ghanian governance of fish farming

by eileen gbagbo, 2nd year politics and international relations at LSE

Courtesy of Hanson Lu, source: Unsplash

Courtesy of Hanson Lu, source: Unsplash


In the latter half of 2018, a fish poisoning scandal caught the attention of the Ghanaian media and subsequently had a detrimental effect on the sales and consumption of tilapia in Accra. There had been rumours fuelled in part by over-embellished news reports of chemically poisoned tilapia from the Eastern and Volta region, which is one of the main sources of fish to the capital city. While this is an inherent structural problem within the Ghanaian aquaculture industry, the response of the Ghanaian government has been poor due to the lack of standardisation and policy coherence. 

Lake Volta is one of the wonders of Ghana. It is an artificial lake formed by the Akosombo Dam and is one of the largest man-made lakes in the world. It serves a wide cross section of the Ghanaian population from principally farmers and fishermen, tourists and middle-class Ghanaians looking for a break from Accra city life. 

In Ghana, fish is the cheapest source of protein and is central to many traditional dishes such as Kenkey & fried fish and Banku & tilapia. This provides both job and food security in the aquaculture industry with both consumer and suppliers highly dependent on each other, creating a highly integrated value chain. Fish farmed in the Lake Volta is mainly in neighbouring regions such as the Volta and Eastern region, but its biggest market is in the capital city – Accra. 

On the 19th of October 2018, one of the largest aquaculture farms in Ghana – with an estimate of 400 cages, faced high fish mortalities on the Lake Volta. Around 100 tonnes of fish were lost by the farm. Several Ghanaian authorities including the Ministry of Fisheries and Aquaculture Development, the Environmental Protection Agency and Ghana Standards Authority visited the farm and immediately declared fish poisoning as the cause. This caused widespread panic among consumers and within a week, according to Ghana Revenue Authority report, the farm lost around seven million cedis. The Volta is the heart of the tilapia industry. 

Yet, the main cause of this phenomenon was not fish poisoning, but rather a natural upturn in the lake in which cooler water replaced the warm water at the top. This brings in low dissolved oxygen causing the fish to suffocate. 

And so, if this can easily be explained, why were the reports of three official Ghanaian governmental committees completely wrong? 

First, there is no centralised response to environmental crises such as this one. It is unclear which official body would deal with managing the aid relief, as there were too many regulatory bodies involved. So, in this instance, fishermen did not know who to turn to when lodging complaints and requests. 

But most importantly, there is inadequate research to guide policy formulation. For example, the water in the Volta is not stagnant, so there could not have been poison in the lake as the fish downstream were unaffected. Furthermore, the lack of standardised nets leads to over fishing which in the short term can increase revenue for collective groups of fishermen, but in the long run is unsustainable both environmentally and economically.  Fishermen have been known to use DDT – known for its insecticide properties, to increase their yield. This substance had been banned in Hungary in 1968, then the UK in 1984, but research has not been conducted into its impact on the biodiversity in the lake specifically in Ghana. 

This lack of a streamlined environmental policy in relation to the aquaculture industry diminished the agency of the government to enforce fishery laws. As a developing country, Ghana faces a trade off between economic policies designed to develop the manufacturing industry and policies with a sustainable environmental impact. The development model promotes economic policies focused on secondary sectors with a large multiplier effect, but this negates the environmental externalities. And with a heavily resource endowed country such as Ghana, the protection of the environment should be one of its top priorities.