Evolving institutions in the Ghanaian canoe fishery: Melding traditional and contemporary management

Donald Alan Underwood, University of Rhode Island


Fisheries in Ghana are showing signs of full or overexploitation, while fishing effort continues to increase. This unsustainable trajectory, combined with the continued use of banned fishing methods, has led to an attempt to combine contemporary management techniques with existing traditional institutions. Current efforts to govern the Ghanaian artisanal fishery include the ongoing creation of and experimentation with new governance institutions and organizations. One such effort, a move towards co-management of fisheries, has proven exceedingly difficult. This research seeks to understand this difficulty by investigating popular support for traditional institutions related to the artisanal canoe fishery, including local chiefs, chief fishermen, and chief fishmongers. Exogenous forces, such as colonialism, the introduction of market economies, and the centralization of state authority, have been blamed for the decline of traditional fisheries institutions globally. Fishing communities in Ghana have been subjected to several such forces, but their impact on local traditional institutions has only been assumed. This research was based on the hypothesis that, due to exogenous stressors and developments within the fishery, popular support for traditional institutions would be low. To test this hypothesis, a survey of 100 fishermen and 100 female fishworkers was undertaken in five coastal communities in the Western Region of Ghana. Results from the survey show that traditional institutions in the canoe fishery are still very influential, and continue to play a significant role in everyday life for fisherfolk. During open-ended questioning, survey respondents repeatedly preferred the chief fishermen, chief fishmonger, and local chief to carry out important functions related to the canoe fishery. In all, 41% of respondents chose the chief fishermen as the preferred institution for rule-making, and 74% named the chief fishermen as the appropriate institution for dispute resolution. These findings suggest that traditional institutions continue to be very important in the lives of local fisherfolk and have the potential to contribute to national fisheries management efforts; however, there were significant differences between communities and between functions that caution against oversimplifying the potential role of traditional institutions in fishing communities in management. For example, the chief fisherman and chief fishmonger were the top choice for dispute resolution functions in all five communities, but two communities preferred to have government institutions responsible for rule-making and enforcement. This research suggests that advocates for the incorporation of traditional institutions into co-management or community-based management often emphasize the regulatory nature of traditional institutions, in this case the ability to enforce rules through coercion. Although this is one key aspect of institutions, there are other institutional pillars that deserve equal attention: cognitive and normative pillars. Highly publicized conflicts between chiefs, fishermen, and public officials suggest that there are normative and cognitive elements of traditional institutions, including kinship, migration, and the role of different traditional leaders vis-à-vis one another, that deserve more attention when describing fishing communities and traditional leadership in Ghana.

Subject Area

Sub Saharan Africa Studies|Aquatic sciences

Recommended Citation

Donald Alan Underwood, "Evolving institutions in the Ghanaian canoe fishery: Melding traditional and contemporary management" (2011). Dissertations and Master's Theses (Campus Access). Paper AAI1490922.