Nigeria: With Nigeria's Fishes Disappearing Amid Govt Neglect, Nation Spends Billions On Importation

24 November 2018

As the canoe snaked gently from the old wooden structures of Makoko into the lagoon, shirtless kids repairing fishing nets sat on a bench on the edge of Nigeria's famous slum community. The Makoko water smelled decaying fishes and waste. A few metres away stood the Third Mainland Bridge, linking Lagos Island and the city's mainland. The bridge, reputed as one of Africa's oldest, is surrounded by several fishing communities.

At a spot not far from the bank of the lagoon, 49-year-old Elizabeth Tosihnu sat in the canoe with her children, awaiting the arrival of her husband. Time was 12:50 pm and the October breeze blew gently across the lagoon. She told PREMIUM TIMES things had changed for the worse with regard to fishing in the Lagos lagoon.

"Things are not the way they were before anymore," she said in her local Ogu dialect as she struggled to reposition one of her fish baskets. "In the past, say two or three years ago, we would have left this place by now because my husband would have been back with good catches. But now, it's almost afternoon and he is not even back with anything."

Mrs Tosihnu said a number of factors account for the poor catches fishermen record in the community in recent time but she was emphatic about the activities of dredgers on the Oworonshoki end of Lagos mainland.

The Lagos state government, as part of its urbanisation initiatives, began dredging the Oworonshoki end of the bridge in 2016. The government said it plans to build ultra-modern hotels and shopping malls in the area. But while the government moves to industrialise, very little attention is paid to the impact of its policies on the city's local fish production.

"Before now, our people used to be back from expedition by early morning or latest, 10 o' clock; but since they began dredging activities across several parts of Lagos, we wait till afternoon and sometimes evening for them to come back," Mrs Tosihnu said. "These days, they don't even come with better fishes."

According to the Fisheries and Aquaculture Department of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, Nigeria had an estimated annual per capital fish consumption of 13.3 kg in 2013, which makes fish an important dietary element and one of the few sources of animal protein available to many Nigerians.

By 2015, data showed, the nation's total fish production was estimated at 1,027,000 tonnes, to which marine catches contributed 36 percent, inland waters catches contributed 33 percent and aquaculture 31 percent--from which the nation gets smoked fishes it exports. In terms of the nation's Gross Domestic Product (GDP), fishery sector contributed 0.5 percent in the same year.

With little or no significant structures by the government, more than 80 per cent of Nigeria's total domestic production is generated by artisanal small-scale fishers from coastal, inshore, creeks, lagoons, inland rivers and lakes. Many of the fishermen and women in these areas including Makoko and Badagry - two fishing hubs in the city - now sit idle.

"We simply just sit down nowadays as we barely get catches because of the effect of dredging," Gafar Ayoola, a fisherman in Badagry, told PREMIUM TIMES.

"There is no way you'd talk about fish production challenges in Lagos without talking about what dredging activities are doing to our operation and equipment."

Mr Ayoola, a resident of Ajido in Badagry, said many of his colleagues have resorted to other means of survival due to the scarcity of catches in the Badagry area of Lagos.

"I am a thoroughbred fisherman so I can't quit fishing," he quipped, rather confidently. "I was born and bred with money realised from fishing so there is an emotional attachment. But many of our people have gone into other trades to feed their wives and children. Many others now do it as 'part-time' because, due to dredging, we no longer get fishes like before."


Koku, another fisherman, said there was no sufficient sand in their part of the lagoon anymore, a development he said forced fishes away from the spot and rendered their nets useless.

"Due to the activities of dredgers, we have no sand in the lagoon and we don't get good catches anymore," he said. "You can only get crayfish where there is enough sand but these days, we don't have crayfish because there is no sand around our fishing areas. Now, our local net can no longer catch fishes here."

Tobi Aide, an activist in Makoko, explained further: "Our nets have measurement, which is determined by the depth of the spot where they are placed. Whenever we place it on the spot, it simply measures the depth of the water. But due to dredging, the spots have become deeper and our nets cannot measure or capture the depth.

"If we choose to fish in those areas where dredging is taking place, we don't have the money to acquire the kind of nets that can capture the depth of the spots. That's why we no longer go to Ikate, Ikoyi and other far flung places."

Rising challenges, rising cost

Inside Asejere market in Makoko, regarded as the biggest fish market in Lagos, a piece of big-sized crocker fish could go for as high as N900 or more depending on the size, a PREMIUM TIMES check revealed in October.

"On days that we don't have enough catches from fishermen, the price could be higher," Rashidat Ajibose, a fish seller, told PREMIUM TIMES at the market. "There are few fishermen around these days and very few of them even have fishes so there is a little increase in the prices. In the past, whenever our fishermen came back, we were always happy. Not anymore. No more fresh fishes like before."

Another fish trader, Amudalat Oyebanji, argued the increase was due to the general rise in prices of goods and services in the country when the nation slipped into economic recession.

"They said there was recession and many goods became costly so we had to increase prices of fishes too because fishermen increased the price they sold to us too," she said. "The Mackerel fishes we bought from fishermen at N500 unit prices suddenly shot up to about a thousand naira and more. We had to augment too. And you know when things go up, it is difficult to make it come down."

Fish sellers in Agege Lagos

Nigeria slipped into recession in 2016, leading to increase in the prices of goods and services. Occasioned largely by the collapse of oil prices in the international oil market, the recession lasted till the second quarter of 2017.

As part of its efforts to consolidate on its recovery and growth plans, the government said it would focus on diversification of the economy from oil, the nation's mainstay. There had been substantial investment in agriculture, with specific focus on rice farming.

The second Sustainable Development Goal (SDG), which every nation is expected to embrace, focuses on putting an end to hunger, achieving food security and improving nutrition and sustainable agriculture.

But while the nation makes efforts to encourage local food production, very little of such initiatives has benefitted artisanal fishermen, particularly in Lagos fishing communities.

Neglected fishermen

"We don't get any form of support from the government," said Mr Aide, who sat lazily among other idle fishermen in Makoko, hands placed around his waist. "We face too many challenges fishing in the Lagoon but very little support mechanism come from government, relevant organisations and agencies."

Another fisherman and entrepreneur, Kola Ibrahimo, emphasised that fish production in Nigeria comes from three sources: artisanal, aquaculture and industrial fishing. While the vast majority of the fish supply in most cases comes from the artisanal sub-sector--inland rivers, lakes, coastal and brackish water, Lagoon--he said others come from aquaculture (fish farm) and industrial fishing.

But Messrs Ibrahimo and Aide are not alone in lamentation. There are numerous other fishermen in Makoko and Badagry areas rendered idle by different challenges militating against artisanal fishing in the city. Joseph Asha is one of them.

Mr Asha is a fashion designer who told PREMIUM TIMES he was raised in the Egun tradition of fishing. But for the past six months, he said, he has neglected fishing due to unavailability of good catches.

"What's the essence of going on the high sea, risking your life, only to come back with poor catches?" he told PREMIUM TIMES in a rhetorical tone on the bank of the Lagos lagoon.

"There are no more fishes in our waters and the causes are many. No net, no boat, no engine."

Porous, polluted waters

The 853km long Nigerian coastline runs through seven states of the federation - Lagos, Ondo, Delta, Bayelsa, Rivers, Akwa Ibom and Cross Rivers - bordering the Atlantic ocean. Across the waters, fish trawlers engage in real time commercial fishing but in recent time, said Mr Aide, many have had to quit due to challenges.

In the 1970s, the fish trawling industry in Nigeria contributed immensely to the GDP of the country. But things have since gone bad as an industry that once had numerous fish trawling companies has become moribund.

Attacks by pirates, porous nature of Nigeria's waters and government neglect are some of the causes of the collapse of fish trawling business in Nigeria, according to the president of the Nigerian Trawlers Owners Association, Amire Akinbola. The NITOA says it now has less than 130 vessels, down from more than 250 due to sea robbery, high cost of diesel and insecure berthing facility.

But the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA)'s spokesperson, Isichie Osamgbi, said the agency is doing all it can to curb piracy.

"Pirates are (part of) the normal challenges we face on the high sea but we have been able to address it and reduce attacks by pirates drastically," he told PREMIUM TIMES in an interview. "We have what we call fast intervention boats that we have acquired to tackle this piracy. It Is not only peculiar to fishing trawlers, it's a challenge on the international trade on our waters which we have really drastically reduced.

"We also have what we call satellite surveillance equipment with which we work in partnership with the Navy and all that we use to monitor activities on the high sea. I can assure you that it has since reduced over the years in the life of this administration."

However, PREMIUM TIMES gathered that activities of fish trawlers have negative effects on the ocean ecosystem, just as it has also led to conflicts between trawlers and local fishermen in Lagos and other parts of the country.

Apart from the activities of fish trawlers, Mr Asha and other fishermen who spoke to PREMIUM TIMES in Badagry and Makoko affirmed that pollution of the lagoon water occasioned by oil spillage and indiscriminate dumping of refuse also affect their chances of good catches.

SPECIAL REPORT: With Nigeria's fishes disappearing amid govt neglect, nation spend billions on importation. [CREDIT: George Kaduna]

Nigeria produces an average of 1.8 million barrels of oil daily, from fields located mostly in the riverine Niger Delta region. While the nation relies on oil revenue to fix governmental concerns, years of neglect has rendered many fishing communities in the region polluted. Oil spillage and other illegal means of oil refining have left generations of fishermen in the region jobless.

Fishermen in Makoko and Oko-agbon said the ripple effects of the spillage from faraway Delta region and other adjoining oil producing areas also affect their own fishing activities in Lagos lagoon.

"Due to oil spillage, many fishes die in the lagoon," a fisherman who identified himself simply as Joseph, said. "Sometime last year, we could not even (move) near a part of the waters around Ikate (Elegusi) and Ebutte Metta because of the oil on the waters."

Joseph explained further that aside that it kills fishes, oil spillage also destroys their equipment and render them useless.

For Mr Asha, what also needs to be checked urgently in the area of pollution is the indiscriminate dumping of refuse in the Lagos lagoon. He explained that aside that it is harmful to the environment at large, it affects fishing expedition as the refuse destroy fishing equipment and block the waterways.

"Many industrial companies and individuals dump heavy refuse in the lagoon," he said. "We noticed last month that they are mostly from Iddo area and this is very bad. I know fishermen in this community who have had to change the propeller of their canoes twice this month because they were destroyed by refuse."

Mrs Tosihnu told PREMIUM TIMES that many times, they watch helplessly as some of the companies drop the refuse into the lagoon through the Third Mainland bridge. Apart from destroying their fishing nets and other equipment, she added, it blocks the waterways and impedes on movement on the lagoon.

"In the past, whenever they dropped it, many of our people used to rush towards it thinking it was money," she said amidst laughter. "They are wise now because we are used to it. But it affects our fishing activities."

Disappearing species

According to the United Nation's Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14, there must be conscious effort to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.

But fishermen who spoke to PREMIUM TIMES in Badagry and Makoko all agreed that some species of fishes are gradually going extinct. According to them, many of the factors militating against their activities also affect the survival of fishes.

For Mr Aide, species of fishes like 'Obokun', 'Patamaja', 'Chinus' are no more available in their numbers. 'Abo', another species of fish he said belongs to the blue whiting category commonly seen in the lagoon years back, is no longer available except in the deep ocean.

"We used to have more than enough Crocker fishes whenever we go on expedition but lately, you can't find crocker fishes easily anymore," he said. Same with 'Toboko' and others in the categories of herrings and mackerel and others--like species local fishmongers call 'titus'/'alaran','shawa', 'kote', 'panla', agbodo etc--he explained.

Nigeria spends over N1 billion on importation of fish annually, according to the Director-General, National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA), Aboyomi Oguntunde. Mr Oguntunde said with the huge amount of money being spent on importation of fish, it was a clear indication that there was a production deficit and hence the need to fill the gap in the face of growing population.

In 2016, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), an agency of the United Nations, said world per capita fish supply reached a new record high of 20kg in 2014, due to vigorous growth in aquaculture, which now provides half of all fish for human consumption.

Aquaculture, according to experts, involves cultivating freshwater and saltwater populations under controlled conditions. Nigeria gets a substantial part of its fish export from this source even as industry players complain of concerns around regulation, market, lack of government support and poor governance framework.

In April, the Catfish and Allied Fish Farmers Association of Nigeria (CAFFAN) cried to the Nigerian government to intervene after the United States banned importation of smoked fish from Nigeria into the U.S in March. The national president of CAFFAN, Rotimi Oloye, said the U.S. government banned Nigeria's smoked fish because of failure of the Nigerian government to return certification document within stipulated time.

An aquaculturist, Bolaji Abiose, told PREMIUM TIMES funding remains a major problem for most young Nigerians in the industry. Mr Abiose, a graduate of Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta, said many young Nigerians find it difficult to break even because of lack of access to capital and absence of markets for those outside major cities.

While local fishermen and acquaculturists battle different challenges amidst production deficit, Nigeria--like other African countries including Ghana and Ivory Coast--addresses the concern via importation.

A culture of importation

Last May, the director of Fisheries Resources Department, Nigeria Institute for Oceanography and Marine Research, Parcy Obatola, said that Nigeria consumed about 2 million metric tons of fishes every year. But according to her, the nation can only produce less than 800,000 metric tons domestically thereby necessitating the importation of about 1.2 million metric tons. She added that Nigeria spends N288 billion ($800 million) on importation of fishes annually.

The nation is considered one of the largest importers of fish in the world, alongside the United States, Japan and China. Frozen fish varieties include mackerel, herrings, horse mackerel, blue whiting, Argentina silus (locally called 'ojuyobo'/'Agbodo') among others.

Checks by PREMIUM TIMES at cold rooms in Ota in Ogun State and Agege in Lagos showed that a substantial part of imported fishes come from Indonesia, Norway, Chile among other countries.

Wahab Ajara, a local fish seller, told PREMIUM TIMES at the cold room in Toll Gate, Ota that prices of frozen fishes vary according to quality and people's preference.

Fish sellers at the Cold room in Toll Gate, Ota, Ogun state-001

"'Half measure' of mackerel goes for N15,500 or more sometimes, depending on size and 'shawa' could go for N14,300," she explained.

A list pasted on the notice board of the cold room confirms Ms. Wahab's position. When probed on why most local sellers do not patronise indigenous fishermen, she attributed it to the rising cost of locally produced fish.

"Most local fishes, especially from rivers and the lagoon, are costly. But they are always fresh and nutritious. Some customers specifically demand for them and we make them available sometimes," she told PREMIUM TIMES.

Imported fishes are preserved by freezing and application of preservatives like sodium tripolyphosphate (STPP), which according to health experts poses health risk in humans as it may worsen incidence of kidney diseases.

Kazeem Kehinde, a nutritionist, told PREMIUM TIMES most frozen fishes imported into the country have effect on the human health. Mr Kehinde attributed the concern to the porous nature of Nigeria's border and prevalence of corruption among immigration officers. He advised the government to support local production and put tighter measures to control importation.

For Mr Aide, the government would do well by regulating the activities of pirates on Nigerian waters, ensuring compliance to laws governing fish trawling on Nigerian waters and supporting local fishermen with equipment, especially in neglected fishing communities.

"The best way is to support fishermen--small scale and industrial trawlers--with funds and equipment and ensure that our waters are well protected and activities are regulated. With its potential, Nigeria does not have business importing fishes," he said.

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