Impact COVID-19 on Fishing and Coastal Communities in Ghana and Globally

The fish landing site and market in Elmina, Ghana.

An Editorial by CRC’s Brian Crawford

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Date: Thursday, April 2, 2020
Time: 9:00 am, Eastern Daylight Time (New York, GMT-04:00)  

The COVID-19 Pandemic has reached the shores of almost every country in the world and will have, and may already be having, a significant public health and economic impact for many of the fishing and coastal communities where we work. There have been reports of challenges in the global seafood trade and price drops for commodities such as lobster in the US as global markets and supply chains are disrupted. In Norway, the fishing industry has been declared a critical industry and stays open with social distancing mandated at places of work. In the Philippines there are also reports of fish supply chain disruptions. Major metropolitan areas, such as Manila, and other parts of the country are ordered to go on lock down or stay at home. Truck drivers are facing quarantine or prevented from moving seafood from outlying fish landing sites to big city markets. The US historic economic stimulus package just approved includes $300 million for fishing industry relief.

In many of the places around the world where we work in low income nations small scale fishing communities dominate the fishing sector and are significant contributors to employment and food security by providing a cheap and nutritious source of protein in the diet. Measures have already been put in place to reduce the spread of the coronavirus and more may come as the number of infected people grows. While directives from governments have already banned public meetings and events to reduce possible exposure and mitigate its spread in many countries, there has been very little discussion or consideration in my view, concerning the daily congregation of large numbers of people in tight quarters at fish landing sites, in fish processing plants, and on fishing vessels.

Boats are crowded.

In Ghana, there are approximately 300 fish landing sites along the coast and many more on Lake Volta employing directly or indirectly up to 10% of the population. Landing sites are locations where many people gather as fishing vessels come ashore with catch. Catch is unloaded from canoes and brought to shore in pans, sold to fish traders and processors, and then transported to fish processing locations throughout the community and shipped to markets around the country. This daily event is central to life and economic activity in fishing communities where men, women, and children, young and old, are on the beach as the canoes come ashore. Scores of people congregate on the beach, and in larger landing sites and markets such as Elmina, Tema, and Secondi, as well as others, the numbers can be more than one hundred people. This creates a situation where large numbers of people are in close contact with one another, similar to a public meeting or event, and represents a significant risk of spread of the coronavirus. Many of the larger canoes that go fishing have crew sizes from 10 to 15 people where these men are working in close contact for hours or even days on a trip and another potential risk for spread of the virus.

The local fishing industry is responsible for providing a significant source of protein for Ghanaians. Fish provides approximately 60% of the animal protein in the local diet and the industry supports up to 2.2 million people either directly or indirectly. The catch of small pelagic fish provides the bulk of the locally caught fish and are known locally as the “people’s fish”. This catch is particularly important to poor people due to its low cost, and when smoked and dried, can be stored without refrigeration for a long period of time.

Busy fish market in Elmina, Ghana

The Ghana case is not unlike many other places in the world and presents several issues of concern. If landing sites are shut down, that could help prevent the spread of the corona virus, however, it would also result in the disruption of a significant economic sector that generates income for many people and provides an inexpensive supply of protein for millions of citizens. Given these competing interests decision makers will need to consider a number of options:

  1. Complete closure of landing sites for a period of time: This action would likely need to go into effect if community spread in fishing villages has started or as a precautionary approach as other large gatherings are prohibited. This would have the greatest effect on preventing the spread of the coronavirus. It would have a significant economic effect on the fishing industry and fishing communities and also result in reduced local fish supply to markets. Reduction in fish supply could be mitigated by importation of more frozen fish. However, some international supply chains of fish are being disrupted due to the coronavirus pandemic. Fishing communities would see a severe reduction in their household income and past studies have shown they have few alternative sources of income to rely on other than the fishing business. Compensation could be provided to fisherfolks, but this would be costly, and mechanisms would need to be developed to determine who receives compensation, at what level, and for how long.
    2. Limit the number of vessels that can land on the beach or at fishing ports at any one time and limit only essential personnel at landing sites. This approach would reduce the number of people at landings sites and reduce the possible spread of the virus but provides some risk that it would not be sufficient to totally mitigate community spread. A process would need to be developed and implemented to determine how many vessels can land at any one time and how many people can be at the beach or port unloading and transporting fish. This could range from only one to several boats at a time. This approach would allow a continued supply of fish into the economy and maintain economic activity in the fishing communities.
    3. Limit the number of crew that can be on a vessel. This may affect larger vessels disproportionately. They probably could operate with reduced crew to some extent, but this could also raise safety issues. Larger vessels could be prohibited from fishing altogether and only smaller scale vessels with crews of less than five persons allowed to fish.
    4. No closure of landing sites or limits to vessel landings at any time. This is business as usual and provides no disruption at landing sites (unless or until widespread infection starts to occur) or in the normal supply of fish. It allows economic activity in fishing communities to continue but provides the greatest risk for spread of the coronavirus.

Regardless of what decisions are made from country to country and landing site to landing site, there are some actions that can be taken to support fishing communities in preventing and mitigating the spread of the coronavirus. Regardless of whether fish landing sites are shut down, vessel landings reduced, or no limits placed on the normal processes of fisheries commerce these steps could be taken:
Provide information to fishing communities on ways to reduce the spread of the virus through the practice social distancing. Communications should be crafted with the assistance of the Health Ministries and Public Health Services. Traditional leaders and respected leaders in fishing communities can play an important role. In the case of Ghana, Chief Fishermen and Kokohenes (senior female fish traders), can aid in communicating messages and enforcing social distancing practices at landing sites, fish processing locations, and markets. NGOs and Fisheries Extension personnel can be enlisted in communicating and educating fishing communities.
Provide handwashing stations and supplies including soap and water at landings sites and signs on proper handwashing practices in fishing communities.

Keep individuals that are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus away from landing sites to the extent practical. This could include elderly individuals over the age of 60 years and anyone with preexisting conditions such as cardiovascular disease, pulmonary disease, diabetes, and with immunodeficiencies.
Keep individuals that are not directly involved in the capture, unloading, transport, purchase, sale or processing of fish away from landing sites.
While the future may be uncertain at this time for many of us, and we should all be practicing good hygiene and social distancing, let’s not forget about doctors, nurses and first responders that are on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19. Also let us not forget the special concerns and impacts this will have in coastal communities and the fishing sector around the world, while we work to find the best way forward and the path to recovery.

Fisherman ....

For a few stories on how the pandemic is affecting the fishing sector in the US, please go to the following links:
Commercial Fishermen Struggle To Survive In The Face Of Coronavirus
Coronavirus cancellation pinches New Bedford seafood industry