From the onset of COVID-19, the pandemic has been projected to take a significant toll on global fisheries, with predictions of potentially negative consequences for the livelihoods and incomes of the multitudes of small-scale fishers in developing countries10,11. Although it is seemingly early to meaningfully appreciate the effects of the disease on fisheries, at the time of writing, reports had started trickling in on its impacts on small scale fisheries20. Changing consumer demands, market access and border restrictions among others, are predicted to be the major drivers of the impact of COVID-19 on fisheries10,11. Aside from these, there is heightened apprehension that fishing communities are at high risk of COVID-19 due to the migratory and clustering behaviour of fishers, making the fishing communities potential “hotspots” for rapid spread of the disease11.
Considering that the disease spreads mainly through aerosolisation during person-to-person contact9, it is critical to ensure that fishers adhere to the protocols on preventive measures while carrying out their activities. Central to this study is the adherence to the protocol on social distancing, prescribed by WHO as a minimum of 1 metre8 and the CDC as minimum of 6 ft (≈ 1.8 m)9 physical distance required to be kept from others in avoidance of contracting the virus.
Results of this study have shown that huddling and social distancing remain a major challenge at fish landing beaches in the Central Region of Ghana in the face of COVID-19. Clustering of fishers at densities up to four people within a 2 m2 area at most of the landing beaches, and over 70% of the people across landing beaches occurring at less than 2 m from their nearest-neighbours importantly underscores the need to devote attention to the crowding situation at the beaches. Another worrying situation is the occurrence of a substantial proportion of people at Elmina (≈56%), Winneba (≈48%), Apam (≈39%) and Mumford (≈78%) at a distance of less than 1 m from their nearest-neighbours which provides ample evidence of inability of fishers to voluntarily adhere to both WHO and CDC social distancing protocols despite being aware of the disease and the continuous sensitisation. Concerningly, these findings contradict the views of the fishermen that fishers are very cooperative in observing the mitigation measures, but supports the opinion of the women fish processors that fishers are not too cooperative with the measures. Heat maps from the Kernel density plot further point to the fish offloading sites and fish trading areas at the landing beaches as the hotspots for clustering, hence, the potential areas for escalating the spread of the disease. This corroborates the feedback from the fishermen that the most difficult period to maintain appropriate distance from others was during offloading and hauling of their canoes, and in the case of the fish processors, when purchasing offloaded fish and trading at the landing beach. Specific measures targeting the various activities at the landing beaches will therefore be required to mitigate the spread of the disease as articulated in latter sections of the discussion.
Hypothetically, it was expected that the highly populated landing beaches documented in the canoe frame survey5, may have higher incidence of crowding and therefore increased risk of people contracting the COVID-19 disease through huddling. However, the absence of a correlation between huddling and landing beach population categories (i.e. low, moderate and highly populated) reinforces that it is the nature of the activities engaged in, rather than population size, that drives risk. For instance, Biriwa ‘Abaka Ekyir’ which fell within the moderately populated category with 246 fishermen5, had relatively low activity compared to the “lowly populated” Cape Coast ‘Abrofo Mpoano’ and Mumford ‘Main’. The contrast between the intensity of activities observed at these landing beaches at the time of field data collection and the expected intensity based on available data5, could mainly be resulting from low fish catch in the lean fishing season [i.e. November to May3]. During this fishing season, fishers migrate from rural landing sites to urban fish landing beaches to access cosmopolitan fish markets such as that of Cape Coast and Elmina. In addition, Mumford ‘Main’, a low population category landing site, which in this study had about one-fourteenth the number of people observed at Elmina ‘Main’ (highest number of people in this study), was estimated to be the most crowded amongst the six (median NND = 0.65 m). The mode of business transaction at the landing site is a major contributing factor here. Mumford ‘Main’ is a sandy beach landing site with no sheds, forcing fish traders (including middle-men) and processors to congregate in proximity in anticipation of fish offloads and direct sales from canoes. This brings to the fore the need for more industry specific analysis of worker functions and work environment context in making decisions on interventions in preventing the spread of COVID-19 and potentially other similar pandemics.
Our research suggests that fish landing sites across the coast, irrespective of size and population density, would require similar urgency and attention towards the prevention of the spread of highly infectious diseases like COVID-19. In this regard, such rapid, remote, and real-time assessments as used in this study could be a transformative tool to facilitate immediate informed response. The undesirable clustering at the landing beaches in the Central Region is akin to the situation at most of the nearly 300 coastal landing beaches in the country. Unfortunately, stringent measures instituted by the Metropolitan, Municipal and District Assemblies (MMDAs) to enforce appropriate physical distancing focused on agricultural markets has been at the neglect of the fish landing beaches. So stringent have these measures been, that non-compliant agricultural markets have been shut down21. As noted during the field visits and from focus group discussions, the leadership of the fishers acquired a small number of hand-washing facilities to improve hygiene at the beaches, and the respective MMDAs had also provided additional hygienic facilities coupled with occasional sensitisation, including carrying out mass testing at areas such as Winneba. However, given the communal nature of artisanal fishing, low literacy rate of fishers5 and the illusion that the proximity of fishers to saline water renders them immune to COVID-1915, it is perhaps unrealistic to expect fishers to voluntarily comply with social distancing with the level of support currently offered.
Based on observation of direct behaviours and attitudes expressed in FGDs, our pilot study demonstrated the inadequacy of current provisions to reduce risk of COVID19 transmission in the focus sites. A two-pronged approach would be suitable for reducing the risk of fishers; first by implementing targeted landing beach-wide interventions and secondly, workplace or activity-specific measures. At the landing beach level, deploying strategies specific to each fishing community within which the landing beach is located will be helpful. Vacant land spaces adjacent to landing beaches (e.g. in Elmina) could be repurposed to provide additional space for fish trading activities in order to minimise crowding in the main offloading sites and keep fish mongers and buyers spread out. Where there are no vacant spaces, regulating the number of canoes to fish in a day, staggering landing times, running a shift system for the fishers, and designating entry and exit points could be considered. These will limit the number of people and personal contact at the beaches. Though this could deepen the economic impact on the fishers, it has generally been successful in agricultural markets. Economic and other livelihood support for vulnerable fishers affected by such measures could be considered to ameliorate the impacts on their households.
The workplace or activity-specific measures should target offloading of fish, hauling of canoes and nets, purchasing and marketing, as well as processing of fish. In carrying out labour-intensive activities such as manual hauling of canoes and offloading of fish, which make it practically difficult for fishers to maintain appropriate physical distances from others, wearing of nose masks by the fishers should be adopted as primary prevention protocol as prescribed by the WHO. This is particularly important as the process of hauling canoes and nets by artisanal fishers in Ghana are characterised by the culture of chanting work-songs accompanied by instructional shouts through which aerosols could be transmitted and possibly spread the disease if present. The wearing of nose masks should also be extended to the fish purchasing, marketing and processing activities as they involve yelling for customers and active bargaining.
Considering that regular human and material contacts are inevitable during fishing activities due to the lack of physical distancing demonstrated in this study, frequent washing and disinfection of hands and all fishing equipment are imperative. From the FDGs, there were indications of some provisions of hand washing facilities at the landing beaches. Nonetheless, some of the facilities were observed without water, soap and other needed consumables during the field visit. Adding to the existing hand washing facilities and importantly ensuring frequent supply of these consumables including hand sanitizers are critical to enhancing COVID-19 hygienic practices at the landing beaches.
For a rather lasting intervention, the approach of behavioural change communications could be used as a strategy to achieve voluntary compliance to physical distancing by the fishers. By disabusing their minds of all misconceptions, presenting customised COVID-19-related information relevant to their trade, and supporting with the specific workable practices discussed in this paper, fishers could understand better the need for social distancing and practice same. Direct feedback to communities and the local MMDAs from rapid appraisal such as that conducted here may be instrumental in gaining recognition that current practices are not adequate and reinforcing the areas of high risk. A coordinated effort of MMDAs and the Fisheries Commission is crucial in addressing the situation at the landing beaches, and funds for the intervention could be collaboratively drawn from the District Assemblies Common Fund, the Fisheries Development Fund and the Government of Ghana’s COVID-19 intervention fund.
Lastly, the safe utilisation of UAV in this work, which qualifies for exempt UAV-Human Subject Research17,22, advances drone applications in fisheries research23 through the application of UAV in assessing clustering related to the fish trade in a developing country towards curtailing the spread of infectious diseases. Among others, the demonstration in this study could serve as a reference for rapid behavioural prognostics in fisheries, especially during diseases of the nature of COVID-19.