Adapting to a Rapidly Changing Coastal Zone: Western Region of Ghana

Transforming fisheries and coastal governance anywhere on the plant is a complex and long-term challenge as issues are inter-related, cross-scale, cross-sector and require a collaborative and adaptive approach.  This case study in the Western Region of Ghana illustrates different values, perspectives, and worldviews and adds to the growing evidence that meeting this challenge is aided by a Blue Marble approach to evaluation and adaptive learning.


A major dilemma facing coastal communities across the globe is that the issues being addressed at a local scale are largely global (sea level rise, ocean acidification, fisheries collapse) while our governance systems are designed for the local to national scale. The coastal economy is global, transportation systems are global, and coastal ecosystem collapse (i.e. coral reefs, fisheries, biodiversity) has global implications services. Nevertheless, coasts around the world are cherished as places of ecological, cultural, social and economic significance. As a result, coastal zones are more densely populated than their hinterlands and exhibit higher levels of population growth and urbanization (Neumann et al., 2015). Overall, coasts sustain about 44% of the world’s population within 150km sea (UN Coastal Atlas, 2019). In the Western Region of Ghana, a Blue Marble case example illustrates the issues and a contextually relevant solution. 

Background Information

In 2009, the Integrated Coastal and Fisheries Governance Program (popularly referred to locally as the Hεn Mpoano Initiative- meaning “Our Coast”) was launched in response to a massive find of oil and gas in the Western Region of Ghana.  An integrated effort was launched to set the stage for a fresh approach
to the governance of coastal districts and fisheries in Ghana’s Western Region. In the first four years, the core stakeholders defined core policy goals, built supportive and informed constituencies and developed capacity to implement the organizational structures and processes as a transformation from sectoral governance to a nested systems. The Hεn Mpoano approach has earned the trust of leaders across sectors and scales that unite individual communities to Districts, to the Region and the Nation. 

The Hεn Mpoano was a cooperative agreement between USAID/ Ghana and the University of Rhode Island Coastal Resources Center (CRC) at the Graduate School of Oceanography, planned as a four–year Program that ended in January 2014. The lead funding partner, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) provided grants worth $10 million as accompanied by matching funds of US$2.5 million contributed collectively by the four implementing partners: CRC, Friends of the Nation, SustainaMetrix and WorldFish. As a result this effort, the local advisors of the Hεn Mpoano Initiative, have put their names to the set of policy recommendations for improved coastal and fisheries ecosystem governance as a model for the nation. They were at the threshold of securing governmental commitments endorsing these proposals in 2015 and in 2019 have secure formal commitment. 

Case Development

The design of the program is rooted in an ecosystem approach to governing the use of marine and coastal resources. This approach begins with a bioregional appreciation that the three main rivers of the Western Region: the Pra, Ankobra and Tano meet the oceans and together form a coastal landscape that is abundant in natural resources and has provided the people of the Western Region with a source of livelihoods for thousands of years. The communities of the past, the present and the future will depend on the health of these systems. Unfortunately, experience from around the world shows a common trend of steady decline and in some cases collapse of such resources. The ecosystem approach embraces the principles of Blue Marble Evaluation and the needs of the people as well as the health of the natural systems that support them. 

A Blue Marble approach must consider what is going on one level higher and one level lower in the system of concern. Engaging with a group of stakeholders on issues regarding coastal lagoon and mangrove forest ecosystems requires that ideas and solutions take into account the needs of individual households as well as multiple-actor networks found at the district, regional and national levels. For example, a critical issue for Hεn Mpoano was to better understand issues relating to food security in the coastal districts of the Western Region and to propose measures for addressing these issues that are mainstreamed into regional and district-level planning processes. Hεn Mpoano began at the scale of the communities to meet with individual actors to better understand core issues and then broadened its engagements to those involved in fisheries and land use to better understand the integration between the two and the implications for food security. This led to engagement across multiple networks of people in other districts as well as national authorities, building upon the trust and credibility that was earned at each step along the way.

The Hεn Mpoano Initiative worked with the current governance system, believing that any proposed modification to or transformation of the structure would need to be developed through extensive collaboration and would need to respond to a broader set of environmental issues facing Ghana. For example, the policy proposals for a fresh approach to both coastal management and fisheries governance for the Western Region are nested within national policy frameworks that support local level actions at the district and community scales. These specify in detail the roles, responsibilities and membership and enjoy strong support from stakeholders.

Knowledge of social and ecological dynamics must develop as a collaborative effort and become part of the organizational and institutional structures. For example, by focusing on gender issues, the team developed a more complete understanding of the dynamic role of women in the fisheries value chain. The Program team learned that women play a significant fisheries role in purchasing fish, setting price points that influence supply dynamics, frequently providing capital for acquisitions of boats and motors and processing smoked fish. The activity relies on mangrove wood and links the women’s activities directly to mangrove cutting. While having significant roles of authority, women had virtually no voice in decision-making on fisheries management. The program addressed this gap through the development of collaborative structures specifically for women and engaged in four study tours to sites including Tanzania, Philippines, Senegal and Ivory Coast. As a result, women now play a stronger role in improving supply practices, mobilizing resources for livelihoods improvement and engaging in conflict resolution, to name a few examples. Such efforts provide examples of transformation of well-ingrained cultural norms and approaches to  fisheries management that have been made operational from extensive engagement to seeing the wider systems.  The theory of transformation was to first understand context and then test ways to increase community resilience and livelihood interventions as a major feature of fisheries reform and to ensure legitimacy of management interventions.

Social networks and collaborative platforms have been developed or supported to connect institutions and organizations across levels and scales to share information and to identify knowledge gaps, expertise and priorities for building capacity. These include the creation or support for strengthening groups such as the Platform for Coastal Communities, the Fisheries Alliance, the Western Region Canoe Fishermen Association, leading partner Friends of the Nation, and many others. The Hεn Mpoano Initiative developed a brand, social movement and identity with an expanding and welcoming network so that there is now a growing cadre of Ghanaians with the capacities and the commitment to carry forward the values and Initiatives it has put into motion. The emerging networks are supported by improvements to District and Regional level information systems for coastal and fisheries management and increased knowledge, skills and attitudes of public officials and community level stakeholders including the Western Region Geographic Information Hub and ongoing research and technical support provided by the University of Cape Coast.

To be effective, ecosystem governance Initiatives must be sustainable over long periods of time, usually many decades, and must be adaptive to changing conditions and must provide the mechanisms to encourage or require specific forms of resource use and collaborative behavior among institutions and users. The Shama District provides an example. This new district was established in the Western Region in 2007, roughly at the time when the Hεn Mpoano Initiative started.  The birth of the district created a window of opportunity as the new District Executive sought assistance from Hεn Mpoano, which successfully assembled a team that wanted to win the trust of constituencies and create positive outcomes. Today, the District has adopted flood control ordinances and shoreline plans and established a committee to address shoreline issues. National institutions are increasingly engaged and supportive of implementing integrated coastal management models that have been tested and adopted in the Western Region. Partnership Programs have been established to support implementation structures and move models into practice. These efforts must be sustained or the trust that has been won, the capacities that have been built, the political will to address these long term issues will likely decrease over time.

Blue Marble Principles in Practice

Principle of Integration:

A core feature of the Program design is rooted in an integrated approach to evaluation evidenced by the four partners’ use of a simplifying conceptual framework designed to be readily understandable by the multiple stakeholders in the Initiative. Much thought and effort was devoted initially to the sequence of essential actions that define the processes by which an Initiative is organized. This is best captured by the five-step management cycle (GESAMP, 1996) that organizes the many actions and the different contributions of the sciences to steps of issue identify cation and analysis, planning, negotiation of authority and funding. This provides structure to a plan of action, Program implementation and an evaluation of the effort and its impacts. Analysis of experience in applying the ecosystem approach (vs. sector-based management) and attempting to integrate across sectors has also shown that a well-designed and well-executed management process still may not produce the desired outcomes.  This has led to development of a simplifying framework that disaggregates the ultimate goal of sustainable forms of development into a sequence of more tangible outcomes (Olsen, 2003; UNEP/GPA, 2006; National Research Council, 2008).  The 1st Order Outcomes define the four enabling conditions for the sustained practice of the ecosystem approach. Experience suggests that the transition to the full-scale implementation of an ICM or  fisheries Program can be anticipated only when all four of the following conditions are present:

  • A core group of well-informed and supportive constit- uencies actively supports the Program;
  • Sufficient initial capacity is present within the insti- tutions responsible for the Program to implement its policies and plan of action;
  • Governmental commitment to the policies of a Program has been expressed by the delegation of the necessary authorities and the allocation of the financial resources required for long-term Program implementation; and,
  • Unambiguous goals that address both societal and the environmental conditions have been adopted against which the e orts of the Program can be measured.

These enabling conditions result from the successful completion of an analysis of problems and opportunities (Step 1). Work then proceeds to the formulation of a course of action (Step 2). The next stage is when stakeholders and responsible government agencies commit to new behaviors and allocate the resources to implement the necessary actions (Step 3). This requires formal commitment to a set of policies and a plan of action and the allocation of the necessary authority and funds to carry it forward. Implementation of the policies and actions is Step 4. Evaluation of successes, failures and learning, as well as a re-examination of how the issues themselves have changed, rounds out a generation of the management cycle (Step 5).

Global to local:

Cooperation on coastal and fisheries governance at the planetary scale is an urgent necessity, to avoid destructive competition. Cooperation at the planetary scale does
not mean a global government instead, it requires governance systems that have a nested structure that appreciate the influences at a global scale. The Hεn Mpoano Initiative has emerged as a powerful nested system and source of momentum aimed at shaping a more positive future. As the many stakeholders describe an unlearning of old ways of thinking about and doing things and affirming the commitment of the people of the Western Region to engage in and support governance change. Reducing social, physical and economic vulnerability means taking risks and seeing patterns including the hidden system that creates path dependencies, holding certain dimension in place.  The Blue marble principle requires effort to understand the factors that will need to change regararding the process of governance. At a local scale, this often requires the facilitation of co-created and positive vision, bringing together people with a strong sense of calling who are able to see larger system forces and windows of possibilities. 

One local leader noted the importance of a nested system: “the basic understanding of the nested system of governance was one of our greatest challenges as a team. It required us to consider what structures were actually allocating planning and decision-making responsibility in decentralized systems that would encourage responsibility for addressing local issues without always waiting for directives from the central government. We learned the importance of considering national and global concerns, such as climate change, and how these issues must be safeguarded through top-down and bottom-up exchange and sharing of information and directives respectively. This means decentralization must not result in satisfying local interests at the cost of the larger system. As I look back, I now see the value of the approach and wish we committed to much more extensive training and capacity building around the methods to achieve this from the very beginning. With this, I believe we could have done a better job of building a common understanding of our shared purpose, selecting key sets of patterns and trends to pay attention to in the shifting context that was transforming around us. This could have given us a stronger focus on adaptive work plans and featured interventions that were more grounded in the objective of learning-by-doing towards our shared goals.”

Challenges presented by the case

It is clear that four years is not nearly enough time for the Initiative to achieve meaningful results in terms of facilitating transformation towards co-management in Ghana Fisheries. Projects such as this, which rely on building trust and social capital, require longer time frames so that by the time the project ends, a more solid ground has been set and new structures have been tested. There is much that still needs to be done to generate the enabling conditions before a wholesale change in fisheries governance can occur.  The learning-by-doing approach is the path forward and requires more time.

One leader notes, “Upon reflection, at the beginning of this work, the Hεn Mpoano partners should have dedicated more energy into the development of a shared strategy for implementing various activities. For instance, throughout the process, we encountered huge transaction costs associated with simply explaining what the WorldFish work was all about and how it fed into the overall objective of the Hεn Mpoano Initiative to both external and internal partners who we thought were already well aware. We have learned it is crucial for all stakeholders to have a common understanding at an early stage of such an Initiative, gain an understanding of roles and responsibilities as well as agree on common methodologies for implementation. Because there was no general under- standing or sense of common purpose, methodologies used by the Hεn Mpoano partners were different, making the work very difficult.”

Why the case is important

Through the application of these principles, the team has learned the importance of distinguishing between and characterizing the power dimensions across the four mechanisms by which the processes of governance are expressed: the marketplace, the government, the traditional authorities and the institutions and arrangements of civil society. The four governance mechanisms interact with one another in complex and dynamic ways, how these fundamental mechanisms work, jointly and individually, and the external pressures that operate at larger spatial scales.

One local leader noted, “we have built an understanding of the traditions and capacities of the existing ecosystem governance system by considering processes and out- comes of past and present governance structures. These include the ways where planning and decision-making systems have worked, or most often not worked, to decentralize authority and responsibility and encourage co-management strategies. We are working toward a time in which government (local, regional, national) and a diversity of stakeholders (local resource users, community leaders, academics, scientists and others) share responsibility and join together in compliance with sound policies and procedures.”

Current status/outcome

After a decade of foreign assistance, the initiative has become entirely Ghanaian led by Hen Mpoano. With a strong and dedicated leadership team, led by Kofi Agbobah, the organization is working across the entire Ghanaian coast. Based on its proximity to the Gulf of Guinea, Ghana is a regional leader to restore and protect the abundant fishery resources sustained by the upwelling that produces large populations of pelagic species.  This is crucially important today as source of protein rich food to the nation and the region and major source of employment to Ghana’s coastal communities. The initiative has identified and systematically documented decades of overfishing with the widespread use of illegal methods such as pair trawling and deep water light fishing.  These open access fisheries were in the past regulated to some degree by traditional Chief Fishermen but their influence has diminished.  Fisheries regulations promulgated by the national Fisheries Commission in 2010 were being flagrantly ignored.  To date, enforcement efforts have increased dramatically and prosecution efforts have improved significantly through training of judicial authorities.  The fishery is dominated by fleets of sea going canoes that are anticipated to become more profitable and possibly more efficient if the transition from an open access fishery to a managed access fishery is accomplished and if their landing sites are upgraded and provided the necessary supporting infrastructure and services.


The context for coastal management in Ghana is similar to many regions around the world. In contrast to the centralized and mature policy for fisheries in some nations that is becoming more co-managed, Ghana is one where responsibility is distributed among a number of governmental entities, many of which are within the Ministry of the Environment Science and Technology (MEST).  There is, however, no formally constituted national integrated coastal management program, although several proposals for the creation of such a program, or establishment of Coastal Commissions, have been proposed in national policy documents.  In the Western Region, responsibility for how the shoreline is developed, how governmental agencies respond to problems of erosion and habitat destruction and how conflicts are mediated among the many businesses and communities competing for a shorefront location is not clear at the local or national government levels.  This is further complicated by the unclear role of traditional authorities.  Major decisions on coastal development, such as the siting of new infrastructure such as a highway or airport, and decisions on major permits that require preparation of an Environmental Impact Assessment are made by governmental agencies in Accra, often with minimal consultation at the District and community scales.  At the District level, shoreline development in most instances advances without the benefit of spatial planning or meaningful regulation at a time when the accelerating pace of coastal development in the Western Region makes the need for more effective and efficient planning and decision making particularly urgent.  The rapidly emerging demand for the onshore facilities required by offshore oil and gas production, combined with growth in mining, rubber and palm oil production and tourism are changing rural landscapes in the coastal districts, driving urban expansion and putting pressure on previously undeveloped shorelines. 

These differences in governance structure and maturity, create an urgent need for an integrating approach to coastal and fisheries governance that is based upon sound evaluation.  The World Bank support for fisheries Sector reform favors the canoe fishery and seeks to increase its efficiency by eliminating the industrial trawlers and reducing the semi-industrial fleet.  However, there will be challenges to these policies given the political interests of the semi-industrial fleet.  The canoe fleet is distributed across many landing sites and its future success as an efficient provider of quality seafood requires major improvements in the onshore infrastructure and support services, notably sanitation, storage facilities, and transportation improvements.  In the Western Region, competition is intensifying for shorefront sites for beach tourism, residential development and the burgeoning offshore oil and gas industry.  At present planning for landing beaches and their associated communities is increasing as competition for space is intense and there is often no sanitation or potable water supply.  Fish are often landed and processed in highly unsanitary settings and access to ice, cold storage, processing facilities and trucking is absent or improvised. There are pressing needs for improvements in community governance, including mechanisms for conflict resolution.  A major lesson learned in Ghana and implication for coastal management more globally, is to provide for an orderly development process in fishing communities and to conserve, and where feasible, restore the near-shore and estuarine habitats that are important to sustaining demersal fish populations.


The Hen Mpoano initiative has placed a major emphasis upon applying an approach with three major characteristics.  The first is that the issues analysis and goal setting addresses both the societal and the environmental dimensions of coastal change.  This is important since other on-going planning efforts tend to give scant attention to sustaining the goods and services that flow to society from wetlands, healthy estuaries and natural areas that are a basis for tourism and the quality of life of all.  A second feature is to emphasize the importance of involving stakeholders from the private sector, civil society and government in framing responses to the issues of concern.  The third feature of the approach advocated in the three focal areas is the importance of integrating (nesting) coastal management practices into the existing governance systems at the district, regional and national scales.  In all three focal areas the traditional chiefs, who play a major role in determining how land is allocated, have a central role in this consultative process. Future efforts will concentrate on the following:

  • Work with the Fisheries Commission and the World Bank to develop models for bottom-up approaches to fisheries governance that compliment top down policy making.
  • Develop models for context appropriate practices in community-based management at landing beaches. 
  • Continue to implement a multi-dimensional communication program that addresses the implications of major changes in how fisheries are conducted in Ghana as a model for other nations on the Gulf of Guinea.
  • Support and inform efforts designed to promote compliance and enforcement at local levels.
  •  Further develop options for small-scale fisheries management units and examine conditions at selected landing beaches and define how the enabling conditions may be strengthened for improving the manner in which the infrastructure and services required to receive, process and ship a highly perishable product may be put in place. 

All of this requires spatial planning in a context of climate change and strengthening the capacity of local governance systems to resolve conflicts and meet increasing demand for shorefront space from competing industries.