Towards a national maritime emergency
By Tonye Princewill
IN my previous article on trawler fishermen, I suggested alternative revenue sources for trawler owners. But, in the final analysis, it is fishing done properly that must sustain the industry.
Its collapse would mean the loss of many thousands of jobs, leave us totally dependent on foreign sources for fish protein and divert millions of naira annually from an already troubled economy.
I, therefore, implore Mr. President to take urgent action to salvage and revitalise the Nigerian fishing industry, particularly the industrial sector. Part of the reason why I believe successive governments have not got the job creation drive right is evidenced in this issue. Our boys in the creek remain idle yet foreigners are employing thousands from the products of our waters.
A trawler’s catches at sea ought to bring enough returns to offset operational costs, meet family obligations, repay loans, save for the future and build up working capital. If it was not profitable, ships from as far afield as Asia would not be coming to our waters to deplete our stocks. Think about it.
The prospects appear enticing. Fronting Nigeria’s 853 kilometre coastline is a territorial border lying 12 nautical miles, NM, into the Atlantic Ocean. Extending beyond this, is a 200 NM Exclusive Economic Zone, EEZ, with a vast expanse of continental shelf, most of which can be trawled.
Our waters are rich in commercial fish such as sardine, tuna, shrimp, croaker, red pandora, horse mackerel, jack, threadfin, scad, sword fish, marlin, barracuda, bonga, shad, drum and snapper.
Added to diverse marine resources, is Nigeria’s large population—a mouth-watering market. Indeed, Nigerians reportedly consume more than a million tonnes of fish annually, making this the biggest seafood market in West Africa.
These assets should serve as a powerful magnate for indigenous entrepreneurs. But Joseph Overo, President of the Nigerian Trowler Owners Association, NTOA, says only about 10 percent of our fish is supplied locally.
“Seventy percent is imported from Europe,” he explained in a telephone interview. “The remaining 30 percent comes from China, Mauritania, Ghana, Brazil, Gambia, U.S.A., Korea, Uruguay, etc.”
Margaret Orakwusi, former NTOA President, blames the 2001 tariff reduction from 25 percent to five percent, for the massive influx of foreign fish.
It is a sad irony indeed that much of the nation’s imported seafood, may actually have originated in our own EEZ as a result of fish poaching in Nigeria’s trawling reserve.
“Asians are the worst offenders,” Overo complains. “They come at night in big industrial ships with refrigerators and occasionally onboard factories. They raid Nigerian waters with impunity, carting off thousands of tonnes of fish, rapidly depleting our stock”. A cursory investigation can reveal not just the general facts but the names of the ships and their movement profiles. Isn’t anybody in authority watching?
Poaching and dwindling fish stocks are just the tip of the iceberg. The truth is our fishing industry is antiquated, undercapitalised and bereft of infrastructure.
“Nigerian vessels are undersized,” Overo allows. “We simply cannot compete with foreign ships. We don’t have the necessary storage, haulage, range, marketing capacity, capital or supporting infrastructure. We desperately need a central fishing terminal”.
The heyday of the Nigerian fishing industry was 1975 to 1980 when, under the Third National Development Plan, the Federal Government distributed fishing trawlers to viable cooperatives.
The industry has since been severely stunted. The average Nigerian fishing company operates less than four small to medium sized trawlers, only about 200 days out of the year. Companies with four or more vessels, Overo advises, are usually foreign partnerships. NTOA portrays the trawling industry as a leaky ship that is sinking fast. In the last seven years, its President notes operating vessels have shrunk from over 200 to less than 120. There were 30 deep sea fishing companies in 2004. Now there are less than 10.
Two intractable problems are torpedoing the trawler industry. One is the high cost of fuel. A trawler burns, on average, 60 metric tonnes of diesel per month, with fuel costs amounting to N10 million for a 45-day outing—a good 85 percent of overhead!
No wonder operators are appealing for a government subsidy! They also want the Petroleum Ministry to approve direct allocation of fuel from major marketers to trawler fishermen.
The other problem is high-jacking, robbery, kidnapping and murder on the water—“piracy” when it occurs outside territorial boundaries (the “high seas”). “There is no single day,” Orakwusi apprised The Nation, “that we do not suffer one attack at least”. Astoundingly, she alleges that ransom money for hostages is paid through two Nigerian banks which apparently are unable to trace the owners of the accounts.
The fishing industry is long overdue for relief: Both from its agonising security problems and myriad of other burdens which, together, could eventually sink it.
The Federal Government is thus implored to declare a national maritime emergency and follow-up with an emergency maritime symposium.
The symposium would provide a forum for maritime scholars, administrators, entrepreneurs, conservationists and other vested interests to explore ways of reviving this strategic sector. A Marine Revival Commission for planning and prompt execution could then follow. Similar exercises have been ongoing in other West African countries. Surprisingly there is currently a collaboration between them and the World Bank with Nigeria conspicuously absent. Why?
Hopefully, the Third National Development Plan will serve as inspiration with the end result being cooperative enterprises, a dynamic fishing fleet and a massive infusion of capital into the sector.
I close with this advice to trawler owners in Rivers State who, according to Overo, haven’t yet formalised a chapter of NTOA:
Arise, my Brothers and Sisters. Join the fight for a better fishing future. If you aren’t organised, do so immediately. As for me, I do not need to tell you, you can count on my support. If not for fishermen, I and many other Nigerians who are even more prominent than me, would not be here.
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