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Photo of a fishing boat on the shore off the coast of West Africa - photo taken by Robert Paarlbeg, author of the blog post "Rising seas, eroding beaches, and fewer fish in Africa" on the OUP blog

Rising seas, eroding beaches, and fewer fish in Africa

Climate change has brought dangerous new threats to food production in West Africa. Crop farmers face disrupted rainfall and protracted drought, which are serious livelihood threats since most small farms have no irrigation. Yet coastal fishermen are now threatened as well, due to ocean warming and sea-level rise. West Africa’s traditional marine fishermen launch their 30-foot wooden canoes from broad beaches that are now rapidly eroding, which denies space to haul their nets ashore and leaves their fragile homes exposed to sudden storm surges. Meanwhile warmer sea temperatures have reduced their catch. The World Bank projects that by 2050, climate change alone could reduce Ghana’s potential fish catch by 25% or more. This will be a serious threat, since fish currently provide 60% of total animal protein in the Ghanaian diet.  

I am a food security expert who has often worked with traditional farmers in Africa, but until now not with coastal fishermen. My perspective was enriched this July when I joined a research team visiting coastal fishing communities in Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Nigeria. We saw shocking evidence of livelihood threats from rapid beach erosion everywhere, but the complaints we heard from the fishermen themselves went well beyond a changing climate.  

“The World Bank projects that by 2050, climate change alone could reduce Ghana’s potential fish catch by 25% or more.”

Our research team—five from Harvard University and five from partner institutions in West Africa—spent three weeks travelling by van to visit more than a dozen different fishing communities along the Gulf of Guinea coast, using translators when necessary to overcome local language differences. We always explained our business in advance to community chiefs, the key arbiters in all dealings with outsiders. We visited first with fishermen engaged in net mending or boat repair and then spoke at length with community leaders, usually out of the sun in a covered meeting hall. Like traditional fishing communities everywhere (including the small lobster harbor I know on the coast of Maine), those we met took obvious pride in their hard work and distinctive way of life, but worried about looming changes beyond their control.

In all of these communities we saw evidence of damaging beach erosion. Shorelines in some places were moving inland by several meters a year. We visited the town of Keta, in eastern Ghana, where a storm surge in 2017 displaced more than 300 local inhabitants. All along the coast concrete block buildings were being toppled, undercut by the waves. We often found the remains of tarmac roads that were originally built well behind the beach but were now regularly under water.  At one location near Accra, we interviewed two women standing in distress beside homes wrecked just two weeks earlier by a storm that came at high tide.

A hotel wrecked by a storm at high tide in Abidjan.
Photo by Robert Paarlberg.

Some of this was damage from climate change, but not all. Local experts explained that a strong natural west-to-east current had been scraping sand from the beaches along the coast for at least the past century. This natural erosion was then worsened by human actions not connected to the climate, such as the building of hydro dams that stop river sediments from reaching the shore, and illegal “sand mining” from the beach to supply a booming construction industry needing concrete. Sand is also dredged offshore for fill, to turn coastal wetlands into marketable real estate. Jetties built to protect harbors and navigation channels trap sediment, accelerating erosion down the coast. Concrete sea walls (one known as “The Great Wall of Lagos”) are constructed to protect tourist hotels and other high-value real estate, but this only deflects the ravages of the sea onto unprotected areas nearby, including the fishing communities we visited.

Several other non-climate factors also threaten traditional fishing communities in West Africa. Small wooden canoes with outboard motors cannot hope to compete for fish with large diesel-powered trawlers equipped with fish-finding sonar, bigger nets, mechanized hauling devices, and chilled storage for the fish. On paper, the trawlers are officially restricted in what they can catch and where they can operate, but most of the fishermen we talked to complained loudly about “Chinese trawlers” fishing without restriction at night, while government patrol boats looked the other way.  

The weak support provided to artisanal fishing communities by governments in Africa has a parallel in what traditional farming communities also experience. More than half of all citizens in sub-Saharan Africa are farmers, yet most governments devote only 5% of their public budget (less than this in many cases) to any kind of agricultural development. As a consequence, essential public goods like farm-to-market roads are either poorly repaired or missing completely, cutting farms off from marketing opportunities. Our research team visited fishing communities also cut off due to roads with deep potholes making them virtually undrivable. When we asked why government authorities hadn’t fixed the roads, we were told that visiting politicians regularly promised repairs just before election-time, but then never returned.    

We asked community leaders if non-governmental organizations (NGOs) had taken an interest in their plight and were advocating on their behalf.  Social justice and environmental NGOs claim to care for the special needs of those they call “fisherfolk,” and whilst some of the community leaders we questioned confirmed that well-meaning representatives from these organizations did visit to ask questions, they as well tended not to return and how they used the collected information remained a mystery. We knew our own research team would be seen in the same light if we failed to report back on the final outcome of our own project, so our intent is not to let this happen.

Featured image: photo by Robert Paarlberg

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