Nigeria: Unravelling the Anambra River Fishery Quagmire

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When fishes become extinct

It was barely a week to Christmas; excitement was in the air and families were gearing up to participate in the festivity that comes with the Christmas season. Chukwudi Obidike, a 46-year-old male, who has been fishing in the Anambra River (located in Anambra State in South East Nigeria) since his youth, it was that time of the year to go fishing in the Anambra River. So when he set out with his partner, Chukwudi Obidike for another fishing expedition in the Anambra River he was hopeful of a good catch.

However, when his canoe came ashore that mid-December morning, Chukwudi Obidike could not hide his disappointment. His fishing exercise in the famous Anambra River was anything but eventful. When Obidike’s trembling fingers finally opened the lid for scrambling women fish marketers to inspect the stocks, it dawned on everybody that fishery resources in the Anambra River is on the decline. The pair had to show for their dusk-to-dawn fishing only a handful of small-size tilapia and cat fishes.

A few years ago, Obidike would have returned with a boat filled of fishes and buyers would pay handsomely for his catch after the traditional price-bargaining session. And he would smile home triumphantly in anticipation for another fishing round in the Anambra River. Obidike’s case is not isolated; scores of fishermen, who spent much of their days or nights fishing in the river share similar tales. “It’s now a battle against odds, survival based on endurance and perseverance”, Obidike told this reporter. “Everybody is struggling in this business now. Before we would catch plenty fishes if we work till dawn but it seems as if fishes have developed wings and disappeared into the thin air.”

Mike Anekwe, another fisherman who specialises in trap net further disclosed that the poor fish catch is increasingly taking its toll on the local fishing industry. “Everybody is now struggling to survive. From fishermen to fish sellers, this (poor fish catches) has affected our ability to take care of family needs. So, unless something miraculous happens to change the situation, the industry will soon collapse as most of us will stop fishing and look for something else to do,” Anekwe said.

Climate change impacting fishery resources

Anambra River which flows 210 kilometres (about 130 miles) into the Niger River is, arguably, one of the most exploited rivers in south eastern Nigeria. Scores of fishermen, using various fishing tools patrol the river daily or nightly in pursuit of their livelihood- fishing. Aside farming, fishing in the river is a predominant occupation of the people of the coastal Anambra West and East Local governments in Anambra State, Nigeria. Over the years, sales of fresh fishes caught from the river became a booming business in Otuocha, Onitsha and other markets within Anambra state.

Sadly, the situation has dramatically changed. Relentless exploitation of the Anambra River in recent times coupled with adverse effect of climate change has resulted in decline in the population of fish in the river and poor harvest of fishery resources.

“Climate change is gradually sending fishermen in this area out of business as they experience continuous low harvest. In the past years, this period used to be the best time for fishing but nowadays fishermen are complaining of ‘poor catch’ as fishes hide in the depth of the river due to the temperature of the water during the day,” lamented Nneli Cliff Ike, of the African Villages Hope Foundation, a Non-Governmental Organization, working for restoration and development of rural societies.

According to Mr. Nneli, the rising temperatures, dramatic changes in weather patterns and destruction of marine ecosystems have contributed significantly to depopulation of fishes in the natural rivers. “Those things like the encroachment of water Hyacinth, excessive heat and water recession are signs of climate change and its impacts on the lifecycle of fishes and other aquatic animals cannot be underestimated,” he stressed.

Mr. Raufus Imoka, Head of Agriculture Department, Anambra West Local Government shares similar view with Nneli. He blames the shortfall in fishery resources on the impacts of the 2012 flood. “In 2012, the Anambra river banks were over-flooded and most of the natural fish habitats submerged; majority of the fishery resources migrated elsewhere causing decline fishery resources in the Anambra River. The decline has continued with no respite in sight,” said Imoka.

Destructive Fishing practices

For his part, Ozoekwe Okafor, a Fishery, Crops and Animal Husbandry expert, however, blamed activities of fishermen for the crisis. According to him, while climate change remains a major factor in the depletion of fishery resources, destructive techniques employ by local fishermen also contributes significantly to decline in fishery resources. “Marine ecosystems and traditional coastal livelihoods are facing unprecedented pressures from overfishing. In countries like Nigeria, with limited capacity and infrastructure for fisheries management and conservation, natural water fishery and fishers are on the brink of extinction,” said Okafor.

Mr. Okafor, a former Head of Service, Anambra West Local Government, listed the use of small size nets, dynamites and chemicals for fishing as contributors to depletion of fishing population in the river. “The danger of small size net is that it harvests both the young and matured fishes thereby destroying the young generation that supposed to maintain the process of procreation. That is the reason it (small size nets) was banned globally, but it’s still being used in this part of the world,” Okafor noted.  “Dynamite and use of chemicals are equally as dangerous as small size nets because they do not discriminate between young and old fishes. They simply kill any fish within the radius of its target.”

Another dangerous fishing practice that also contributes to fish depopulation is the practice of trapping fishes travelling to lay eggs using cage, our investigations revealed. As part of the desperate bid to catch matured fishes, many fishermen in the area usually position their cages or nets on the water channel or strategic paths to trap fishes travelling to lay eggs during the rush period.

“The implication of killing these heavily pregnant fishes is that thousands of potential new fishes that ought to have been born are wiped out”, explained Mr. Okafor. “If they had positioned their traps to catch them (those fishes) after successfully laying the eggs, the damage would have been minimal.”

The Way forward:

Amidst growing frustration amongst local fishermen and fresh fish consumers over depleting fishery resources, stakeholders have begun to explore solutions for restoration. Some of the fishermen have resigned to fate , hoping for some divine intervention. “This problem is beyond us. So, we can either hope for God’s miracle to restore fishes in the rivers or government intervention”, said Mr. Anekwe looking skywards.

On the other hand, Okafor insists that any solution to the crisis must involve checkmating the destructive fishing techniques use by the local fishermen and investment in mechanized fish farming. He, however, emphasised that “it is very hard to checkmate these malpractices because of poor government regulatory and enlightenment efforts”.

“Fish pond is the only guarantee we have for steady supply of fresh fish in this part of the world for now as fishes in the natural waters have been decimated and it will take painstaking efforts and long process to restore them”, he adds.

For Mr. Raufus Imoka, the solution lies in fish farming and government is already taking the initiative seriously. “Anambra government is facilitating introduction of earth or artificial ponds in the area and encouraging more people to go into fish farming in other to significantly scale up quantity and quality of fresh fishes available for local consumption”, he disclosed.

By Olisemeka Sony

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