Nigeria’s neglected fishing industry, and the men feeding millions with crude tools

Nigeria’s neglected fishing industry, and the men feeding millions with crude tools

When Inibe Alupe graduated from Niger Delta University in 2008, he looked forward to a job in an office after undergoing the one-year compulsory national youth service.

Over 12 years after, Mr Alupe still has no white-collar job. He has since returned to his native Ogbia in Bayelsa State, a riverine community, to do what knew how to do while growing up: fishing.

“I left school in 2008 and served Nigeria, but since then I have no reasonable source of income,” he told PREMIUM TIMES.

An increasing number of young educated Nigerians are taking up fish farming, mainly as a result of lack of white or blue-collar jobs, and their presence is an indicator of the sector’s potential to attract skilled manpower capable of driving growth in the industry.

So far, that is where the good news ends. For a country with vast inland water bodies and coastline measuring over 800 km, Nigeria’s fishing industry is significantly underperforming.

Nigeria’s household fish consumption stood at 13.3 kg/capita/year, significantly lower than the world’s average of 20.3 kg/capita/year, according to the United Nation’s food agency, FAO.

Beyond the problem of poverty that stops many from affording needed sea food, the country suffers a major fish supply-demand gap problem.

A 2016 National Bureau of Statistics report estimated Nigeria’s annual fish demand at 3.32 million metric tonnes, with local production at 1.12 million metric tonnes. That year, Nigeria spent N125 billion (US$625 million) on fish imports.

Infographics showing fish production in Nigeria
Why sector underperforms

A key reason for Nigeria’s inability to turn around the fishing industry is that the sector has been neglected by the government for decades, leaving the sector and its operators without necessary policies, tools, credit and skills.

About 80 per cent of locally produced fish come from small-scale operations, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization, FAO.

There are other factors like environmental pollution that destroys fish stocks and reduces the catch, and theft by foreign fishing syndicates.

“In this part of the country, there is a disconnect between the government and the governed,” said Nalaguo Alagoa, a former lecturer in the Department of Fisheries Science and Allied Aquacultures at the Rivers State University of Science and Technology.

“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 be delivered as imported. We take them over as imports so we do not always import fish from outside most of the time, we are ‘importing’ our own fish from within our territory!” he said.

Old-fashioned, ineffective

Most of Nigeria’s fish production occurs in the coastal states in the south where people fish from natural water bodies — creeks, mangroves, lakes, ponds, rivers, and rivulets.

But the obsolete methods of these workers show the limitations that have affected growth in the sector.

In Bayelsa and Rivers State, for instance, most farmers still use nets, hooks and hand-powered canoes, and other tools considered outdated and ineffective. This leaves them struggling to increase the catch.

Farmers who spoke to PREMIUM TIMES said they struggled to buy big fishing nets that cost between as low as N30,000 and as high as N200,000, needed to increase the catch.

To catch a fish worth N6,000, a fisherman using a net has to spend a night on the water, they said.

“Our nets are not strong enough to catch big fishes. When fishing, we go in pairs because we need one person to paddle the canoe and the other person to throw the net,” said Mr Alupe.

Sinebe Ogbara, another fisherman in Famgbe in Yenagoa LGA of Bayelsa State, said since members of their local fishermen association cannot afford modern fishing equipment, they go fishing in turns to allow each member a fair catch.

Another fisherman, Station Winfred, said most fishermen lack modern fishing skills and credit support, hence their operations are at the subsistence level.

Picture of Famgbe fishermen

Some operators manage to raise their operations through personal efforts, but still don’t receive government support.

Emmanuel Akarasei, 71, belongs to God’s Time Fish Farmers Cooperatives but said he has not benefited from the Bayelsa State Government support programmes even though the group is officially registered.

He bought his own speed boat engine in October 2020 when he could no longer cope with the stress of paddling a canoe. The engine cost N120, 000 and it took Mr Emmanuel two years to save up the money.

Mr Akarasei’s picture with his engine

Akro Iniessien has been fishing for 69 years in Oloibiri, the oil-rich community where oil prospecting began in Nigeria. She single-handedly built her fishing business. She said she has never benefited from the Third National Fadama Development Project or the Bayelsa State Agricultural Development Programme.

These two schemes are funded by the Bayelsa State Government and Federal Government in collaboration with the World Bank.

Ms Iniessien’s picture

“They came here, they made inquiries and made promises to us but nothing happened,” she said. The great-grandmother started fishing at the age of six in Oloibiri with her mother.

Emma Atamuno, a native of Rivers State, said members of the group of fishermen he belongs to aspire to practice industrial fishing but are constrained by the use of canoes and hooks.

According to him, the association of about 50 fishermen employs young men from the community and neighbouring areas. The younger members practise while the older ones supervise and provide technical support and advice.

Mr Atamuno’s picture

The group is yet to get any meaningful support from the Rivers State Government, he said.

Asked if he pays taxes, he said no. “They have failed. They have a conscience so they cannot come here and demand tax, they are not justified.

“See that building there (pointing in the direction of a faraway building), that is where the ADP people stay. We no dey see them sef, we no fit carry our problems to go there. Maybe na like once in a year dem dey come,” he said in Pidgin English.

Agbere is a community in Sagbama Local Government Area of Bayelsa State. On arrival at the waterfront, our reporter met Jonathan Hamo, a fisherman for many years. Mr Hamo told PREMIUM TIMES that he only received support from the government once in 2006.

Mr Hamo’s picture

The support came in the form of a fibre canoe, a speed boat, and assorted fishing nets from the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC). Fifteen years later, the fibre boat is grounded but the speed boat is still functioning. Mr Hamo said no government official had inspected any of the fishing tools for over 14 years now.

Picture of Mr Hamo’s boat

Aside from the NDDC, Mr Hamo is a beneficiary of the Fadama 3 Project and said he has attended many training programmes on fish production and the value chain.

“I benefited from the Fadama 3 Project, and the NDDC Programme. The NDDC gave me these items some 15 years ago, but they only came for inspection twice and that was all. I have not seen them since that administration left,” he said.

When officials of the Fadama 3 Project visited Agbere and other communities in Sagbama LGA for a training exercise, they shared N1,000 as stipend to farmers who attended. Farmers like Mr Akarasei got no further incentives after the training.

Before the training, each of them had paid N3,000 in the expectation of receiving materials that would aid their fishing activities. But they all left disappointed.

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In Rivers State, the Vice Chairman of Fishermen Association in Idanga-ama, Emma Atamuno, said the group wrote letters to the state government and River Basin Development Authority for support. The State Ministry of Agriculture later sent them forms to fill in 2019 but nothing came from it.

The head office of NDDC is in Idanga-ama but that has not made its officials notice the fish farmers, Mr Atanumo said.

Oil spillage and illegal

Oil pollution has also affected fishing in the Niger Delta. Besides destroying aquatic lives, oil pollution also makes fishing boats and nets to age faster, locals said.

Innocent Birah, a fisherman in Rivers State, was making a new net when PREMIUM TIMES arrived at his home in Port Harcourt. Mr Birah has been a fisherman for 24 years but has been struggling with water pollution. His fishing nets usually lasted for four years but oil in the water now damages the nets within a few months, he said.

Innocent’s picture making net

Mr Birah, like others, said he was tired of unfulfilled promises from the government on the issue of pollution or providing an alternative for the fishermen.

“The oil in water is a major problem. The water makes the fishes run, even the ones we catch are almost losing their taste. The oil changes the colour of the nets from white to black and reduces the lifespan of the net,’’ he said.

The spokesperson for the FADAMA project in Rivers State, Friday Obiarije, explained why its programme does not support artisanal fishermen. He said the reason is to discourage the traditional farming system.

Mr Obiarije said the project encourages fish farmers to form associations to benefit from its programmes, under which fish farming tools were distributed to farmers in Rivers State. The programme wants farmers to quit artisanal fishing and begin fish farming, he stressed.

“If they leave the waters, they can start fish ponds, and even grow what we need. What we are doing is to take their attention from that system of fishing which is not profitable,” he said.

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