From Femi Folaranmi, Yenagoa
Fishermen are in trouble in Bayelsa State. The oil rich state with the largest coastline in West Africa has most of its people engaging in fishing.
It is an age-long occupation, which the forbearers started because of the proximity to the sea. It has been passed on from generations to generations. But now it is faced with the greatest threat ever.
Coordinator, Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), Revd Nimimo Bassey, drew attention to the activities of international fishing companies and the dangers they posed to the fishermen in Niger Delta region: “Fisher folks face complex problems.
“One is the pollution going on in the creeks, rivers, streams and continental shelf. The second major problem is the activities of international fishing companies who are actually not fishing but stealing.
“They are stealing aquatic resources off the coast of West Africa. The Gulf of Guinea is not properly secured. They steal the fishes not to feed humans but animals and therefore deplete the stock of fish in the region. ECOWAS and African Union must be concerned about this.
“Our resources must be protected whether onshore or offshore. Artisan fishing employs over 6.5 million Nigerians. We are destroying a major source of livelihood, a major source of employment of our people.”
The second leg of the trouble has to do with attacks on fishermen by operators of fishing trawlers especially coastal communities. Environmentalist, Morris Alagoa, listed affected communities to include Akassa, Sangana, Odioma, Okpoama all in Brass Local Government Area and Foropa, Ekeni and Ezetu in Southern Ijaw Local Government Area. The ugly trend prompted fishing communities to send a Save-Our-Soul (SOS) to the Federal and Bayelsa State Governments.
As far back as 2017, the Indigenous Fishermen Association (IFA), Okpoama, in a letter to the Environmental Rights Action and Friends of the Earth (ERA/FoEN), accused fishing trawlers of damaging their source of livelihood:
“For about two decades now, uncountable fishing trawlers operating between St Nicholas and Santa Barbara rivers have been disturbing and damaging our fishing materials. We have tried on several occasions to confront some of the fishing trawlers about the severe damages on our fishing materials but all our efforts have proved abortive. Some of the fishing trawlers equipped themselves with dangerous weapons and sometimes threatened us.
“The operators of these trawlers have refused to notice or even acknowledge when they are encroaching into our territorial waters. Constitutionally, fishing trawlers are supposed to be operating in the high sea and not shallow waters where local fishermen cast their net and other system of fishing.”
Alagoa disclosed: “Around 2016, 2017, 2018, we received distress calls from coastal communities like Odioma, Okpoama, Sangana, Foropa, Ekeni, Ezetu. The complaint was that trawlers were coming to the shore beyond what is allowed by the law.
“In that process whether day or night, they trawl along destroy fish nets and gears of fisher folks. Any attempt to ask questions about the destruction or protest, they are shot at from the trawlers. We also raised the alarm.
The media has been helpful and some of the publications have been made, we believe the authorities read them but nothing has been done till date. When it comes to protection of lives and property of our people, sometimes government turns a blind eye.
“We called on the state House of Assembly to act. ERA and CLO jointly sent a petition to the Speaker of the House of Representatives through Governor Douye Diri who was member representing Yenagoa/ Kolokuma/Opokuma in 2017. Even though it was not his constituency he moved a motion in the House of Representatives.
“We have been advocating for federal agencies like NIMASA to take action with regards to laws governing incursion into nautical miles outside the approved ones close to the shore. This is to allow the locals to also make ends meet. The trawlers should not come beyond approved limits. I think the federal authorities should look into this very seriously.
“Some of the trawlers come from Lagos, while others come from outside the country into our territory. This is where NIMASA and other security agencies should come in. Vessels cannot come into Nigeria without permit the same should apply to trawlers. We have to protect the local economy so that our people can also live a good life.”
Benjamin Ayibatonye from Sangana community said: “Actually our people are really suffering from the trawler operators. This is in the sense that, first of all, they come beyond where they are expected to be seen fishing.
“In times past, we used to see them only when we proceeded deeper into the sea. But these days, they come into areas they are never seen before, as if the kinds of fish they are looking for are now closer to the coastline.
“Each time they come, they destroy people. Not just fishing nets, sometimes our fishermen would be close by and would protest but the operators would shoot at them.”
The people claimed the activities of fishing trawlers have subjected them to unbearable hardship. Mr Raynus Ebiegberi, youth coordinator, Akassa Development Foundation (ADF): “According to federal laws, operations of fishing trawlers must be five nautical miles from the shorelines.
“Despite this instruction, trawlers remain adamant and seamlessly violate regulations. Apart from the illegal activities, they also carry small arms, which they use to cause havoc to helpless fishermen. Their drags and ghost gears destroy the fishing gears belonging to the near-shore fishers.
“The fear of being attacked by trawlers has frightened small fishermen. This has in turn resulted in low fishing activities, hunger and depletion of economic activities. Between June 2020 and March 2021, trawler operators like herdsmen shot two fishermen from Minibie for complaining over the damage of their gears.”
He said ADF discovered that trawlers perpetrating the damages come from outside the countries: “This should be a source of concern as it affects the territorial rights.
“This scenario has not been given the desired attention. I call on the authorities to take immediate action by prioritizing threat to human lives and formulating fishing regulations as there are currently no solution in sight.”