled in the heart of the Elmina fishing port, where we met Eric, the captain. Translated by Francis, Eric explained that they typically had to venture out to sea for up to a week to secure a good catch, often traveling over 40 kilometers from the shore.

Clearly, this wouldn't be possible today. They offered to take me a couple of kilometers from the shore but asked me to supply water for the team and pay a certain amount for fuel and their time. We agreed terms, had a beer together, and set off to find his boat in the melee.

I was drenched in sweat already and we’d been in the shade most of the morning. I wondered what these guys thought of me. Was this a common thing to do? Do they get lots of tourists asking them to go out fishing?

With limited time and the challenges of shooting and directing solo, I knew I couldn't cover this complex issue comprehensively. It would take months to do justice to the problem. Instead, I decided to capture local perspectives on the current state of affairs, hoping to provide a ‘wide angle’ snapshot of the human impact of overfishing, trawling, and the broader consequences.

As we motored out into the open ocean I couldn't help but wonder whether we'd catch any fish at all. After all, we weren't that far from the shore, and it would be fortuitous with just one or two casts of the net. I questioned the entire endeavor; maybe I should have been better prepared, with life vests, insurance, a team and more time. Lost in my thoughts, I was brought back into the moment by the rhythmic singing of the fishermen sorting the nets. They were working tirelessly under the scorching humid sun, calling to each other in a synchronized rhythm that made their gruelling labor seem almost like a dance.

They cast the nets and skilfully maneuvered the boat as the sizable swells moved under us. Filming with this constant motion was tricky - I asked Francis to keep an eye on me and the shoot bag as I tried to get the different shots needed for the sequence without getting in the way of the action.

I watched intently through the lens as the catch was hauled onto the deck. It was a moment I had been waiting for, but I wasn't prepared for what I saw: a vibrating ball of plastic waste with fish sticking out of it. It was so obvious, considering the plastic-covered beaches. My filming efforts in Ghana had led to this – a haul with hardly any fish in it but loads of plastic waste.

We returned to the market, and I interviewed Eric for about 20 minutes about this unexpected catch and his life as a fisherman. Language barriers were challenging, but with help from Francis, we managed to get a detailed interview about fishing, trawlers, poisonous plastics, and the upcoming long fishing ban. I found out that the government imposes a industry wide ban for a month which has happened before to let fish stocks recover - I asked myself, will the trawlers abide by the ban or carry on with impunity?

Next, I spoke to Martha, a fisherwoman. Her responses were engaging even if I had no idea what she was saying. I could tell that she had a lot on her mind and I looked forward to receiving the interview translation. Her heartfelt answers were so passionate that I nearly forgot the weight of the camera on my shoulder. Anyone who has ever held a hefty camera knows the struggle of trying to keep it steady after ten minutes, and when you add the rising stench of fish and 35-degree heat and humidity to the mix, you'll have a clear picture of what I looked like in that moment.

After wrapping up the shoot, I relaxed with Martha and Francis and they got me to buy them a number of local gin rum shots and beers and we listened to music by the roadside. This time with them off camera just drinking and laughing was so special. The pollution and wildlife mix had been intense, and I couldn't stop thinking about the waste management issues along the coastline. I knew I needed to get that story when I returned to Accra.

Back in Accra, I ventured to a beach, determined to understand the impact of plastic waste on communities living near city lagoons. I finally picked up the courage and approached a gentleman called Isaac who was playing cards with a friend next to the lagoon. The resulting interview and imagery culminated in a film that delves into two complex issues converging in the nets of artisanal fishermen.

This journey through Ghana's coastal communities has left an indelible mark on me. It started as an exploration of filmmaking and storytelling, but it evolved into a profound examination of the intricate relationship between human activities, culture, and our environment, particularly the devastating impact of plastic pollution and illegal trawling is having on artisanal fishing communities.

The stark contrast between the vibrant streets of Accra and the plastic-ridden beaches was a poignant reminder of the urgent need for sustainable practices and effective waste management. It made me question the global implications of our actions and our shared responsibility for the health of our oceans and waterways. The UK ships excess waste, electronics and fast fashion to Ghana by the tonne. We are part of this, why do we not see this on the news (I wonder…)

Do these plastics and single use, micro and nano signal the end of humanity as we know it? After all, a recent study in Japan has found nano plastics in the clouds, another study has found them in our blood - how will the environment and our bodies deal with the ever increasing levels of pollution? Is the damage already done?

It cannot be right that runaway profits are being made at the expense of the oceans biodiversity - and that this is enabled because no one can monitor and police what’s going on. Where is our benign AI ocean scanning system that tags illegal vessels and holds them to account?

Meeting local individuals like Eric, Francis, Martha, and Isaac opened my eyes to the socio-economic impacts of overfishing and illegal trawling, as well as the interconnected challenges faced by these resilient communities. The ban on "Saiko" fishing, while a step in the right direction, has revealed complex socio-economic repercussions that must be addressed holistically.

Capitalism feeds on the vulnerable - women like Martha who are defaulting on their loans are pushed into precarious situations with loan sharks and debt collectors ready to pounce.

As I ventured out to sea with local fishermen, I witnessed firsthand the impact of overfishing on their daily lives and the shocking reality of catching more plastic waste than fish. It couldn’t be starker, our actions and government inaction have direct and far-reaching consequences on the environment and the livelihoods of those who depend on it.

My hope is that the film and stories I've collected will shed light on the urgent need for change, not just in Ghana but globally. We must address the issues of plastic pollution, overfishing, and unsustainable practices with the same enthusiasm and unity that I witnessed among the local fishermen as they toiled under the scorching sun.

This journey has reinforced my belief in the power of storytelling to inspire change and create awareness. It has also ignited a commitment within me to continue exploring environmental issues through filmmaking and advocacy, using my skills to give a voice to those who often go unheard.

In the end, Ghana's coastal crisis has become a part of my own narrative, a reminder that we are all connected by the waters that flow through our communities and the responsibility we share to protect them. This journey has been a profound learning experience, and I am grateful for the opportunity to share these stories with the world, hoping they will inspire action and positive change.