Between the evenings of 26 and 28 March 2018, the owners of the Ghanaian-flagged tuna vessel, Marine 711 (AFT 28) were befuddled as to what was happening to their vessel which went fishing in Ghanaian waters near Keta. The owners had lost completely, communication by all means with the vessel, except for the vessel’s tracks which could be monitored by Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) at the Fisheries Monitoring Center in Tema. From the time the owners lost contact with the vessel in the evening of 26 March 2018 the vessel continued in an eastward direction until it got to the Benin-Nigeria maritime boundary when it suddenly turned back and continued westward on a steady course into Ghanaian waters again.

The loss of communication and the bizarre movement of the vessel gave indication to both the owners and authorities that the vessel had come under armed robbery attack. When the vessel was eventually received at the Tema Harbour by the owners and authorities on 28 March 2018, the reality of the situation became too overwhelming: three Korean crew, including the captain of Marine 711 had been abducted by the armed robbers and their whereabouts remain unknown. This armed robbery incident at sea is not isolated. Marine 711 is suffering it the second time in less than four years because the same vessel was attacked by armed robbers in Ghanaian waters on 4 June 2014 who diverted it into Nigerian waters and siphoned marine fuel from it. The vessel returned to Ghana on 5 June 2014 without any fatalities.

Another armed robbery attack involving a Ghanaian fishing trawler, Lu Rong Yuan Yu 917 (AF 736), took place in Ghanaian waters off Dixcove on 29 January 2015. Four crew members lost their lives when the entire crew, except the captain, were forced to jump off the vessel into the sea at the command of the armed robbers when the Togolese Navy confronted the hijacked vessel in Togolese waters. The crew were rescued by the Togolese Navy, whereas the armed robbers and the lone captain continued to Murder Point in Nigeria where the armed robbers disembarked and sped off in speedboats. The captain of Lu Rong Yuan Yu 917 sailed back to Tema and when the vessel was inspected, there were an assortment of guns and ammunition, including home-made explosives on board. There were also two armed robbery attacks involving trawler fishing vessels Meng Xin 2 (AF 660) on 13 March 2016 and Lu Rong Yuan Yu 966 (AF 762) in Ghanaian waters. The armed robbers assaulted the crew, stole marine fuel, personal belongings, and navigational equipment, but there were no fatalities.

At the reception of Marine 711 at the Tema Harbour in the evening of 28 March 2018, it was learned that about three vessels including an oil tanker were hijacked within the same period by the same group of armed robbers who operated in the Tema anchorage. The situation has no doubt created fear and panic among the fishing fraternity in the country.

Ghana’s economy is significantly dependent on the fishing industry and it is estimated that 10% of the population derive their livelihoods from it. Ghana’s fishing industry comprise about 14,000 artisanal canoes which operate from several beaches along the 539km coastline. There are also 200 semi-industrial wooden-hulled boats, 69 industrial trawlers and 27 tuna vessels which are Ghanaian-registered and operate within Ghanaian waters as well as the high seas. Currently, annual marine fish production by the Ghanaian fleets is at about 340,000 metric tonnes, 70% of which is produced by the artisanal fleet and consumed locally. The fishing industry contributes 1.1% to Ghana’s GDP and is therefore important socially, culturally and economically and deserves to be protected from threats from armed robbers in Ghanaian waters as well as the Gulf of Guinea.

The fishing industry is undisputedly capital-intensive and operational costs in terms of remuneration of the crew, fuel, lubricants and equipment repair, are equally heavy on the operators of the fishing vessels. It is important therefore that adequate measures are put in place to assure fishing vessel owners and operators adequate protection for their personnel and business investments. Protection of seafarers is a shared responsibility and derives from the concept of maritime domain awareness which is defined by the International Maritime Organization as the effective understanding of anything associated with the maritime domain that could impact the security, safety, economy, or environment. The maritime domain is defined as all areas and things of, on, under, relating to, adjacent to, or bordering on a sea, ocean, or other navigable waterways, including all maritime-related activities, infrastructure, people, cargo, and vessels and other conveyances.

Ghana’s maritime domain covers an area of 225,000 km2, comprising a territorial sea of 12 nautical miles (nm), a contiguous zone of 24 nm and an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of 200 nm. Article 73 of the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) provides the coastal State of Ghana, sovereign rights “to explore, exploit, conserve and manage the living resources in the EEZ, and take such measures, including boarding, inspection, arrest and judicial proceedings, as may be necessary for compliance with the laws and regulations adopted by it in conformity with UNCLOS”.

The Ghana Maritime Authority (GMA) superintends over the Ghana Maritime Security Act, 2004 (Act 675) and implements the provisions of this Act to ensure the safety and security of Ghana’s maritime domain. Act 675 also provides the legal framework for the implementation of the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code (ISPS Code). Through the Maritime Security Committee, various other agencies such as the Ghana Ports and Harbours Authority, Ghana Navy, Ghana Air Force, Marine Police, Fisheries Commission and National Security cooperate and collaborate with GMA in ensuring safety and security in Ghana’s maritime domain. The Ministry of Fisheries and Aquaculture Development, in accordance with the Fisheries Act, 2002 (Act 625), has established the Fisheries Enforcement Unit (FEU) which comprises personnel from the Fisheries Commission, Ghana Navy, Marine Police and Attorney General for the purpose of combating illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU).

The systems in use to combat maritime crimes include electronic surveillance such as Vessel Traffic Management Information System (VTMIS), Vessel Monitoring System (VMS), Automatic Identification System (AIS) and Radar systems. Other modes of surveillance include sea patrols, land patrols and aerial surveillance using aircraft. Beyond the collaboration of local agencies, there is international cooperation arrangements such as the Inter-Regional Coordination Center (ICC) concerning the repression of piracy, armed robbery against ships, and illicit maritime activity in West and Central Africa, and the West Africa Task Force (WATF) of the Fisheries Committee for West Central Gulf of Guinea (FCWC) where intelligence is shared among agencies in member countries and actions taken at various locations in response to prevailing incidents.

As was recorded in the incident involving Lu Rong Yuan Yu 917 in 2015 in which the Togolese Navy countered the hijacked vessel in their waters, the Marine 711 was also countered by the Nigerian authorities using an aircraft when the vessel was about entering Nigerian waters from Benin. This was the point at which the armed robbers, upon sensing danger disembarked from the vessel and also abducted the three Korean officers. Considering the five incidents involving fishing vessels in Ghanaian waters in the past four years, there is the need to improve upon the detection of armed robbery incidents, the reporting of the incidents to the relevant authorities and the response to combat them before escaping into other third-party jurisdictions.

These can be addressed through training of fishing crews to appreciate the importance of the SOS distress button on the VMS and AIS junction boxes and to trigger them quickly in order to draw attention properly to any such attacks they may encounter at sea. Fishers must be mandated to ensure that look-outs are posted on upper decks during fishing to pinpoint any unusual activities of fishing vessels in their vicinities at sea and to report such incidents to the captain without delay.

On the part of the authorities, there is the need to develop standard protocols supported by regular joint simulation exercises to share information and resources and to deploy search and rescue, including aerial support, with minimal delay in order to prevent hijacked vessels from being moved beyond Ghanaian waters. There is the need to increase patrolling in the anchorages to enforce laws and regulations on unmarked and suspicious vessels, illegal bunkering and illegal transshipment to limit opportunities that tend to attract armed robbers. Also, there is need to enhance cooperation, collaboration and coordination with neighbouring countries and Regional Maritime and Fisheries bodies in order to combat the activities of armed robbers at sea which tend to be transnational in character.

The threat of armed robbery should not be allowed to become part of the challenges faced by fishers who already have to deal with declining fish stocks, inclement weather, and high operational costs. The consequence on fish availability to consumers will be too overwhelming to bear.