‘Two boxes of fish to three boxes of rubber’: Plastic pollution takes a toll on fishermen

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When Eric Ashietei’s father first asked him to move to Teshie, the idea was to help with work so he could save money to go back to school.

Ashietei, now 32 years, completed technical school and dreamt of being an Engineer ten years ago. But due to the impact of plastic waste in water bodies, preventing fisherfolk from making a bumper harvest at sea, he has not been able to make enough income to realise his dream.

“This really hurts me,” he laments, “I read Auto Mechanical Engineering back in school but because of financial problems, I couldn’t go to the University.”

Teshie Lagoon

– Eric Ashietie’s dreams crushed due to the improper disposal of plastic waste

Teshie is one of the biggest coastal communities in Accra, Ghana’s capital. In the heart of what has now become a slum, is the Sango Lagoon. Once upon a time, it was the habitat for aquatic life mainly tilapia, mudfish and shrimps.

What remains of it today are sachet rubbers, empty plastic bottles and other types of solid wastes, its banks, drowned in the stench from faeces from residents who do not have toilets in their homes. The stagnant water is now a pale shadow of its former self.

Teshie Lagoon

– The current state of the Sango Lagoon

A story like that of Sango was the subject of a recent study by researchers at the University of Ghana who found that over a hundred of such lagoons are now at breaking points, facing extinction.

“There is no lagoon in Ghana without a problem. Either overfishing, plastic pollution, illegal mining or open defecation,” says Professor Chris Gordon who works with the Institute for Environment and Sanitation Studies (IESS). 

In a 2015 report the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), revealed that only 2% of Ghana’s plastic waste is recycled out of the 1.7 billion produced annually. Over 73% of the waste, the report says, ends up in the water bodies. And the Sango Lagoon is just one of them.

Teshie Lagoon

– Banks of the lagoon have been overrun by water sachets, plastic bottles and other solid wastes

Whilst growing up, Ashietei’s dad and other fishermen in Teshie had more than just the sea, the Sango lagoon existed to save the day on occasions when they made no catch. It was also home to their supreme deity Nana Sango, who they believe gave them a bumper catch.

With all that gone and with limited options now, the people of Teshie live in untold hardship.

“My father used to tell me that life was good,” Ashietei narrates “but now we are starving in our own community, and we even have to beg sometimes to have a meal.”

Beads of sweat form on the forehead of Ashietei as he carries his net over his shoulder to the safe room for storage. The salty sea water drips from his black shirt and shorts, disappointed in the days’ catch, he murmurs a silent prayer for a better tomorrow. 

On the other side of the lagoon, Jacob Annan Laryea and his colleagues sit in their boat under the hot Saturday sun, mending their net. On a good day, they should be on the lagoon fishing.

Teshie Lagoon

– The stagnant lagoon has become a breeding space for mosquitoes

The lagoon, which is 2 meters above sea level, slowly hums its way into the ocean. Its banks adorned with plastics and other toxic materials, little or no effort is needed to drive them into the dull green lagoon. The troubled water now serves as a breeding space for mosquitoes and mud bath for pigs.

Teshie Lagoon

– Pigs mud bathing in the water body

The 63-year-old man who has been fishing since he was 16, complains bitterly about how the almost dead lagoon has affected his livelihood.

“As I speak to you, there is no fish in this lagoon,” he says, “So we are left with no option than to fish in the sea, and even there, we catch them in small quantities so we don’t make enough income.

Teshie Lagoon

– Fishermen separating the rubbish from the fishes

He adds: “You can spend all night at sea and all you get is 2 boxes of fish and 3 boxes of rubber. And you now have to come and separate the rubbish from the fishes.”

Teshie Lagoon

– Jacob Annan Laryea holding a crate of fishes and rubbish

The plastic revolution dates back to the 1950s when fears over the continued felling of trees for the production of paper materials raised concerns about global warming and climate change. Searching for a solution, the polymers were seen to be the best alternative, fuelling a boom in global demand.

Here in Ghana, even food vendors have gradually moved from serving food in plantain leaves to polythene bags, taking advantage of its handiness.

“Plastics have become a nuisance,” says Adwoa Paintsil, the Quality Environmentalist of Ghana Water Resources Commission “in our bodies, they are deadly.”

Teshie Lagoon

– The Lagoon, which used to be a habitat for aquatic life and source of income to its people, is now a pale shadow of its former self

Of the 8.3 billion metric tonnes manufactured since 1950, about 30% are still in use. The rest has been disposed in three ways; nine per cent has been recycled, 12 per cent incinerated and 79 per cent sent to the landfills or left in the natural environment.

The part of Teshie where the dead lagoon is located, called Teshie Maamli, is largely a slum area. But this slum area is not far from relatively rich communities like Spintex, Tsuibleoo, Greda Estates. This situation has caused some Teshie residents to suggest that the ‘well-to-do people’ are mostly those creating the waste that is responsible for their plight.

“These people have made their money and when they create their rubbish, we are those who suffer,” Laryea, a resident vents.

Teshie Lagoon

– Fishermen mending their nets at the bank of the lagoon

People here believe the local government, the Ledzokuku Municipal Assembly, has done very little to address the situation.

Laryea says: “We have told the assembly that if possible they should separate the gutters from the lagoon so that it doesn’t affect us, but it has all fallen on deaf ears.”

From tiny streams and lagoons to vast estuaries, Ghana’s water bodies have long been the major life-blood for many coastal communities.

Teshie Lagoon

– Esther Adei Amon, readying fishes for fire

A few meters away from the banks of the lagoon, Esther Adei Amon arranges fishes on slabs, readying them for the fire. She pulls the cloth wrapped around her waist to rub off the sweat on her face once in a while. Her reddish eyes show the decades she has had to withstand the thick smoke from fish mongering to make ends meet.

“I have done this for 36 years, this is what I use to take care of my three children and grandchild back at home,” she says.

The 53-year-old worries that the depletion of the lagoon has taken a toll on her livelihood and fears what the future holds for her household should the plastic menace continue.

“We can’t take care of our families like we used to because we do not get fishes like we used to.

“We have lost Nana Sango because of rubbish, and it is not from those of us here, it is the people living in other places who create the rubbish,” she says.

Teshie Lagoon

Over 3 million people depend on the fisheries sector in Ghana, the Fisheries and Aquaculture Ministry says.

Adei, just like many in Teshie, depends on the community’s fishermen to make ends meet. The fishermen too live off the produce of the lagoon, and so with the dwindling catch, everyone is left feeling the pinch.

The devastation that plastics are causing the fishing industry is far-reaching. Researchers have recently found alarming levels of plastics in the bellies of fishes in Ghanaian lagoons too. Microplastics that end up in water bodies become even more difficult to manage because marine creatures ingest it, and this subsequently becomes part of the food chain of humans.

“We found about 30 to 138 different microplastics in the body of the fishes. The microbeads have worse effects because they are far smaller than microplastics — less than 1 mm,” says Stella Aseye Adika, a Research Assistant at the IESS. 

“It’s not just about the government but rather individuals must also practice good measures and proper disposal of waste in their homes in other to curb the issue. The government won’t do everything for us. We must start something for ourselves,” she adds.

Teshie Lagoon

– Types of plastics food in fishes and sediments of lagoons in Ghana by the IESS

Plastics by nature do not biodegrade, instead, they slowly break down into smaller fragments known as microplastics. Studies show that plastic bags and containers made of Styrofoam can take up to a millennium to decompose, contaminating soil and water.

Teshie Lagoon

– Emmanuel Adjeitey Sowah, reminisces the good old days of the almost extinct Sango Lagoon

Born and bred in Teshie, Emmanuel Adjeitey Sowah cannot hide the pain in his eyes as he watches the lagoon die.

“During my infancy, the lagoon used to be rich and full of life,” the 57-year old reminisces. “You won’t believe it if I told you fishmongers used this lagoon to transport fishes from the beach to the Teshie Township.”

The ancient mangrove swamps lined up at the bank of the lagoon have not been spared the pollution. Being haunted as well, decaying plastic bags hang on its branches and roots like dripping flesh.

Teshie Lagoon

– The mangroves are being haunted by plastics as well

“We used to get crabs called ‘somo’ within the mangroves but now they don’t yield anything,” Sowah laments “in times of famine, I remember my grandmother and my mother used these crabs to prepare meals for us.”

Teshie Lagoon

Policy response

Many governments under this Fourth Republic have struggled to deal with the menace. A recent attempt was in 2015 when Former President John Mahama threatened to completely ban the use of plastics if the polluting effects of the non-biodegradable substance are not contained. He tasked producers to take active steps to reduce its negative impact on the environment.

That barely worked.

Activists have consistently petitioned the government to ban the use of plastics in the country.

Ashitei says: “Banning polythene bags will mean someone else might lose his job.”

Government’s plan

– President Akufo-Addo

Government together with the Global Plastic Action Partnership (GPAP) launched a National Plastic Management Policy (NPMP) in October 2019. The policy seeks to provide a comprehensive plan for the management of plastics to drive sustainable development, green job creation, and environmental protection.

During the launch, the President, Nana Akufo-Addo, said the partnership will “achieve zero leakage of plastic waste into our oceans and waterways.”

People like Ashietei, who are the most affected by this problem, say they are unaware of NPMP, and with experience from previous failed government promises to act on plastics in the past, they are cautiously optimistic that something will change this time.

“If the government is coming to do something about our predicament that is good news because we are suffering,” he says.

Reduce, Reuse and Recycle

Head of Environment and Climate Cluster at the UNDP, Paolo Dalla Stella, thinks what has come to be known as the three magic Rs could pull of the mystic for Ghana’s fight against plastics.

Reduce, where people decrease the use of plastics especially single-use ones to lessen the plastic waste production. Reuse is a proactive measure, where, the same product can be used for different purposes or the same purpose over again. Recycle the reactive response to the plastic waste generated, is where plastic wastes are converted into another product of value.

“It requires a behavioral change of people because people need to be convinced of the importance of having this mentality of ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’,” he argues.

Stella adds: “It requires policies in place that can actually create that environment. You need to have an effective system for the collection of waste and a private sector to make investment in the area of recycling.”

“If this current consumption patterns and waste management practices persist,” warns World Economic Forum, “by 2050 there will be around 12 billion tonnes of plastic litter in landfills and the environment.”

Teshie Lagoon

The evening is drawing near and the day’s toil is over. Ashietei sits on the hilly beach that overlooks the estuary. A golden sunset casts his shadow over the old-looking canoes just nearby.

As he sits, a dozen school children — mainly from Teshie — walk pass him making their way back home from school. He reminisces his own days as a young student full of dreams and hopes the current generation and Teshie’s next generation would have a different story than him. But with livelihoods on the brink, he wonders how.

“If I am given the opportunity to go back to school, I will go. But for now, I have accepted my fate.

“I just worry for these kids, they are the future of Teshie and Ghana. What happened to me can’t happen to them.”

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