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Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Why Nigeria’s Fish Industry is Underperforming — Expert

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By Oge Udegbunam

A retired university teacher says a combination of factors, including government’s negligence and pollution, are to blame.

Nalaguo Alagoa, 69, is a retired teacher at the Rivers State University of Science and Technology. He taught fisheries science and allied aquacultures at the institution. In this interview, Mr Alagoa shares his view on why the sector is underperforming.

PT: Nigeria has sufficient water space that harbours fishes but the production doesn’t seem to complement the obvious potentials. Why do you think this is so?

Alagoa: In this country people just assume things, often without verification. You hear claims like “fishermen are poor” and “farmers are suffering” and this is not always true. Fishing in Nigeria is a big deal but Rivers and Bayelsa may not be the highest fish producing states in Nigeria. We have Lagos where the fishing trawlers land almost all the fish caught by trawlers. When you talk of artisanal fishing, however, then you look at other southern states like Rivers, Bayelsa, Cross Rivers and others.

Agbere and Odoni are communities on the River Nun just downstream of the point where the River Niger bifurcates into Rivers Nun and Forcados. Both are large linear communities with impressive river, backswamp and lake fisheries. The communities also boast an enviable supply of fish ponds, both man-made and natural. At this time of the year, ordinarily, fishermen from the communities should be bailing their ponds and taking home much catch, but this is no longer so. They don’t get much from their ponds or lakes anymore owing largely to environmental pollution and structural changes and dynamics in the population of the fish being exploited, the population of the fishermen engaged in the fisheries and the complex interplay between them.

What you observe in the evenings on the streets and market places in Yenagoa and its immediate vicinity were live catfish (commonly referred to as “point and kill”). Most of the fish come from outside Bayelsa State.

PT: So there are issues…

Alagoa: We have serious issues of environmental abuse; these places are no longer producing the way they should. Secondly, there was the 2012 unusually big annual flooding that caused a lot of havoc. It took that turn because the River Niger has been dammed and for several years and decades we did not see that level of fooding. We were almost forgetting the occurrence of floods of such magnitude in our communities when it came, as if on a mission for vengeance.

The Niger and Kainji dams construction and the consequent water drawdown had very significantly affected the lower Niger basin and Niger Delta flood plains as most of the spaces ordinarily inundated by the annual flooding dried up and were put to other uses other than fisheries production. The water spaces of the lower Niger and the Delta have their integrity completely changed to the disadvantage of most fisheries. Owing to this reduction in water space conducive for fish habitation, space available for fish production has been significantly reduced. It’s not entirely to our disadvantage, I would think, because what we have lost to fishery, if we are serious we will perhaps gain by way of Agriculture (arable farming) or building homesteads.

It is not usual that people from Northern Nigeria will come down all this way. But because there are apparently issues back in their homelands, they have migrated down this way and they have occupied a niche or two. They stay here and fish because the Niger Delta youth themselves have abandoned those spaces for white collar jobs that are not existent anywhere. That is the bad aspect. If you take the average age of the native fishermen, they must be very old, about 60 years, because the young people have left.

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People into serious fishing are more women who are either widowed who must eke out a living or they are single parents who have nobody to cater for them. They have no choice; they work hard in increasingly dangerous terrain, just to earn a miserly and miserable living.

Fishing these days is no longer “when you come, you have a big basin of fish and you have nobody to buy.” This time when you toil the whole day depending on the type of fishing you do, you could go and return with nothing. Week after week, nothing. In the past it wasn’t so.

Majorly, this is environmental degradation and its outcomes over time. This is not from the people but from public policies that smell more like policy somersaults. Because they’ll build dams and so on without a proper environmental impact assessment; without proper environmental audit and effective necessary corrections, even after many decades of visible pains and privatization. The government that should do this does not and when you write it out, they’ll buy the newspaper or they’ll shell them. I don’t think they read them, so the government is not interested, and neither are the politicians.

There is a serious issue with environmental abuse that’s why the freshwater fishery is underperforming. The new entrants who have come from outside the region will bring fish and there’s a net capital flight because when they sell the fish they take the money outside the state.What they have belongs to them in calculating the gross domestic product of Bayelsa State. I don’t think they are included as they don’t have any account of anything. They don’t pay taxes, they don’t add to the economy, they only take from it.

If you go down to the sea shores, the vast ocean is virtually the same thing. It’s oil spillage, one thing or the other. Recently, they were picking up dead or dying fishes all along the coast of Bayelsa State and NOSDRA that’s supposed to respond to such an emergency came and till today they’ve not told us what happened; fishes were dying.

Even when the fishing is good, the other thing people don’t know is that in the case of the ocean you see people ( poachers). I am sorry to mention countries but there are a lot of what appear to be Japanese and Chinese vessels that come to fish in our waters. There are others too who fish in our waters, because the vessels don’t fly the Nigerian flag. They catch a lot of fish which they take to Lagos to deliver as imported. We take them over as imports so we do not always import fishes from outside most of the time, we are “importing” our own fish from within our territory!

Again, this is abuse, the people who supply the real fish for people to eat don’t go fishing on trawlers, they fish in canoes and specially designed local/ Ghanaian surf boats, vessels that go out to sea but they are artisanal. These people fish at the edge of the continental shelf, and at the edge of the continental shelf, not only is the water too deep for trawlers to work their nets, it is also rocky and uneven at the bottom so that it is not good for trawlers. So these people go and they use long lines ( the hooks on short lines tied to very long lines, I mean, kilometers of lines) but today they have a problem, because there are pirates at sea.

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Serious pirates at sea and they take their engines. Imagine you are 17km away from the land, and they take your engines. How do you return? You are left at the mercy of the ocean depending on the direction the wind blows. If you are lucky, it takes you to Gabon or just anywhere if the boat doesn’t capsize and you drown. Then if you have your way to return, then you return. That is if you don’t meet cannibals and human parts harvesters that may feast on you or cut you up for sale! Because of these, a lot of people are now afraid to go fishing.

The International Laws of the Sea allows certain areas to coastal nations as exclusive economic zones. For Nigeria, it’s all the body of water from its coastline up to the 200 KM mark into the sea. Even these trawlers are barred from trawling in the water space between the 2km mark or so from the shoreline but they trowel round sometimes even up to 10 km of sea shores.

PT: Since the trawlers go beyond the expected points, what kind of laws should be in place to checkmate the activities of fishing companies that use trowlers ?

Alagoa: There are laws that restrict them, laws that even restrict the size of fishes. They are all regulated but nobody cares about them, they don’t matter to these fishermen. Trawlers are not supposed to exceed two meters from the shores, but as we speak they exceed beyond that point. Where they are supposed to go they don’t, because they are afraid of rocks. So the people who go there are not very safe again because piracy, I will not be surprised if these trolling companies are organising the pirates to protect their own business. Ordinarily artisanal fishermen who used to fish along the line also off the coast cannot go because the trawlers will destroy their gear and sometimes kill them, so they are afraid.

People are not recruited into the fisheries everyday like before, because you are not sure of even one catch. If you are unlucky, the first day you go is the day the pirates pick you up.

PT: Having listed the problems, what solutions can be used to remedy them?

Alagoa: In this part of the country, there is a disconnect between the government and the governed. Governance is a social contract between the people and government but it is not the same now. When people are elected, they consider themselves the lucky brightest so they feel they know more than everybody so they don’t consult with their people. Representation like the name is to be there to represent the people. How do you represent a client who does not brief you?

They don’t come home for briefing, either at the National Assembly or State house of Assembly. Sometimes, they do things directly opposite the way it is done, because there is no consultation. Sometimes the people they think are not knowledgeable, like the fishermen, will give you the problems and solutions at the same time. They can offer solutions you have never thought of. This is a place where the government cannot hear the governed so things have fallen apart, that’s the crux of the matter. Our people should be conferencing.

PT: If the sector is well handled, and the resources are harnessed, do you think Nigeria has what it takes to compete globally in the fish industry?

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Alagoa: When you say global competition, there is also what is called specialization and then there are advantages conferred on nations and people because of their environment. We cannot compare with European countries, where they grow wheat. The truth is that with fisheries in the ocean we can get all the fish we require for this country to eat without importing fish. That is great and also competing globally, because if we have all we need we don’t have to import fish.

So if something reasonable is done, yes we can compete effectively. Competition in this case means we have all we need not that we will outgrow anyone. If 200 million people don’t need fish anywhere, that is powerful and it is doable. But our waters are not as fertile as they used to be.

PT: There were some government projects like FADAMA, ADP and all. Do you think these projects or policies failed considering their impacts on the fish industry?

Alagoa: Well, the FADAMA trainees are more into cultivating than fishing. Aside from the training, what else did they do? First you have to know whether they are willing to learn before you give allowances. Anybody will want to go for the training for the sake of free lunch and a small stipend at the end of the day if there is a small package they are given, they will sell it.

They did not prepare their minds to become fishermen, they have no reasons to become fishermen who they know or have been told without proof that fishermen are poor men. The training is questionable. What is lacking again is proper facilitation. Who supervises them from day to day?

Just like the Igbo apprenticeship system where the young boy comes to learn, the master supervises him for years before he is allowed to start his own but the NDDC or FADAMA comes here and gives them three days training, they don’t calculate money for value. Aside from the training, give the fishermen examples on how it is done in the other counties. What benefits their colleagues are getting from other parts of the world, then discuss with them. If they provide a market for these fishermen and they ( fishermen) see this money, then they will be there. The training is not complete without enterprise.

PT: For Bayelsa State, in the area of fishing, between 1999 till date, do you think the government has performed?

Alagoa: They have not performed. Before now the state government or the civil service was like an inspectorate. They oversee what is happening to make sure the fishery is in good health. They train people in extension, the right way of exploiting fish or growing fish. But you see, there was a School of Agriculture by someone from this state way back in the 1970s.

Now, it doesn’t train anyone, not even the middle men. I was opportune to teach some folks then, SUVs were imported for the extension workers then to go into rural communities. Now we don’t even have bicycles.

The Ministry of Agriculture in Bayelsa has continually lost out. Some of the students I taught have retired as Permanent Secretaries and there has been no School of Agriculture, don’t you think there is a vacuum? Nobody is complaining, because nobody knows what to ask for. Is there anything wrong with building a school of Agriculture or an Agricultural experiment station? So people with degrees can come back for training and retraining?

Credit: Premium Times

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