The image is a strikingly ironic symbol of the state of Nigerian fishing in general. The country enjoys more than 850 km of coastline, besides an enviable number of well-stocked rivers, inland lakes, lagoons and creeks. The topography, soil composition and rainfall patterns in this portion of sub-Saharan Africa support an abundance of aquatic life across freshwater, brackish and saltwater ecosystems. However, tilapias, catfish, carp and other freshwater species make up 80% of all cultivation in Nigeria, with commercial maritime trawling and deep-sea fishing remaining relatively under-exploited operations. Though credible data on the sector is extremely limited, media reports indicate the fishing business contributed $60 million to the national economy in 2008, or roughly 4% of total agricultural output. The sector currently accounts for 40% of the country’s total animal protein intake and offers employment and livelihood to more than 3 million people, although its contribution to the economy is minimal.
Estimated annual fish cultivation was pegged at 120,000 tonnes in the 1960s. The figure had halved by the beginning of the next decade and continues to fall; current domestic production hovering around just 400,000 tonnes. The sudden change in fortune came about with the oil boom of the 1970s, when the discovery of vast oil and natural gas reserves radically altered official priorities. Economic diversification was stalled as Abuja kept pumping back millions in oil profits into further exploration, to the neglect of all other sectors. Endemic poverty descended over large parts of rural Nigeria as traditional livelihoods began to wither away. The absence of inclusive growth flared ethnic tensions and provoked decades of civil war and recurring military takeovers towards the end of the last century. Despite its considerable foreign exchange earnings, human development indicators plummeted across the board as the Nigerian economy grew increasingly oil-dependent and unsustainable.
National ambitions were renewed with the reinstatement of civilian rule in 1999, when Abuja embarked on an extensive programme of economic reform and restructuring. The government under former president O Obsanjo adopted a comprehensive roadmap premised on the objective of making Nigeria a significant player in regional and global affairs. Specifically, Obsanjo’s Vision 2020 document mandates sector-wide initiatives to propel Nigeria into the top 20 global economies in a time-bound manner. The present dispensation under President UM Yar’Adua remains committed not just to achieving the 2020 objective, but also the UN Millennial Development goals of universal basic human rights.
It is in this connection that the fishing sector presents unique opportunities as both a poverty alleviation strategy and a tool for rapid entrepreneurial growth. Present levels of fish cultivation satisfy only a fraction of local requirement, with exports having to fill in for almost 95% of annual demand. Nigeria is in fact the top importer of fish in the African continent, sourcing more than 1.5 million tonnes of fish annually from international markets. Unofficial estimates suggest less than 10% of the country’s fish farming potential is currently being utilised, with as much as 60,000 hectares of unused land available for expanding the sector. The fact remains that Nigeria’s vast natural resources and human capital can be leveraged to promote extensive fishing as a means of ensuring not only exports but also food security. In principle at least, the Nigerian fishing industry has a lot to look forward to.
Because of its extensive coastline and tropical climate, Nigeria has the potential to develop a diversified ecology for a range of commercially viable varieties of fish. The economic appeal behind fishing is tremendous, considering the secondary and tertiary enterprises it can generate. More efficient methods of inland cultivation and coastal trolling, executed in an export-oriented environment, can spur rapid growth of down-the-line industries. Fishing, by itself, has the potential of driving considerable enterprise development, transforming rural economies and generating direct and indirect employment opportunities in the process. Abuja’s primary responsibility lies in providing opportunities for export of fish and fish products to international markets. Although viable data on the subject is lacking, the aggregate economic loss due to reduced local fish production is significant and needs focused policy initiatives to correct.
The enterprise potential of this sector is made doubly significant by the nature of the business. Fishing relies heavily on small and middle scale ancillary industries like canning, net-making and boat building, while supporting an additional base of activities in storage, processing and marketing. The net scope for employment generation, business development and poverty eradication through these allied activities make fishing deeply relevant to Nigeria’s quest for inclusive economic growth.
Here are some of the most pressing arguments in favour of a rapid expansion of fishing activities:
I. Aquaculture provides opportunities for optimal land use, allowing areas unsuitable for crops to be developed into economically productive ponds and fisheries.
II. Focussed expansion of artisanal and small-scale fishing can help turn around rural economies rapidly by generating jobs and sparking enterpreneruial activity.
III. In development-deprived areas and among rural communities, sustainable fish farming can help improve both nutritional and living standards.
IV. Nigeria’s highly diversified tropical ecology makes fishing in brackish and fresh waters almost a zero opportunity-cost endeavour with infinite growth potential.
Early in 2008, the fishing industry in the coastal Nigerian state of Akwa Ibom was paralysed in a wave of extortion and boat capture unleashed by sea-borne pirates. The attacks forced trawlers to go on an indefinite strike, bringing the local economy to a standstill and causing terrible loss of revenue to the regional council. While this particular situation was eventually resolved, security remains just one of several momentous challenges restraining the expansion of Nigerian fishing:
o The absence of a sustainable and progressive fisheries policy represents a fundamental hurdle, with lax government regulation routinely forcing small-scale operations out of business.
o Population expansion in coastal areas is giving rise to over-fishing and unscientific practices, destroying marine ecosystems and threatening underwater environments.
o Organised fishing attracts high capital expenditure in Nigeria as most of the necessary equipment, boats, feed, technology and know-how has to be imported.
o Infrastructure deficits severely hamper the storage, transport and marketing of fish in rural areas, making profitable urban markets unavailable to traditional fishing communities.
o Despite specific government efforts, commercial deep-sea fishing is out of reach for local entrepreneurs; the activity remains limited to the purview of foreign-owned companies.
Although the sector continues to receive sporadic government nudging and funding, the impact of these measures has been considerably restricted thus far due to lack of insight and effective implementation. Special schemes to promote fishing in target communities have also failed because of a low awareness about profitability in the business. Turning around this mindset could well prove to be one of the deciding challenges facing the Nigerian fishing industry. The nation’s history and unique circumstances will undoubtedly test its resolve to achieve formidable goals. Hopefully, the fervour of the Argungu fishermen and their quest for the biggest fish will provide some creative inspiration!
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