tim Effiong had just returned home after hours of toil at sea with little catch. Experts would describe him as one of the numerous victims of climate change.
The fisherman operates at the Museum Fishing Port behind the dilapidated National Museum in Oron, Oron Local Government Area of Akwa Ibom State.
He said his recent experience is the worst in his over 20 years of fishing.
Mr Effiong is one of the many artisanal fishermen in Akwa Ibom coastal communities whose livelihood is threatened as fishing expeditions become less productive. PREMIUM TIMES learnt that the situation worsened in recent months due to temperature changes.
Fishing communities in Ibeno and Eastern Obolo local government areas of the state have noticed fewer fish in the waters. They blame the situation on climate change and gas flaring by international oil companies (IOCs).
Artisanal fishing, the use of traditional or small-scale fishing gears (traps, traps, etc.) and motorised or non-motorised vessels (dugout boats and canoes) for fishing in the seas and oceans, is the main source of income for households in the communities. However, catches have declined in recent years as temperature changes and global warming affect fish populations.
In mid-July, when PREMIUM TIMES visited the Museum fishing port in Esuk Abanda – the largest fishing port in the area – and Esin Ufot (a small market square around Esuk Abanda), hundreds of buyers, mainly women, were waiting for fishermen to return from the ocean. But the mood changed to frustration when the boats arrived with poor catch.
As a result, the price of fish shot up threefold. A fish size that sold for N1,000 was sold for N3,500 at the market on that day.
The fishermen attributed the poor catch to a rise in sea level. But they also cited the activities of militants (sea pirates), who they said had snatched over 100 outboard engines from them. According to multiple accounts, outlaws routinely kidnap or kill fishermen at sea.
Scientists and the Nigerian Meteorological Agency have long warned that rising sea levels lead to more erosion and high tide flooding – particularly during extreme coastal storms.
In Emereoke, an oil-rich but poverty-stricken fishing community in Eastern Obolo, the wreckage of homes washed away by ocean expansion is glaring evidence of the devastating effect of climate change on the coastal community.
Climate change impact
Experts say the primary cause of climate change in freshwater ecosystems is global warming. According to the Federal Ministry of Agriculture, gas flaring in the Niger Delta could be responsible for the increase in temperature and the associated global warming in Nigeria’s freshwater ecosystems.
Scientists warn that oceans are warming fast, the sea is rising, and storms are becoming more torrential. Similarly, increased heat could pose a grave threat to the fish population the world depends on by the end of this century if climate change continues unchecked.
The low-lying nature of its about 800km coastline makes Nigeria more vulnerable to climate change. The effect of climatic changes on fish and their habitat affect the fisheries in the context of production, species, markets, environment and management arrangement, studies have shown.
In most communities visited by this newspaper, it was observed that fishing hours vary. For instance, the first set of fishermen in Oron returned at sunrise, while the second batch returned in droves around 2 p.m. But this was not the case in Ibeno, where fishermen in the area returned from the ocean between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m.
Meanwhile, in Eastern Obolo, fishermen were seen fishing at all times.
Asked how climate change has affected the over 1,000 fishermen in Oron, a 25-year-old fisherman, Innocent Bassey, said ocean surge, waves and militants’ activities are their most challenging issues.
“There are no fish now. It is raining now so all the fish would go down because the sea is big. Some of us lost everything. Water storms destroy our boats and nets because there are many waves.
“The waves sometimes cause accidents. Some people died because when the waves are too much, the boat would just capsize; some would manage to swim out while others may not make it,” he said.
Mr Bassey’s explanation was corroborated by Leo Mbakara, a fisherman at Utit Ndak fishing port in Mkpanak in Ibeno LGA, and Ezekiel Ezekiel, a fisherman in Emereoke Kingdom, Eastern Obolo LGA. They added that gas flaring, a leading cause of global warming, also contributed to the migration of fish to the ocean.
A climate activist and assistant thematic lead at Climate and Sustainable Development Network of Nigeria, Ediongseyene Ndunobong, said like humans, when the climate is not favourable, fishes would migrate to where they are more comfortable.
“Another issue that affects them is oil exploitation. It affects the mangrove which is the breeding ground for fish and other aquatic creatures. With the pollution going on there the fish are migrating and most of them do not have the space to breed,” he said.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that ocean warming has contributed significantly to an overall decrease in maximum (fish) catch potential, and the condition has worsened due to “overfishing.”
According to IPCC, fishing and fisheries will be impacted if there is a rise in temperature between 1.5 to 2°C. Any increase in temperature above the tolerance limit in their habitat will surely have serious negative effects on fish physiology, especially in the supply of oxygen to their tissues.
Nsidibe Isemin, a hydrobiologist and lecturer at the Federal University of Agriculture, Makurdi, Benue State, said when fishes cannot withstand certain temperatures, particularly when it rises above the optimum they require for growth and development, they migrate to convenient temperatures.
“When the temperature is higher than that, some fishes would tend to go down deep to where they can have cold water,” he said.
For the rise in sea level, Mr Isemin said, “Below the seafloor of an ocean and seas, there are icebergs. When the temperature becomes unusually high, the seafloor begins to melt and discharge the water into the sea volume, so at point, water that was small will spread into the beach and coastal homes in the fishing communities.”
Explaining further, Mr Isemin likened the mechanism to putting a small amount of ice in a cup, which later melted and filled the cup and sometimes ran over.
A study published by Science Journal shows there are future challenges with fish and those that rely on it for livelihood if the climate crisis continues unchecked as over 60 per cent of fish species will be struggling to reproduce in their current habitat by the year 2100.
Local fishermen and community dwellers in the three LGAs visited by PREMIUM TIMES identified Ekpai (local name), whose scientific name is Ethmalosa fimbreata, as a fish species that is gradually heading to extinction due to temperature variables.
Mr Ndunobong, an aquaculturist, said climate change has also taken a toll on periwinkle. The seafood is costlier now than at any other time as a result of scarcity.
“In Akwa Ibom, we are not supposed to buy crayfish at the price we are buying now. But because of climate change, basically caused by anthropogenic activities like oil exploration, most of the commons are not readily available. That is why the price is high.
“But this year there is an unusual prevalence of catfish even after its season, so you don’t know where they migrated from so that we have such a harvest. It has never been like this for the past three years. You don’t know where there might be some instigators that have to push them ashore for fishers to harvest them,” he said.
While fish migrate to comfortable water zones in response to climatic impact, the artisanal fishermen take long trips going after the fish and, in the process, lose more in terms of fuel, nets and canoes to ocean currents.
Local fishermen also complained that their fishing business is further hampered by insecurity at the ocean, which exposes them to pirates.
Odiko Macdon, the police spokesperson in the state, did not respond to requests for comment on protection for the fishermen.
But at Esuk Abanda in Oron, officials of the Nigerian Immigration Service and Nigerian Customs Service in gunboats were seen conducting checks on passengers in suspected boats due to the proximity of the area to the Republic of Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea.
However, residents said the two federal agencies do not provide security far away from the seashore where most fishing is done, leaving them vulnerable to pirates.
Impact of petroleum on fishing
The fish species prevalent in Oron, in local names. include Akwe, Oniok, Inagha (cat fish), and Akpan ata.
When PREMIUM TIMES visited Uwuochang and Mkpanak fishing ports in Ibeno, fishermen had left for the ocean, leaving a few rickety boats ashore.
A few metres away from the fishing ports, the intense heat of burning gas could be felt from an Oil Flow Station owned by Mobil Producing Nigeria. Some fishermen who spoke to PREMIUM TIMES said they found crude oil on the sea while fishing, which they blamed for the gradual decrease in fishes.
In this area, fishermen mainly target greyish. They sail their boats in the morning, several kilometres into the Atlantic Ocean, close to Cameroon, and often return in the evening.
Leaders of communities that operate the Uwuochang fishing port complained of a lack of fish due to high waves, temperature changes and high cost of fuel, adding that they spent about N180,000 daily on fuel.
Artisanal fisheries contribute about 30 per cent of the gross domestic product of developing countries, with about five per cent of the population depending wholly or partly on the fisheries sector for their livelihood. Artisanal fishermen dominate fish production in Nigeria, contributing about 85 per cent.
Besides being a leading oil producer in the county, Akwa Ibom is also a major fish producer.
Artisanal fishery contributes about 95 per cent of the state’s total fish output, with about 11 local government areas involved in artisanal fisheries.
Ini Akpabio, a professor of Agricultural Economics and Extension at the University of Uyo, said the fisheries industry in the state is dominated by non-indigenes, describing it as a “master-servant relationship.”
“Each time they harvest, the bulk belongs to outsiders. That is why you may get cheaper fish in Aba than in Ibeno. We thought that the government would empower indigenes even in cooperatives to get trawlers so that they can own the fishing equipment,” he said, adding that indigenes only operate in lower water.
“There are also plenty of fish near the Mobil Platform but they don’t go near there because the security would shoot at them. You know all the food workers eat on Platform and waste some of it so fish around there are very healthy on offshore platforms but local people cannot go there due to security,” Mr Akpabio said.
Grace Leo, a businesswoman at the Utit Ndak fishing port, located opposite the operational base of Mobil Producing Nigeria, in Mkpanak, Ibeno, told PREMIUM TIMES that they provide boats and diesel for the fishermen to work and make returns.
“What we do is that we buy boats, give them money for fuel from Monday to Saturday. On Sunday, where there’s no fishing we count the number of basins they have caught within the week, bargain the price, take our fuel money – the remainder is their gain,” she said.
In the Eastern Obolo Local Government Area, residents said they face an uncertain future as homes and buildings continue to collapse into the ocean amid torrential water currents.
PREMIUM TIMES learnt that no fishing activities took place in Iko, Okoroette and Emereoke fishing ports near the Atlantic Ocean a week before the visit to the community in July, due to storms and ocean surges.
Besides the impact on fish, ocean expansion has taken a toll on Emereoke Kingdom as some houses were seen crumbling, despite the presence of oil flow stations belonging to five IOCs.
The journey to Emereoke was a nightmare. After arriving at Iko fishing port on a motorcycle from Ikot Akpaden, home of Akwa Ibom State University, a canoe ferried this reporter across a river bounded by Sterling Global, an oil company operating in the area, with additional transport hassles.
The youth leader of the community, Ephraim Ngofah, said the five IOCs are operating both offshore and onshore in the community. At the coastline, yellowish gas was seen burning from different oil flow stations inside the Atlantic Ocean which bordered the community.
Mr Ngofah identified the IOCs as “Exxon Mobil OML 70, Amni International Development Company OML 112, Total FINA ELF, NPDC/NOSL-Sterling OML13, and Sterling Petrochemical and Fertilizer Limited.”
Mr Ngofah believes the oil exploration in the area contributes largely to the climatic changes being witnessed.
“The community had an intervention through the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) in 2019 when we experienced a very serious flooding. However, NEMA only gave relief materials but failed to address the main challenge of the people, which the community leaders said is “Shore protection”.
“Emereoke kingdom is badly affected by perennial flooding as a result of coastal erosion. I think for the past 20 years, over 1,000 houses have been brought down because of flooding. As a matter of fact, we are calling on the federal and state governments to urgently intervene in this coastal flooding that is ravaging this community.
“The flooding has caused a lot of harm. It has caused some persons to relocate to IDP camps of which we don’t know what would happen after now.
“We are the host community to all these oil companies that I have mentioned but none of them have ever come to our aid. In this community, we don’t have anything that we can boast of as the community that produces the largest oil in Akwa Ibom State both onshore and offshore,” he said.
He also spoke on the impact on fish production, “I think everybody knows that because of climate change and the rise in the sea level it affects fishing badly. Because the water current has increased and there’s always an ocean rise, turbulent tide and this affects fishing operations.”
On the loss recorded by the fishermen to climate change impact, Mr Ngofeh said, “During dry season we got enough to fish but currently, we lose over N3 million daily. The climate change effect has persisted in the community for over a decade,” he said.
The community leaders called on corporate organisations and governments to construct shoreline protection for the community to protect them from being washed away by ocean expansion.
When contacted, the state Commissioner for Lands, Iniobong Ekong, promised to investigate the matter and act accordingly.
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