Even as West Africa struggles to plug rampant illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing, rising sea surface temperature poses new challenges
Sitting on Ghana’s Apam beach, fisherman Nana Ekow Pasnin is worried about his family’s future. His canoe just returned without a single fish, after spending a marathon 12 hours in the sea. He has never seen such an acute fish shortage in the Atlantic Ocean in his 40 years of fishing. “Earlier, we could easily fill up the 150 crates in our canoe in every trip. Today, we consider ourselves fortunate if we are able to fill just 20 crates, and such an occasion arises only once or twice a year,” says Pasnin. He says that in the past two decades or so, there has been a rapid decline in small pelagic fish in Ghana’s waters .
These fish, which includes species like sardinella, sardines, anchovy and mackarel, are found near the surface and closer to shore and form an important basis of livelihood to the country’s 210,000 artisanal fisherfolk and another 2.1 million employed in allied industires. “In 2015, the county recorded the lowest small pelagic production of 19,608 tonnes. This was 14 per cent of the production in 1996, when the highest small pelagic production was recorded,” says Socrates Apetorgbor, fisheries specialist with the sustainable fisheries management project of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
Francis Agbeshie from the Chokomey fishing community in Ghana’s Bartianar area says members from his community tried to cope with the crisis by ditching the canoe for inshore vessels with engines that allow them to venture into deep seas. “The shift worked for a while, but now our catch is dwindling again,” he says. Agbeshie and other artisanal fisherfolk, who form 80 per cent of the country’s fishing community, blame the increase in industrial trawlers, both in international and Ghana’s domestic waters, and their illegal activities for the shortage. “In the 1980s, Ghana had just 14 foreign vessels. Today, it is between 500 and 700,” says Kofi Agbogah, director of Hen Mpoano, a Ghana-based non-profit which works with coastal communities. The situation is no different for the other West African countries along the Atlantic Ocean where artisanal fisheries is an important basis of livelihood; according to a January-February 2018 study by fisheries researchers at The University of Britsh Columbia, Canada, published in Conservation Letters, the sector provides employment to 7 million people in the region.
Some experts, however, say the shortage could be partly because of climate change. Pelagic fish are highly sensitive to sea surface temperature. While some have an affinity for temperate waters others prefer tropical waters. As sea surface temperature rises with global warming, it affects the abundance and distribution of these species by altering their migratory paths. Besides, small pelagic fish feed primarily on plankton. As warming oceans slow plankton growth, it might also be affecting the abundance of the stocks, says a Unesco report. Hawa Bint Yaqub, deputy director at Ghana Fisheries Commission, says the average sea surface temperature near Ghana beach increased from 26.2oC in 2000 to 27.4oC in 2010; that decade, the country’s annual average pelagic production fell from 22,000 tonnes to 12,000 tonnes. Worse, several studies suggest that the situation will exacerbate with each passing year.
A June 2017 research titled “Climate change and marine fisheries: Least developed countries top global index of vulnerability” says even in the most optimistic future scenario, sea surface temperatures are expected to increase substantially by the end of the century, and its impact on marine fisheries will be most visible in poor countries. Over 25 of the world’s 31 least developed countries with coastlines are in the top half of the vulnerability index, says the paper, published in Plos One. Even under business as usual, sea surface temperatures are projected to increase by 0.62-0.85°C in the near future and 2.44-3.32°C over the long term, warns a 2016 paper titled “Climatic drivers of change and the future of African ocean”. An increase of 1-2 °C is enough to “badly” impact fisheries stock, it warns.
Pushed by both industrial trawlers and climate change, the artisanal fisherfolk of West Africa are now living on the edge. In the desperation for a good catch, many of them are embracing illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing practices (IUU), such as using light to attract fish and explosives to catch them, using nets with small mesh size to catch juvenile fish and fishing during the breeding season. Some have even joined hands with foreign industrial trawlers which have combed the ocean to feed the European and Asian markets, both legally and illegally.
The genesis of the problem, to quite some extent, lies in the policies of West African governments. They have been selling the rights to fish their waters to rich European governments, who have already decimated their own seas. In recent years, fleets from China, the Philippines, Russia, South Korea and Taiwan have also expanded their presence in the region’s territorial waters. Agbogah says these international trawler operators usually form partnership with local fisherfolk to enter the domestic water for fishing. The local partner, in most cases, exists only on paper while the trawlers indulge in illegal activities, such as “saiko” where they indiscriminately harvest fish, before illegally trans-shipping the catch at sea to canoes to evade taxes (see “Ghana needs stronger laws”).
“Their fleet includes a couple of dozen megatrawlers that target small pelagic fish to make feed for salmon, chicken, pigs and other animals grown at aquaculture and livestock farms around the world,” says Dyhia Belhabib, advisor for the University of British Columbia’s Sea Around Us research project, who has co-authored the Conservation Letters study. Each mega trawler, says Belhabib, can capture up to 20,000 tonnes of fish a year, equal to the annual catch of more than 1,700 traditional Senegalese pirogues (flat-bottomed, wooden dugout boats).
These industrial vessels also often intrude into waters reserved for artisanal fishers. A 2017 resea rch by EU-funded Securing Sustainable Fisheries project in Ghana shows in 2016, thousands of cases were recorded where industrial vessels destroyed nets and canoes of traditional fisherfolk at sea. Yet only 5 per cent of these cases were reported to the Fisheries Commission, and less than 1 per cent resulted in compensation. “The vessels often escape after destroying our nets. If caught, they bribe the local officials and give us a part of their daily catch and leave,” says Nana Kobina Caique, chief fisherman of Apam community.
But their legally-sanctioned activity provides a cover for these IUU fishing activities. “Commercial trawlers that operate under flags of convenience, and unload in ports that do not record their catch, are engaging in organised theft disguised as commerce,” says former UN chief and Noble Laureate Kofi Annan, who now chairs the Africa Progress Panel. The panel estimates that IUU fishing accounts for between one-third and half of the total regional catch. The 2011 Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report also highlights that IUU is rampant across West Africa, which has some of the world’s richest tuna fishing grounds. “Over 50 per cent of the fisheries resources in the stretch of coast ranging from Senegal to Nigeria have already been overfished,” it says.
IUU fishing, which often accounts for a large proportion of the total catch, is now hitting the coffers of West African countries. A report by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) in 2016 says Senegal lost around $300 million in 2012 due to IUU fishing, which is equivalent to 2 per cent of gross domestic product. Similarly, Guinea loses $110 million a year and Sierra Leone loses $29 million annually due to IUU fishing. The entire region faces a loss to the tune of $2.3 billion a year due to IUU fishing, says a March 2017 study published in Frontiers in Marine Science journal.
The Chinese checkers
The threat is maximum from Chinese companies that have expanded their fishing operations in Africa from 13 vessels in 1985 to 462 vessels in 2013, or one-fifth of the total Chinese-owned distant water fishing (DWF) fleet, according to a Greenpeace report, “Africa’s fisheries Paradise at a Crossroad”. By 2016, it rose 2,600 vessels, which was 10 times that of the US, as per a New York Times story. This has been possible because China started a subsidy for DWF in 2006 and had spent $431 million, says the Greenpeace report. Explaining the Chinese push to DWF fleet, an FAO report, “Fish to 2030: Prospects for Fisheries and Aquaculture” says China will consume 38 per cent of world’s fish production by 2030. It projects that Asia will account for 70 per cent of the global fish consumption by 2030.
The Greenpeace report further says that the Chinese flagged and/or owned vessels currently fishing in African waters are predominantly bottom trawlers, one of the most destructive fishing methods in the modern fishing industry. This, despite that China does not allow bottom trawlers on its own water. The ships are so large that they scoop up as many fish in one week as Senegalese boat catch in one year, says a March 2017 research published in Frointers in Marine Science.
In April 2017, Greenpeace Africa and the Sierra Leone government inspected seven international vessels and found four of them to be illegal. Two of the illegal vessels were from China and the other two were owned by local people but funded by Korea and Italy. While all were using illegal nets, one vessel was also carrying shark carcasses. Earlier this year, South Africa detained three Chinese vessels and arrested 100 crew members for illegally entering its Exclusive Economic Zone.
The allied threat
Those dependent on the allied sectors also bear the brunt of IUU. As fishing communities use explosives to ensures a good catch, tissues of most fish get damaged, creating problems for the processing sector.
When Down to Earth visited a processing community in Bartianar in July last year, most people said the poor supply is forcing them to move out of the industry. “July and August are the bumper seasons for us.
But so far, I have not processed even a single fish,” says Cecelia Agbesi, a 75-year old woman, whose family of 10 are involved in the sector. She adds that till about 15 years back, she used to sell 50-100 baskets of processed fish a day during the peak season. Now it has come down to 25 baskets. “We have sold two of our three canoes in the past few years and are thinking of selling the last one and finding a new livelihood.”
Like Agbesi, there are 14,700 people struggling to make an honest living in the processing sector. “The people in the sector do not consume the fish captured through explosives as they know it is unhealthy. Still they process and sell it even though they know it will hamper their relationship with the customers in the long run,” says Margaret Ottah Atikpo, a fisheries specialist working with international non-profit Action Aid in Ghana.
Several West African countries are framing regulations to put an end to IUU fishing. In 2010, Ghana introduced fisheries regulations to prohibit the practice. The regulations has a provision under which fine of up to $4 million can be slapped on the offenders. In recent years Senegal has stopped licensing fishing of small pelagic fish to foreign industrial trawlers. With limited resource and often corrupt officials and ineffective governments, these regulations are openly flouted. For instance, in 2013 the EU issued a Yellow Card against Ghana for the government’s inability to check illegal fishing.
The card means none of the 28 countries in the EU will import fish products from Ghana. Following the sanction, which deprived the country of over $150 million, Ghana introduced the West Africa Regional Fisheries Programme (WARFP) to establish legal provisions and monitoring processes in place. It also sealed 150 industrial trawlers for illegal trade in 2014. A year later, EU revoked the ban even though, experts say, the government’s drive against illegal trade has slowed down. In 2015, only 92 trawlers were sealed. “In 2016, only a few trawlers were sealed,” says a Ghana fisheries department official on anonymity.
“West Africa needs to strengthen its fisheries management. The region’s marine resources are being depleted at alarming rates, mainly due to too many boats competing for too few fish, and high rates of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing,” says Ahmed Diame, Greenpeace Africa Oceans campaigner. This ongoing plunder is a threat to millions of people in the region who depend on the oceans for their food .
Maybe, they can learn from Liberia that has been able to curb IUU fishing through legislation and monitoring. In 2011, with the help of the World Bank, the country developed a six-nautical mile perimeter in its water where industrial vessels were banned. The move helped the country reduce 83 per cent of IUU, as per its ministry of agriculture and fisheries. This has revived the traditional fishing communities who have doubled their annual catch since 2011. Finally, West African nations need to wake up to the problem of climate change and include it in its fisheries policies to better prepare for the impact it will have on fish population, which provide the much-needed protein to the poor.
(This story was first published in the 16-31st May issue of Down To Earth)
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