4 years on, no justice for Emmanuel Essien, a Ghanaian fishing observer who mysteriously disappeared from a Chinese trawler

July 5, 2019, was an ordinary work day for Emmanuel Essien. But least did he know that would be the last he would do the work he so loved and for which he did with much dedication. Essien left his family for work on the Meng Xin 15 vessel as a fishing observer for Ghana’s Fisheries Commission. He was last seen on the vessel between 9 pm and 10:30 pm. And that was the last day Essien was at work. He disappeared, no traces. At the time of writing, no one including his wife and two children has seen him since July 5, four years ago.

Two weeks before his disappearance, Essien caught on video crews of the Jin Hao 608 trawler, engaging in ‘Saiko’ – the illegal act of transferring fish from a trawler to a large vessel. Unlike some of his compatriots, Essien will not take a bribe to allow the illegality to slide. He tended the video evidence to the Ghana police to investigate the crew of Jin Hao 608. If found guilty, operators of Jin Hao 608 could be liable to a fine of $1 million.

Illegal fishing on Ghana’s coast is a severe existential issue. The Ghanaian economy is losing an estimated £50 million annually as a result of illegal and damaging operations by foreign-owned trawlers. Overfishing has brought 350 miles of Ghana’s coastline’s small pelagic species, or “people’s fish”—the primary source of food—to the brink of extinction. Sardinella, one of the species of pelagic fish has dropped in population by at least 80% while sardinella aurita has completely been wiped out of existence,

At the heart of this menace is the involvement of the Chinese. In Ghana, it is against the law for a foreigner to own a trawler, but Chinese trawlers employ front firms to get around the rule and fish. A staggering 90% of Ghana’s industrial trawlers are reportedly financed by Chinese firms, according to the Environmental Justice Foundation.

To combat this menace, Ghana and the World Bank in a $55 million project put an observer in every industrial trawler to collect data and report violations of fisheries laws. Essien was part of this solution until his painful mysterious disappearance.

Justice delayed is justice denied

It is speculated that Essien fell overboard but his family members vehemently disagree. James, Essien’s brother, told the Guardian regarding the issue, “I don’t believe my brother threw himself off the boat into the sea. There is no way he would do that. I suspect there was a coordinated attempt to take him off. He was going to write up a report. Perhaps there was a disagreement. Perhaps the Chinese didn’t like it.”

Fishermen confirmed that falling overboard was not something that could easily happen to a person working as an observer. They said it was not easy for an observer to simply fall overboard. “It would be very hard,” one said. “He is not working on deck like the fishermen.”

The pace of investigation into the incident is rather very slow. Ghana’s media house Joynews filed a Right To Information (RTI) request at the Office of the Attorney General asking about the progress of the investigation. According to the office, they have submitted their advice as well as the docket to the police since November 2021. It is worth noting that, the initial Police report indicated that there were signs of crime in the disappearance of Essien. And though, three people have been implicated and have been investigated, the matter has yet to be resolved.  It appears no one, at least in authority including the police wants to get to the bottom of the matter.

According to Ghanaian law, in order to pronounce someone dead or to bring charges for their disappearance, authorities need to have a body. And since Essien’s body is yet to be recovered, this could be a possible hindrance to prosecution.

Though Essien may have suffered the worst in the hands of Chinese operators of the Meng Xin 15, his disappearance shines a light on the perilous working environment for Ghanaian fishing observers. While observers are threatened on board by drunk Chinese crew members and drug-intoxicated local hands, Ghanaian authorities are reluctant to apply sanctions on trawlers violating the law; or just don’t feel concerned enough to enforce the laws as required.

Why the Chinese Government should be worried

The Meng Xi 15 vessel, on which Essien disappeared belongs to the Chinese state-owned Dalian Meng Xin Ocean Fisheries, and has been sanctioned by the Chinese state. Since the 1980s, the Chinese are encouraged by their fishing industry to use distant water fishing (DWF) when it became apparent that the country’s domestic fishing stocks were declining rapidly.

DWF is crucial to China’s “going-out” strategy, which aims to encourage Chinese businesses to invest abroad and gain a stronger foothold in the world, particularly in Africa. Also, DWF is crucial from a strategic perspective for China. By 2018, China’s DWF had increased to 2.6 million tons from a low of almost nothing in 1985. There are 170 DWF firms, according to official figures, and they operate 2,654 vessels. One 2020 report estimated that the fleet consists of 16,966 vessels, which is five to eight times greater than previous estimates; suggesting that the actual numbers may be significantly higher.

The support the Chinese state gives its fishing industry has emboldened it to decimate the West African coast, especially Ghana, where the local fishing industry supports the livelihood of over 3 million people.  Activities of Chinese DWF have resulted in the impoverishment of local fishing communities, threatening their jobs and livelihood.

For example, according to research conducted by the Ghana Fisheries Commission, catches of sardines, mackerel, and anchovies were only 40% as high in 2019 as they were in 1993. Sardinella suffered worse, with a catch size that was just 10% of the volume in 1993. This is in a nation where up to 3 million people depend on fishing either directly or indirectly.

China is out there trying to build a favourable image in countries of the global south, including Ghana. Whereas available data shows some level of success in this regard, activities of Chinese DWF could bring negative perception on China. The local fisher communities are unmistaken in their thought as to the role China is playing in their impoverishment. And in the final analysis,  the opinion of ordinary Africans about the image of China that matters is as important as what pertains to state-to-state diplomatic interactions, between African countries and China.

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