Fisheries observer turns up dead in latest incident in Ghana waters

Fisheries observer turns up dead in latest incident in Ghana waters
  • Ghanaian fisheries observer Samuel Abayateye’s decapitated body was discovered floating in a lagoon nearly six weeks after he was reported missing from the tuna trawler he was assigned to.
  • Abayateye’s death follows the 2019 disappearance at sea of another fisheries observer, Emmanuel Essien, whose body has still not been found.
  • Police and the Ghana Fisheries Commission say they’re investigating Abayateye’s death, but are yet to share details of an autopsy.
  • The incident highlights the vulnerability of observers, who are responsible for monitoring fishing crews’ compliance with regulations, according to the Accra-based Centre for Maritime Law and Security Africa.

ANYAMAM, Ghana — Two years after the disappearance of fisheries observer Emmanuel Essien off the coast of Ghana, another observer has vanished from a fishing trawler. According to his family, 38-year-old Samuel Abayateye was reported missing on Oct. 30. His decapitated body washed ashore nearly six weeks later.

Abayateye was assigned to Marin 707, a Ghana-flagged vessel owned and operated by a South Korean company, World Marine Co. Ltd. His brother, Yohane, told Mongabay he last spoke to Abayateye on Oct. 24, when the observer called to say he was trying unsuccessfully to reach his supervisor in Marin 707’s home port of Tema to report an incident.

A little more than a week later, officials from Ghana’s Fisheries Commission met with the family to tell them the ship’s owners had reported Abayateye missing on Oct. 30. Both the commission and the police declined to comment to Mongabay, but Yohane said police told the family that one of the ship’s Ghanaian crew members spoke with Abayateye on the evening of Oct. 28 before going to bed, and saw him asleep in the same chair when he woke up around midnight. The sailor said an alarm bell rang the following morning when the fisheries observer was discovered to be missing.

On Nov. 2, Fisheries Commission officials assured the family his disappearance was being investigated, but on Dec. 9, Yohane and his friend Emmanuel Doku made a gruesome discovery.

“As we were waiting for the police to finish their investigations, the family was struck with shock when on Saturday, December 9, 2023, I witnessed the dead body of my brother being washed ashore near our family lagoon at Anyamam with no head, arms and toes,” Yohane told Mongabay.

He was able to identify his brother by the shirt he was wearing and a distinctive mark on his chest. The family immediately reported the discovery to the police in Tema, who took the body to the police hospital in Accra. “Our 100-year-old mother was asked by the police last week to come and help with the DNA test, which she did, but we are yet to be told anything from the doctors at the police hospital,” Yohane said.

Fisheries observer Samuel Abayateye's decapitated body washed ashore near Anyamam, Ghana, on Dec. 9, 8 weeks after he was reported missing. Image courtesy the Abayateye family.
Fisheries observer Samuel Abayateye’s decapitated body washed ashore near Anyamam, Ghana, on Dec. 9, eight weeks after he was reported missing. Image courtesy the Abayateye family.

Anyamam is a fishing community about 50 kilometers (30 miles) east of the Tema fishing harbor from where Marine 707 operates. Yohane said it was a mystery how his brother’s dead body had washed ashore here. “Was he killed by someone and dumped around the family lagoon or what exactly happened?”

Nelson Atanga Ayamdoo, who oversees training at the Accra-based Centre for Maritime Law and Security Africa (CEMLAWS), said the disappearance of another fishing observer is concerning. CEMLAWS is a nonprofit that seeks to promote ocean governance and maritime security in Africa; in August 2017, the center trained more than 100 Ghanaian fisheries observers under the World Bank-funded West Africa Regional Fisheries Program.

Under Ghana’s Fisheries Act, an observer is posted on every fishing vessel operating in the country’s waters. Ayamdoo told Mongabay that the observers’ role — gathering catch data, taking samples of fish for research purposes, and reporting on violations committed by fishing crews — puts them at risk. In July 2019, another fisheries observer, Emmanuel Essien, disappeared from a Chinese-owned trawler. His body has never been found.

“These disappearances could be due to homicide, inadequate security or lack of basic safety requirements on board the vessels,” Ayamdoo said. “A number of questions linger and it is worth knowing the safety conditions under which observers work on vessels and the key safety measures to avoid a repeat of the disappearance of a third observer. The state has a responsibility to ensure the safety of observers at sea and to protect them from danger.”

He added this threat to observers impacts their ability to monitor fishing effectively. “When on board a fishing vessel to perform these functions, the observer is the public official on that vessel and so to go missing in the course of the duty is to curtail the country’s capability of performing the functions. The observer embodies the ‘eyes of the state’ at sea to ensure that the right thing is done.”

On board Ghana’s trawlers, claims of human rights abuses and illegal fishing

Banner image: Joint Ghana-US forces patrol approaches a fishing trawler off the coast of Ghana to verify documents in 2014. Image by Jeff Atherton/US Navy via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

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