By Kafayat A. Fakoya

In Africa, Nigeria’s small-scale fisheries (SSF) sector is undisputedly the largest in terms of catch and employment. The sector provides food security, income and livelihoods to a conservative six million fisherfolk, and represents 70% of total fish production—most of which is accessible as an irreplaceable source of animal protein and micronutrients to a multitude of masses.

In Nigeria, Covid-19 and the emergency measures taken to combat the pandemic are taking a toll on the men and women active in SSF. Compared to the developed world, most African countries record relatively fewer number of Covid-19 cases, but given weak health care systems, fears loom over the capacities to cope with health consequences from a surge of the fatal contagion. For men and women in the informal sector, which includes SSF, emergency measures taken to combat the pandemic limit access to daily income particularly to provide livelihood sustenance for their families. Access to, and benefits from social protection measures are restrictive or poor due to inadequate supply of food packages and cash transfers, stringent conditions to obtain credit facility and absence of economic stimulus. This scenario gives concerns to increasing gaps in social and economic inequalities which in the SSF are highly gendered, increasing vulnerabilities of women who represent more than half of fisherfolk to social, economic and political marginalisation.

A major impact is the disruption of fish supply chains due to disruptions in transportation, trade and labour. The effects however are nuanced or differential, largely defined by scale of temporal and spatial measures applied in contextual basis. The most harrowing was the five week lockdown in ‘coronavirus hotspots’ consisting of Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, Lagos State, the commercial centre of the nation and the neighbouring Ogun State. Essential services, including fish traders, were excluded and market stalls were allowed to operate for some hours during specific days of the week. But as commercial transportation wound down to a halt, transportation of food and other agricultural produce became difficult.

Consequent upon movement restrictions in coronavirus hotspots and hampered by lack of cold chain and poor storage, fishermen and fish processors in rural fishing communities were challenged by reduced fish sales. The ‘customers’ who are mostly women fish traders found it very difficult to access the communities particularly in the early morning hours when the fishermen landed their catch. Women trading within the states encountered harassment from overzealous enforcement agents while social distancing requirements in commercial vehicles contributed to increased transportation costs passed on to the consumers at higher selling prices. However for the women engaged in inter-state fish trading, the narrative is that they experience tougher times due to stupendous hike in transport fares and harassments at various checkpoints.

women fisherfolk in nigeria

Women fisherfolk at the fish landing site at Ikosi fishing community in Agbowa, Lagos State, Nigeria.

Poor living conditions, lack of recognition by policy-makers and centralised governance had negative impacts on organisational capacities of fisherfolk. Fishermen and livelihood-based cooperatives lack harmonisation and strong leadership at the national level essential for firm advocacy. Access to fish netting materials and outboard engines was acutely limited while costs of spare parts soared. At the height of the lockdown, the cooperatives were unable to offer meaningful assistance to their members except for thrift savings. In rural communities, lack of assured markets compelled fishers to reduce their number of fishing trips and also to sell fish at lower prices. In metropolitan areas, fish traders besieged fish landing sites to access fish and limited quantities attracted high prices. However, the lockdown measures merely exacerbated prices for some fish which at the onset of Covid-19 had been out of season.

Impacts of Covid-19 and resilience of women are shaped by differential access to social and economic capital in the female-centric fish supply chains. Fish mongers who finance fishing trips have their capital tied down because fishermen opt to stay ashore and fish less often. But they are buffered because they still have access to some fish. Fish traders make marginal gains and often suffered losses owing to low demand as a result of poor purchasing power. The most disadvantaged, however are the women fish vendors for whom fish became practically unaffordable to buy and sell. They are more susceptible to emotional and physical stress from worrying about food insecurity, spending more time with minors, likelihood of domestic violence and loss of income. These women are worst hit because they are likely to lack adequate social safety nets in form of savings with formal financial institutions that are often set as pre-conditions to access some forms of social protection measures.

In the absence of fisheries-specific relief measures, the government should urgently explore the option of buy-back schemes to mop up excess fish and store for later sales, or introduce the fish into institutional feeding programmes. To curb the spread of the pandemic to rural fishing communities, the government should extend supplies of personal protective equipment to men and women in SSF through their organisations. Radio broadcasts should be used as communication channel to give news, updates, information and awareness on Covid-19 to fishing communities.

Covid-19 pandemic presents the window for SSF actors to voice and address the challenges particularly the underlying issues in fish supply chains. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) can provide support to improve living conditions, quality of products and working conditions, including improvement of sanitary and health conditions in fish harvesting, local preservation and processing as well as marketing. The present time is also ideal to demand for inclusive co-governance in the SSF. A more interactive form of governance that brings fishers, fish workers and fishing communities into mainstream decision-making in the fisheries sector particularly at state and national levels is highly desirable. An immediate step for fisheries-based societies and associations would be to ensure issuance of identification cards to all registered members. In every community, all organisations must coalesce and harmonise their objectives to create a community platform. Composition of this platform must be gender and youth sensitive. It must guarantee equity in the representation of gender, youth and the vulnerable groups in advocacy and decision-making. The aim should be to work towards strengthening collective action in stewardship of fisheries resources which are the mainstay of food security, livelihoods and local economies. Working to improve collective action and benefit from more interactive governance means that fisheries-based organisations must be equipped with skills in critical leadership and negotiation skills to improve resilience, organisation capabilities and advocacy. Civil society organisations (CSOs) and NGOs have significant roles to play in building capacities of the organisations in these soft skills and are also important in mobilising funds to support and provide these services to the SSF.

woman fish processor in Lagos

A woman fish processor in her kitchen in Ikosi community, Lagos.

Youths in fishing communities have very vital roles to play in sustainability of their communities and the fish supply chains. Their participation in the value chains are fundamental to aligning the sector to the “new normal” which is captured by a rapidly evolving digital economy in that would probably be sustained in the post-pandemic era. Techno-savvy youths are more adaptable and can come to terms better with the disruptions in the fish supply chains. They can revolutionise the supply chains by creating direct access to consumers or clients in urban areas where the fish attract premium prices. This can be achieved via social marketing, online fish selling platforms and delivery services.

The outlook in a post-pandemic era would depend on present perceptions, actions and lessons learnt. Optimism is high among fishing communities that ‘good times’ will rebound meaning they expect to go back to the usual way of life after the pandemic. But their coping mechanisms might be important considerations that could determine their state of preparedness and adaptation in the envisaged ‘new normal’. A lot would depend on discipline in upholding hand washing protocols, cleanliness measures and social distancing in this new era. Besides the government, CSOs and NGOs, academia, the private sector and donors also have increasing relevance in this era to support and reposition the SSF for sustainability in the future.

While there has been so much focus on the negative impacts of Covid-19 on the SSF, the positive outcomes are often overlooked. Without much conviction, reduced fishing activities in the ocean, seas, rivers, lagoons and lakes has given time for the aquatic ecosystems to heal from disturbances perpetrated by man. In many countries, aquatic ecosystems are witnessing a ‘rebirth’ of natural productivity. Even, if the pandemic is only with us for a brief time, the renaissance of the aquatic ecosystems are being appreciated worldwide with news of dolphins, penguins and other rare aquatic animals sighted in notoriously disturbed waters in metropolitan areas. These are food for thought in the new normal. Covid-19 has opened our eyes to understand the extent of which humanity has degraded earth and how a moratorium or a period of rest from harvesting and other anthropogenic activities regenerate the oceans and restore the equilibrium. In the ‘new normal’, subsidies which have largely gone to fishing fleets of the Global North must be stopped and measures to end IUU be intensified to bring a halt to overharvesting, the Blue Economy is only ideal when the natural and social systems of the oceans are maintained in a state of equilibrium. Sustainable community engagement, social equity and environmental integrity must be core values or watch words. Otherwise, an ‘industrialised’ Blue Economy will rapidly reverse the gains and cause its plunge into a downward spiral of destabilisation, a return to the old days tainted with social inequity, overharvesting and environmental degradation.

 

This blog is based on a webinar titled “African small-scale fisheries in the time of COVID-19: Voices from the continent? which was held on World Oceans Day, 8 June 2020. The webinar was convened by the international small-fisheries research network Too Big to Ignore (TBTI) under the theme “Small is Bountiful”. The webinar was co-hosted by TBTI and PLAAS, chaired by Prof Moenieba Isaacs and guests included:

  • Dr Kafayat Fokoya , Senior Lecturer, Department of Fisheries, Lagos State University, Nigeria,
  • Edithrudith Lukanga, Executive Director of Environmental Management and Economic Development Organisation (EMEDO), Tanzania,
  • Rovina Europa, fisherwoman and Coastal Links, South Africa,
  • Charles America, fishermen from Ocean View, South Africa, and
  • Naseegh Jaffer, Masifundise Development Trust, South Africa.