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K.M. Essuman


Inland water bodies provide man with fishery and agricultural resources. Man-made lakes have become an important source of livelihood for many fishermen in West Africa because commercial fishing has replaced subsistence fishing. About 20% of the total annual catch of 1.2 million t come from inland water bodies. Inland fishing, from catch to distribution, is entirely an artisanal activity, and the total catch is consumed within the subregion. Fish is the most important animal product in diet of the coastal people of West Africa, providing 30–80% of total animal protein intake. Fish consumption has however been declining lately due to stagnating supplies and expanding population. Marine fish trade involves the export of large quantities of high value species from West Africa to Europe, and importation of cheap low value frozen fish to the subregion. Inland fish constitutes a significant proportion of the total intra-regional fish trade. About 80 000 t of cured fish from centres located on Lake Volta, Lake Chad Basin, and along the banks of Rivers Niger and Benue are distributed throughout the region. Fish is preserved mainly by smoke-drying to a low moisture content. Some is salted, fermented and dried. These products provide food fish and condiment in the traditional diets. Blowfly attack on wet fish and beetle infestation of dry fish, coupled with fragmentation, are major causes of fish loss. Some traders apply unapproved insecticides to destroy insects in stored fish. Toxic chemicals and explosives are also used for fishing in lakes and rivers. Due to the shortage of wood fuel, the quality of cured fish from the Sahelian zone is sometimes poor. In Ghana, freshwater fish are well cured and of a high quality, although they often appear scorched. Smoked freshwater fish products are valued in Ghana and are relatively more expensive than marine fish, especially at distant markets. Salted, fermented and dried fish are cheaper and are widely used by a large section of the Ghanaian population.


Les plans d'eau continentaux offrent à l'homme des ressources de halieutiques et agricoles. Parmi les plans d'eau, les lacs artificiels sont devenus une source importante de revenus pour de nombreux pêcheurs d'Afrique de l'Ouest, car la pêche commerciale a remplacé celle de subsistance. Près de 20% des captures proviennent des eaux continentales où la pêche constitue une activité entièrement artisanale de la capture à la distribution. La production totale est consommée dans la sous-région. Le poisson constitue le produit animal le plus important dans l'alimentation de la population côtière d'Afrique de l'Ouest, fournissant entre 30 et 80% de l'apport en protéines. La consommation de poisson a toutefois baissé, à cause de l'accroissement de la population et de la stagnation des quantités disponibles. Le commerce des produits de la pêche entraîne l'exportation d'espèces à haute valeur et l'importation de poisson congelé à bas prix. Le poisson d'eau douce constitue une part importante du commerce intrarégional. Près de 80 000 t de poisson traité, provenant de centres de production autour du lac Volta, du Bassin du lac Tchad, et des rives des fleuves Niger et Benue, sont commercialisées dans toute la région. Le poisson est conservé principalement par fumage-séchage, mais aussi par salage, séchage et fermentation. Les produits sont consommés sous forme d'aliment ou de condiment dans l'alimentation traditionnelle. Les infestations par les insectes, aggravées par les brisures sont à la base des pertes après la capture. Certains commerçants utilisent des insecticides interdits sur les produits stockés. Des produits chimiques, toxiques et des explosifs sont également utilisés pour la pêche dans les lacs et les rivières. A cause d'une pénurie de bois de feu, la qualité du poisson fumé de la zone sahélienne, est parfois médiocre. Au Ghana, le poisson d'eau douce fumé est traité de manière correcte et il est de bonne qualité, bien qu'à première vue il semble carbonisé. Le poisson d'eau douce salé, fermenté et séché est moins cher et plus populaire que le poisson de mer.


Human settlements have been located near water bodies since prehistoric times. Nearly all West African countries are situated near rivers or lakes. The river channels and the seasonally inundated flood plains with their numerous permanent and temporary lakes, lagoons, ponds and swamps, provide the environment for fish and agricultural production. Many West African countries derive their names from the inland water body with which they are associated, e.g., Gambia, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Togo and Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso).

The construction of dams, primarily for hydroelectric power, has resulted in the creation of large lakes for secondary purposes, such as irrigation and transport. For the people living near these lakes, fishing is the most important economic activity. Incipient, and often intensive, commercial fishing has replaced subsistence fishing in many places.

For the coastal, riparian and lacustrine people of West Africa, fish constitutes the principal source of cheap and readily available animal protein. In the Sahel region, where meat is popular, countries with large rivers and lakes have well established inland fisheries, producing fish for local consumption and for export to neighbouring countries.

This paper briefly reviews inland fishing activities and how they influence nutrition and food consumption in West Africa.


Food supplies have generally been falling in many West African countries since the 1970s due to rapidly expanding population and decline in production.

Fish consumption in particular is low and has been declining over the past decade.

2.1 Production

Total fish landings in West Africa are approximately 1.2 million t/year and come mainly from marine sources (Table 1). Nearly 20% of the landed catch consisting of shrimps, cephalopods and other high value species, e.g., tuna, is exported, but the actual volume of fish production and exports from the sub-region may be higher if the quantity of fish transshipped by foreign vessels operating under licence, especially in the northern subsector, are taken into account.

For instance, about 384 437 t of fish were transshipped from Mauritania alone in 1985, although total landed catch was 109 200 t.

Inland fisheries comprising lagoons, rivers, lakes and aquaculture contribute nearly 20% of the region's total fish supply. In 1985, for example, inland fish production was about 186 000 t.

Since the 1970s, there has been growing interest in subsistence aquaculture in West Africa, but none of the schemes has developed into an intensive commercial activity. Aquaculture has been in practice in Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Senegal, Benin, Nigeria and Niger with some measure of success. Fish supplies from this source are relatively small, contributing about 1 000 t of fish per year, which is consumed locally.

Over 60% of food fish produced in West Africa is landed by artisanal fishermen, whose catch consists mainly of low-value pelagic species. Most of the high-value marine species landed by the industrial fleets, especially in Senegal and Mauritania, are exported to markets outside Africa.

Table 1

Fish Production in West Africa

Benin16 50020 3061 60020 500
Burkina Faso7 000-7 000-
Cape Verde-20 000-20 000
Chad115 000-111 000-
Côte d'Ivoire15 600102 20418 00097 174
Gambia2 70610 7122 70610 712
Ghana40 000274 29040 000309 157
Guinea2 00030 0002 00030 000
Guinea Bissau-70 000-70 000
Liberia4 00011 4784 00016 053
Mali75 564-60 000-
Mauritania6 000109 2006 000104 100
Niger2 000-2 350-
Nigeria21 069241 63423 497268 482
Senegal7 842255 3817 842255 387
Sierra Leone16 50053 00016 00053 000
Togo3 500NA3 500NA

Inland fishing in West Africa is entirely an artisanal industry and all the catch is consumed locally or within the subregion. Nearly all the fish from the Volta Lake and other inland water bodies in Ghana are consumed locally. Mali, Niger and Chad export considerable quantities of fish to neighbouring countries. In Côte d'Ivoire, where over 50% of the total catch is landed by the industrial marine fishing fleets for export, inland fish constitutes an important source of fish to people living far from the coast.

2.2 Consumption

Fish is an essential food item in the diet of many people in West Africa. It provides an average of 35% of the total animal protein intake. Among coastal and riparian people, fish consumption is higher and contributes more than 50% of the animal protein in the diet (e.g., 70% in Sierra Leone, 80% in Ghana).

In 1973–74 the annual fish consumption per head in West Africa was 11.4 kg, declining to 6.8kg in 1985. Much of the fish consumed in West Africa consists of cheap species, such as sardinella, bonga, mackerel, horse mackerel, anchovies and tilapia. This is an important feature of the domestic demand for fish in the subregion where incomes are generally low, especially in the rural areas.

Nearly 30% of the total fish supply to the region is imported to offset shortfalls. Many countries have cut back on fish imports recently, with emphasis on export of high-value species, due to foreign exchange constraints. The indication is that large quantities of high value fish are exported from the poor undernourished countries to the rich overnourished nations. Thus the vast potential of marine fishery resources in West Africa does not seem to be contributing much to the alleviation of protein malnutrition, especially in areas far from the coast. However, fish exports are economically prudent, as the high value species are generally expensive on the local market and unaffordable to many people.

Table 2 shows that fish consumption is higher in the coastal countries than in the Sahelian zone, where meat is popular. The low consumption rate for Nigeria, despite high local production and imports, is due to her high population density.

Table 2

Per capita fish supply

Per capita supply
Per capita supply
Côte d'Ivoire3017.7
NigeriaNA  3.9
Burkina FasoNA  0.8
MaliNA  7.1
NigerNA  0.2
Guinea6  6.2
Mauritania-  5.8


Socio-cultural factors determine the eating habits of people in different communities. In the developed countries, animal products constitute the main source of proteins in the diet. In West Africa, especially among the coastal populations, fish is the dominant animal food in the diet. Legumes and other vegetable sources of protein usually recommended to low-income earners have become expensive in recent times.

Fish consumption is particularly high among subsistence groups and other with low purchasing power. In Ghana for example, people in middle and upper income class consume a lot of high value fish in addition to considerable amounts of meat, chicken and eggs, generally considered as prestigious foods. Among a broad section of people in the southern regions of Ghana, meat, eggs, milk and poultry are consumed mostly on festive occasions, or are used to prepare food for important guests.

In the Sahel and Savanna regions, meat is consumed more frequently than fish because of the nomadic character of the people. In recent times the demand for food fish in this region has increased with expanding population and diminishing meat supply due to drought. Consequently, the price of meat has increased.

In many communities in West Africa, preference for the various types of meats is greatly influenced by taboos and religious beliefs. Pork is one meat product which is surrounded by much superstition. Fish consumption is not greatly affected by such religious prejudices, but there are individual preferences for different varieties of the fish products. Cheaper varieties of fish can thus be used in protein malnutrition programmes among the various ethnic groups in different parts of West Africa. For instance, smoke-dried anchovies have been accepted by consumers in Burkina Faso, and if introduced on a large scale, could become an important source of dietary protein.

Due to the vast marine fishery resources in West Africa, the sea is the main source of food fish. However, Ghanaian consumers often claim that well cured freshwater fish tastes better than marine fish. For this reason certain freshwater species are highly valued and therefore expensive. Fresh tilapia, smoked catfish and Nile perch are in high demand by the middle and high income groups in the urban centres. Indeed considerable quantities of dry-smoked and salted freshwater fish are often parceled and despatched from Ghanaians to friends and relatives abroad.

In the Sahelian zone (Mali, Senegal, Niger, Gambia, Chad) fermented fish products are very popular as condiment in traditional meals. In Gambia for example, salted-dried fish (guedj), which are not well fermented during processing, do not suit consumer acceptance and may be difficult to market. Popular fermented fish product in the Gambia are “tambajang” from bonga or mullet, and “yete” from sea snails. Fermented and dried fish products from the Lake Chad region of Northern Nigeria called “bunyi yauri”, find ready markets despite the rancid taste. Stockfish with its characteristic fermented flavour is still popular in many West African countries, although imports have declined.

Two types of fermented fish are available. One variety used primarily as food fish is salted, partially fermented and dried to a moisture level of 15–40%. The second, which may or may not be salted, is fermented and dried to a moisture content of 40–50%. This is mainly used in small quantities as condiment. The pungent smell associated with fermented fish is always offensive to people not familiar with the product.

It is clear that the choice of fish products is influenced by price, purchasing power and availability. Other strong influencing factors are organoleptic characteristics, shelflife and the role of the product in the meal.


4.1 Marketing

Trade in fish and fish products among West African countries is low compared with the total volume of fish imported into the region. Fish imports to West Africa declined from about 600 000 t in 1983 to nearly 400 000 t due to economic difficulties. Only about 15% of this originated from the subregion. Over the same period fish exports have increased from 200 000 to nearly 300 000 t and a large proportion is from marine sources.

The major fish importing countries in West Africa are Nigeria, Senegal, Côte d'Ivoire and Ghana. Imported fish are usually cheaper, low value species such as sardinella, bonga and horse mackerel, often originating from foreign vessels operating in the region. The USSR, Netherlands and other European countries are the major exporters. Considerable quantities of stockfish are also exported to West Africa.

Almost all West African countries export some quantity of fish. High-value marine species such as shrimp, cephalopods and tuna are exported to Europe to generate foreign exchange. The most characteristic feature of intra-regional fish trade in West Africa is the movement of fish from the northern sub sector with its sparse population to the densely populated Gulf of Guinea.

Whereas frozen fish constitutes the bulk of marine fish trade, nearly all freshwater fish are cured before export. The major inland fish trading centres on Lake Volta are Yji, Kpandu-Tokor, Buipe, Atimpoku, Agormenya and Kete Krachi. Nearly 40 000 t of fresh fish are cured and transported from these towns annually to the urban markets, especially in Southern Ghana. About 10 000 t of fresh fish are harvested from other smaller rivers and lakes each year, and processed for sale in urban markets.

Lokoja, located at the confluence of Rivers Benue and Niger is an important fish trading centre in Northern Nigeria. Fish is transported from up-river towns such as Yelwa, Patesi and Jebba on River Niger, or Yola, Ibi and Makurdi on River Benue to Lokoja. Although some fish may be sold fresh, the long distances between the fishing centres and consuming markets make this impossible, necessitating processing to prevent spoilage.

Over 3 000 t of fish were transported to the Lokoja market each year in the 1970s from where they were distributed to markets in the south. Large quantities of smoke-dried Clarias and Tilapia were exported annually from Niger and Chad to Nigeria before the drought of the late 1970s and early 1980s. In 1971/72, 20 000 t of “banda” (smoked fish) were exported from Niger to Nigeria, while in 1973/74 34 000 t were exported. Corresponding exports of banda from Chad to Nigeria during the same period were 66 000 t and 9 700 t respectively. Large quantities of smoked and sun-dried fish are transported from the Lake Chad area of Northern Nigeria to market centres in Onitsha, Enugu, Jos and Lagos.

The main fish market in Mali is in Mopti. Smoked and dried fish from fishing camps are brought to Mopti and exported to Côte d'Ivoire. As a result of better communication, increased demand and availability of ice, nearly 1 500 t of fresh fish are transported from Lake Selingue to Bamako annually. Fishing accounts for 3% of the GNP and export of fishery products constitutes nearly 8% of total exports.

Inland fishing centres in remote areas are not easily accessible to the major consuming centres. This factor impedes internal as well as intra-regional fish trade. In Mali, for example, the dispersion and nomadic character of fishermen and communication difficulties adversely affect the fishing industry. Bad roads from major fish producing towns such as Yeji and the Afram Plains, make fish distribution in Ghana very difficult. It takes more than 12 hours to travel from Yeji to Kumasi, a distance of 140 miles. These constraints make inland fish products expensive, and also result in deterioration in quality during distribution.

Fish trade in West Africa is dominated by women who distribute both fresh and processed fish. Ice and cold storage are non-existent; hence in the hinterland little fresh fish is marketed. In Northern Ghana and the Sahel region men are also involved in the marketing of fish. Most of the fish sold are dry-smoked to a very low moisture content. The products are brittle leading to considerable fragmentation during distribution and a reduction in the market yield. It is estimated that 30–50% of fresh fish harvested is lost during trade. If this quantity were to be sold fresh it would be economically profitable to fishermen and traders, and increase the quantity that is sold which could possibly reduce prices and make fish affordable.

4.2 Fish Prices

Freshwater fish are not subjected to as much official price control as frozen marine fish. Fishing is seasonal hence there is considerable price fluctuation during the year. In coastal countries freshwater fish products are more expensive in distant markets due to availability of marine fish. Fish is abundant between July and October, which is the Sardinella period. Prices may be so low that it is sometimes uneconomical to land the catch. The situation influences inland fish prices since demand for freshwater fish is low at this time of the year, and prices also fall.

During the off-season from April to June, fish is expensive and scarce, especially in the interior forest and savannah regions. Freshwater fish prices are generally higher than for marine fish in Ghana because of limited supply, value and long distances between producing centres and markets. Fish prices are also influenced by the mark-up of numerous middlemen involved in the trade.


Introduction of modern fishing gear and boats has improved fishing methods and harvest in recent times. But as a result of expanding population and increasing demand for fish, there has been an increase in the use of explosives, poisonous chemicals (e.g., DDT and Rotenon) and small-mesh nets.

Ghana has recently shown much concern about these practices, and several guidelines have been issued to regulate practices which overexploit fishery resources.

5.1 Fish Processing - Smoking

The main methods of preserving fish in West Africa are smoking, salting, drying, fermentation and frying. Most of the landed catch is smoked. These methods preserve and add value to suit consumer preference. In Ghana for example, 70% of the local fish supply is consumed as smoked fish. Hot smoking and drying to a moisture content of 15–20% is common with freshwater fish. Marine fish are normally smoked to 30–60% moisture content. Fish are not gutted, gilled or salted before smoking. Small pelagic species are smoked whole while larger species are cut up. Catfish are characteristically curled round and kept in position by forcing the pectoral spine into the caudal peduncle. Freshwater fish are well smoked in Ghana and have a high market value in the urban centres.

In the Sahelian zone, smoked fish products are often of poor quality. Due to the long exposure of fish to heat and smoke, the products may be charred and become hard and brittle, leading to considerable physical damage. Fragmentation during distribution is a major cause of losses in inland fisheries, amounting to 25–50% of output. Most freshwater fish have a high fat content leading to rancidity within a short period.

5.2 Salting, Fermentation and Drying

Salting and sun-drying are used together to preserve fish in West Africa. The process is always accompanied by fermentation due to hydrolysis of proteins by fish enzymes and bacteria and imparts a characteristic “stinky” odour to the product.

Unsold fish which cannot be smoked because of deterioration are often salted and dried. Women processors buy such deteriorated fish in the late afternoon when it is cheaper. High value demersal species such as croakers, groupers and cassava fish are fermented and dried only when landed stale or spoilt. Other marine species like mackerel, shads, catfish, triggerfish, octopus, squids and rays are fermented on a large scale. Anchovies are dried without salting but ferment during sun-drying. Sea snails are fermented without salting before drying.

The fish are descaled, gutted and gills removed. Salting is done by coating or sprinkling salt over the fish or by soaking in light or saturated brine for 1–5 days. In the remote inland fishing towns, salt is expensive hence light brining is more common. In Mali for example, drying is preceded by soaking the fish in water for more than a day. Fish is spread on the ground, on stones, straw or old discarded nets to dry in the sun. In some areas raised platforms are used. Drying takes up to 6 days, depending on ambient temperature, relative humidity and airflow.

Fish are susceptible to infestation by insects which is a major cause of dried fish spoilage in West Africa. Blowflies infest wet fish with eggs during drying and the larvae eat the fish until moisture inhibits their development. A moisture content above 20% and salt level below 3% do not completely halt the activity of maggots. The presence of maggots is thus a common feature of fermented fish products.

A moisture content of 15–20% in smoked or sun-dried fish is conducive for infestation by Necrobia and Dermestes species. Dried fish in storage may be heavily infested with these insects which can eat up the entire flesh. A sackful of “banda” or anchovies may be reduced to bones after some time. This is a major problem of inland fishing where drying is the main form of preservation, and some processors store fish for up to six months to await better prices during the lean season. Where wood is available, periodic re-smoking is practised. In the Sahel region this is usually impossible. Some processors prevent insect attack by applying insecticides. In the Lake Chad region for example, Shelltox (Dichlorvos aerosol) and Gardona have been identified in dry-smoked fish. A fish trade in Ghana has also indicated that camphor is used to prevent insect attack on smoked or sun-dried anchovies.

5.3 Storage and Packaging

Cured fish products are often packed in a heap and covered until they are ready to be transported to the markets. Common containers used to pack cured fish are old jute bags or locally made wooden boxes and baskets.

While in storage the fish is re-dried periodically, smoked fish in particular are re-smoked, while salted and dried fish are sun-dried.

5.4 Effects of Curing on Fish Quality

Fish curing and the use of insecticides to control infestation have health and nutritional implications. High salt levels in fish often unacceptable to many consumers for taste and health reasons. Salting during fermentation eliminates harmful bacteria, but unless this is carefully controlled, pathogens and undesirable substances (e.g., histamines) may develop in the final product. The pungent smell associated with fermented fish is always objectionable. In Ghana fermented fish is referred to as “stinkfish”.

Hot smoking results in a reduction of the biological value of fish due to destruction of lysine. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) in smoke which are deposited on fish are known to be carcinogenic. Freshwater fish are heavily smoked and the level of PAH in the product may be very high.

Little is known about the extent of insecticide utilization on cured fish. Due to the lack of common internationally acceptable insecticides for cured fish, processors use any chemical available irrespective of suitability or residue limits. Although the insecticides reduce losses, the product may not be safe for human consumption.

6. CONCLUSION (Fish Consumption in Ghana)

The per capita fish consumption in Ghana has fallen below 20 kg/year since 1970. The decline is attributed to stagnated fish production (250 000/year), increasing fish price (high fuel cost) and low purchasing power (declining incomes).

Meat consumption is even lower than fish. Although domestic production of pork and poultry products has increased, consumption on a regular basis is an urban phenomenon. Most fish consumed is from marine sources. Inland fish constitutes about 15% of total fish produced, but unlike marine fish, the bulk of freshwater fish is consumed locally.

About 70% of domestic fish catch is consumed as smoke-dried because it has a longer shelf-life, a desirable flavour in soups and stews, and a firm texture which does not break up in soup. Fried fish is popular in the urban and coastal areas because this is the form normally preferred with the local staple of knkey (boiled maize dough) together with mashed pepper, onions and tomatoes. In soup fried fish is firm and does not break up.

Salted, partially fermented and dried tilapia is the most widely consumed freshwater fish. It can be stored for a long period and used as food fish or as condiment in stews and soups. The use of salted, fermented fish as condiment in food is not common in Northern Ghana, where dawadawa (fermented fruit of Cassia nodosa) is the known condiment. Many formally educated people as well as upper and some middle income Ghanaians also prefer “Maggi” cubes, monosodium glutamate and other processed flavour enhancers, to fermented fish as condiment.

Principal factors influencing the choice of animal products are price and availability. Table 3 shows that freshwater fish products are relatively expensive. This is due to low moisture content, high-value, and distribution cost.

The price of fish fluctuates within a year, reaching a peak between March and June. Meat is expensive, but prices are more stable than fish, probably because beef, the dominant meat product, is mostly imported. Fish consumption is thus low during the lean season as consumers pay more for the same quantity of fish or less. Fish supply to Northern Ghana is relatively low. Salted and dried tilapia from the north are transported to markets in the south. The majority of people in Northern Ghana are subsistence farmers and herdsmen who rely on cheaper marine fish, such as anchovies and Sardinella. The prospect of increasing the consumption of fish among income groups will depend upon a general improvement in living standards and purchasing power. Presently, incomes are spent on the main cereals and starchy staples. In many homes the distribution of fish from the family pot favours the father, as head of the household. Children always receive very little of the available animal products.

The construction of the Kpong Dam at the lower end of the Akosombo Dam has altered the ecology of the river so much that output of shrimps and oysters has declined. The new species of importance is Sierathrissa spp. These are tiny clupeids like fingerlings. Large quantities are harvested and fried for sale. It has now become a delicacy popularly called “one man thousand”.

Table 3

Prices of animal products (Accra, August 1990) (US$ 1.00 = Cedis 337)

Animal ProductUnits (Cedis per kg unless otherwise indicated)Moisture content (%)Jan/FebMar/AprMay/JunJul/AugKind of fish
Meat (beef) 70700700740800 
Pork 70NANA550600 
Milk (Ideal)Cedis/tin68100100120150 
Dressed chicken2 kg701 200  1 200  1 350  1 500   
Fresh eggs30 pieces759009309701 000   
Smoked fish (Sardinella) 54NANA600400 
Fresh fish (marine) 75350400500290 
Fermented fish 55200200200200 
Smoke-dried tilapia 15NANANA800river
Salted-dried tilapia 40NANANA650river
Smoked red fish (Sea bream) 60NANANA550 
Smoked mud fish (Clarias spp.) 15NANANA1 000  marine
Smoked Lates spp. 15NANANA1 000  river
Smoked catfish 15NANANA850river

An improvement in inland fishing in West Africa will create employment, raise revenue levels and enhance socio-economic development in urban towns, and above all, increase total fish supply. The UNDP/FAO Integrated Artisanal Fishing Project at Yeji in Ghana is likely to achieve this goal.


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Post-harvest handling of fish is a major problem which affects the quality of fish products in many developing countries. Lack of suitable fish containers and poor transport systems contribute to post-harvest losses as well as loss in quality. This situation can be improved if good packaging and hygienic methods of handling fish are adopted by small-scale fishermen.


The artisanal fishing industry in Ghana is responsible for the supply of over 70% of the total output of fish. A large proportion of the landed catch is handled in a variety of traditional containers. the development of these artisanal containers has been influenced by local handling, storage practices and cultural factors as well as by the availability of raw materials and traditional technology.

A considerable proportion of fresh and cured fish are pack in hard or rigid containers. They include crates, cartons, baskets, metal containers and sacks. These containers (Table 1) are widely used for handling fish product in bulk, either for transport, distribution or storage.

2.1 Crates

Fish crates are made from light wood such as “wawa” (Triplochiton scleroxylon) which are readily available in Ghana and are cheap compared to other wood species.

Crates are principally used to handle fresh and frozen fish on board fishing vessels, or for storage in cold rooms, and also during transport and distribution.

Fish crates are very popular in Ghana due to their low cost, convenience and ability to protect fish against extremes of pressure throughout the various stages of handling.

2.2 Baskets

Baskets are very common in Ghana as containers for a wide variety of commodities. In all fishing communities along the coast or rivers, baskets are used extensively for handling fish for storage and distribution.

Baskets are woven from plant materials such as cane and raffia or palm branches. They are round in shape and are available in numerous sizes ranging from very small ones that hold about 5 kg of fresh fish to big baskets with a capacity of 50 kg of dry fish.

Baskets are sometimes used as standard containers fro measuring fish for sale at the landing sites. Baskets have a wider application in the handling of dry or semi-dry cured products, such as salted or smoke-dried fish. They are used extensively in the storage, transport and distribution of cured fish throughout Ghana. The inner surface of the basket is initially lined with sheets of paper or polythlene before the fish are carefully and orderly arranged, layer after layer. The exposed layers are then covered with a portion of the sheet to protect the fish from water or insect attack. Dry-smoked fish (moisture content 10–20%) such as anchovy and certain species of fresh water fish (e.g., Clarias) can be sorted in baskets for a week or more. Such products are however friable, and require careful handling to prevent fragmentation.

Baskets are very popular among Ghanian fish traders because they are re-usable, cheap and readily available all year round.

2.3 Cartons

Cartons are non-returnable paper board boxes suitable for packaging frozen fish. Cartons are manufactured and delivered in knock-down form and are folded into a box just before use either by glueing, stitching or taping. Fish traders often re-use old cartons after removing the contents. Discarded cartons originally used to package commodities other than fish are also used to package fresh frozen fish to improve insulation.

2.4 Headpans

Headpans consist of small metal or plastic containers used by artisanal fish traders to handle fish at the landing sites. They include aluminium, enamel-steel or plastic basins, trays or buckets. These containers are not standardized and are available in many sizes with capacities ranging from 5 to 40 kg of fresh fish.

Headpans are used on a large scale to cart fish from canoes and boats. Buckets are used to scoop fish from canoes and then pour into a basin, basket or crate.

Metal basins or trays are also used as containers for fish during hawking. These containers are not covered, so the fish is exposed to flies and heat, leading to contamination or spoilage within a few hours.

Basins and other smaller metal containers are popular among fish traders because they are light, convenient to handle and durable. They are easy to wash, so fish traders always keep them clean. Fish traders usually print or engrave their names or identification marks on headpans.

2.5 Transparent Glass Boxes

The transparent glass box, known in the retail food industry in Ghana as “sieve”, is a container in which a variety of ready-to-eat foods are stored for sale. For the past two decades, these boxes have become very popular throughout Ghana as a result of official regulations aimed at improving the hygienic standards of cooked street foods. In the fishing industry these boxes are used mainly for the storage of fried fish during retail.

Keeping fried fish in these boxes for sale precludes flies and dirt. This has resulted in a marked improvement in the hygienic standards of fried fish compared to other fish products often sold in open containers. Glass boxes are not used for cured fish but could be adapted if the glass is replaced with nylon mesh to improve ventilation.

2.6 Sacks

Traditionally, fish products are not pre-packed or wrapped before retail; the fish is displayed in the open on trays and wrapped after purchase. Paper and leaves are the most widely used wrappers for fish at the markets. The choice of these materials is due to their low cost and availability.

Polyethylene pouches have recently become very common packaging materials in Ghana. A variety of food commodities including fresh and cured fish products are packaged in polythene bags. The use of these containers to handle fish is particularly common in the cities and towns.


Artisanal containers are used for bulk handling of fresh or processed fish and are returnable. They must therefore be cleaned before re-use. Unfortunately, this simple hygiene practice is often ignored by fishermen and fish traders.

Because of the relatively small capital with which most small scale fishermen and traders operate, they avoid any extra expenditure that tends to increase their operational costs, such as using detergents, cleaned water and other cleaning aids for washing containers.

There is a need for the gradual introduction of systems that will ensure good standards in fish handling in general, and proper maintenance of fish containers in particular.


Essuman, K.M. and W. Q-B. West. 1990. Artisanal fish containers in Ghana. RAFR Publication FI/90/1, 32 p.

Annex Table 1

Fish containers used in the artisanal fishing industry

- CratesMade locally from woodWidely used for fresh fish
- BasketsWoven by village craftsmen from cane, raffia or palm branchesFor fresh and cured fish
- CartonsLocally manufactured or undamaged used imported onesArtisanal traders use old cartons
- HeadpansLocally manufactured or imported. Metal or plasticFor transfers and retail of fresh and cured fish
- Glass BoxesLocally made from wood and glassFor retailing fried fish
- SacksJute bags and polypropylene sacksFor bulk storage and dried fish
- Brown PaperMultiwall paper sacks mainly from cement bagsFor wrapping fresh and processed fish
- StationeryUsed office sheets, exercise books, note books, etc.May be old and dirty
- NewsprintPublishing Houses, used papers, etc.May be old and dirty
- Raffle couponsLotteries & lotto stakersMay be old and dirty
- LeavesForest RegionsDeteriorate easily
- Plastic films (polythene pouches and bags)Locally manufacturedUsed on limited scale for fresh and dried fish

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