By Ekemini Simon
Akwa Ibom State is among the top States blessed with far-reaching water bodies. The State is blessed with both fresh and salt water. In fact, this State is at the base of the Atlantic with well-defined coastline. Christened the Promise Land, Akwa Ibom State is home to foraging and nestling for several species of fish. With its incredibly blessed marine bodies, Akwa Ibom State contributes tremendously in preserving Nigeria as the largest producer of fish in Africa.
That Akwa Ibom State is known to be the home of soup gives credence to the varieties of tasty fishes the State is blessed with. About all the seafoods consumed in this part of the world, you can find them in Akwa Ibom State. Oysters, periwinkle, crab, shrimp, just name them, you certainly will find them here.
Yet, these blessings may not continue to flow as many fishes are dying in their numbers and quiet a number are no longer caught in the fishing nets of the locals. A reference point on the tragedy facing fishermen in the State is when many dead fishes were spotted on the seashores of Eastern Obolo last year. However, the actual cause of this phenomenon is not yet found till date.
In response to this, and many other challenges facing fishermen and the fishing industry, a Non -Government Organisation, Health of Mother Earth Foundation organised a one-day training for fishermen in Uta Ewa, Ikot Abasi local government area. This gathering afforded fishermen the opportunity to give insight into their travails and what they think should be done to address their problems. In the engagement, several problems were identified.
Oil and Gas Exploration-a Curse
At the venue of the engagement, the inscription ” Fish not Oil” was conspicuous. Although at first glance, it may appear unwise that a people would prefer fish and reject oil that has given billions of dollars to the State, one will need to hear the story of these fishermen to understand the reason behind their stance.
The principal threat to marine freshwater ecosystems is the extractive activities taking place in this area. Proliferation of oil fields and consequent oil spills have become a menace for fishermen.
According to Chairman, Fishing Association of Nigeria, Ikot Abasi Chapter, Hon Godwin King, fishermen in Ikot Abasi have been so negatively impacted by the operations of five oil fields that operate within the area that they wish oil was never discovered in their waters.
He mentioned Amanamkpono field said to be a cluster field for ExxonMobil and Total E and P, Amni Oil and Gas field, Afren Oil, Okpo field operated by Total E and P and the new Sterling Global Oil Resources.
Segun Omoboye, a fisherman in the area said these oil companies have taken over the locations they hitherto experience high fishing yield. He explains “We fishermen have fishing grounds where one can find fishes. You will rarely see good fishes at locations where the soil beneath is sandy rather you will see fishes at muddy locations. Unfortunately for us, such locations are where oil companies site their fields.
” We now have proliferation of oil platform in our waters. They are everywhere here. As a result of that, they keep massive radius that we are not allowed to go near. Yet, the fishes are found within that radius because of the mud.”
Omoboye said anytime they go a fishing within the area, they are harassed by security personnel with gunboats hence they are left with a Hobson’s choice but to toil in unfruitful areas.
This plight is corroborated by Innocent Jesse who said security operatives at the sea give no second thought on shooting at them if they are found fishing within the mapped area of oil field.
Sadly, this has limited the fishermen in no little measure on where they could operate from. “Since many new oil platforms are now everywhere in our waters and the oil companies are taking over our fishing settlements, we still try to get to these restricted areas to fish. We can’t go hungry. But it is a risky try,” Jesse notes.
Unfortunately, this risk sometimes cost them their lives. Narrating a recent close shave, he recalls ” Just last week, gunboat belonging to the Nigerian Navy came and hit our boat. We capsized, our fishing boat sank and we lost the boat. If not that another boat came to our rescue, our lives would have been lost. Many are usually not as lucky as we were”.
Besides that, the oil facilities beneath the water are very dangerous to their fishing equipment. “Sometimes when we throw our nets, they hang on the pipes and some irons and our net would tear. The nets are very costly and when that happens, it is a big loss to us”, says Wille Ndah.
What is more, fishermen say oil spill have grossly polluted their water bodies to the extent that many species of fish are now extinct within their waters.
Hannah Ola who started fishing in Ikot Abasi waters in year 2000 recalls ” We use to catch a lot of fish and crayfish those days even without going into the deep waters. Sadly, when we began experiencing incessant oil spill, we no longer catch that way. Sometimes, we toil for days without anything and this will put us in much debt because of the boat and equipment we rented.”
For Ruth Nta, the polluted water is no longer a haven for migrating fishes. She said ” There were times whale would come frequently into our waters. Whale usually come with other species of fish. For long years now, we have not seen it. Besides, this used to be a territory for sardine and mudskippers. But we have now lost them.”
The Marauding Trawlers
Fishing trawlers which are designed to operate in high sea are not contended with their catch within their designated area of operations. They now invade the shallow waters where petty fishermen operate. When these poor fishermen complain, they are threatened with guns.
” There are laws in the fishing business. Trawlers should operate in high sea. But they have gradually invaded the shallow waters. The nets attached to trawlers take everything in the sea. This has seriously affected our catch. When you complain, the security personnel in the trawler will threatened to shoot you with their gun. We have petitioned the government yet no response”, Segun Omoboye narrates.
The Invading Nipa Palm
Nipa palm, a plant species in the mangroves although appears ornamental on the seashores, they are taking over the mangroves and invading the waterways. Fishermen say fishes find their food and also breed their eggs mostly in mangroves. Nipa palm is not a safe haven for fishes.
Yet, the invasion of nipa palm does more harm. ” Because of its needle-like nature and how it grows, you can’t even get into where it grows to fish. It is the mangroves that we can find periwinkle. Now, the nipa palm has invaded the area which has made periwinkle to become a scarce commodity”, says Clement Bassey, a fisherman in the area.
An Environmental Justice Advocate, Nnimmo Bassey recalls that nipa palm was introduced in the Niger Delta coastline by a European in 1906 to beautify the shoreline. Nevertheless, its introduction has done more harm than good.
“The nipa palm is extremely invasive. It has replaced the mangroves. The mangroves hold the soil. This palm does not provide that service. It should be harvested and used for biofuel or furniture and then mangroves seedlings should be planted. When the mangroves grow, it sends a signal that the soil is cleaner” Bassey recommends.
Time to Protect our Water Bodies – HOMEF
Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF) says it is time for the authorities to be more interested in protecting her water bodies else the country may be thrown into a state of food insecurity in the near future.
Already, the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Alhaji Sabo Nanono, says that the total fish production in Nigeria is about 1.123million metric tonnes while the annual consumption is about 3.6million metric tonnes. He raises alarm that Nigeria currently records a 2.5million metric tonnes of fish deficit.
Nnimmo Bassey, Director of HOMEF noted ” When we talk about food insecurity, we always think about the tubers. People always talk about what the herders are doing and forget about fishermen and women who sell the fish.
“If our fish collapse, it will mean significant loss of nutrition. It is from fish, crayfish among others that most of our people have animal protein. So, it is extremely important that we protect our water bodies whether they are streams, rivers, creeks or the ocean”.
Bassey expressed dismay over what he described as massive unregulated, unreported and illegal fishing taking place within the Akwa Ibom territorial waters from foreign fleets who he fingered as coming to steal fishes and sometimes selling the ones they do not want to local fishermen.
The HOMEF Director charged government to look at coastal security beyond the protection of oil facilities to protecting the water and its living resources from invading elements.
He added “We have over 7 million fishermen and women in Nigeria. That’s a big number. We should have more than that considering the population of the country’s growth.
“The oil companies employ just a few thousands of Nigerians. Most are casual labourers. They are not even full-time employees. If we throw fishermen out of business because we are protecting oil pipelines, let’s ask ourselves, who should be protected more?”
The HOMEF Intervention
In her contributions towards finding a lasting solution to challenges bedeviling fishermen in this domain, the Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF) besides listening to the plight of the fishermen, trained them on aquatic ecosystem monitoring, reporting, advocacy and community organising and networking.
Interestingly, Uta Ewa in Ikot Abasi has now been captured into the fishNet Alliance, a network of fishers engaged in and promoting sustainable fishing in line with ecosystem limits.
In Akwa Ibom State, the fishNet covers Mbo, Ibeno, and Ikot Ada Udo in Ikot Abasi LGA. With the inclusion of Uta Ewa in Ikot Abasi, they will join network of like minds from different coastal communities around the world that believe in solidarity, dignity and respect of the indigenous rights even as they stand to a chance to enjoy support in times of dare need.
It could be recalled that in August 2020, the Alliance provided fishnets and food items to the Ibeno fishers who suffered a fire outbreak that destroyed their homes and fishing gears.
Be that as it may, HOMEF cannot stand alone to change the sad narrative facing fishermen in Akwa Ibom State. Would their cry get the attention of State actors? The answer lies in the future.