Ocean acidification which is caused when Carbon dioxide (CO2) is absorbed into seawater, after a series of other chemical reactions, is believed to be killing Gambia’s marine recourses.
By Mustapha K Darboe
The Gambia’s fishery sector – the third largest food provider after agriculture and livestock – has been grappling with a diminishing fish population in the country’s waters, a downtrend that experts believe is attributable to ocean acidification.
A source of employment for an estimated 200,000 people, directly and indirectly, the sector, according to fishermen, has experienced a steady and rapid decline in the catches of fish, a worrying trend that, apparently, threatens the livelihoods of tens of thousands of people.
For the past 30 years, Salifu Jammeh has been fishing at Tanjeh, a coastal fishing town south of Kombo, which plays home to The Gambia’s biggest fish landing site.
According to Jammeh, they have seen a reduction of at least 40 percent in their catches in the last two decades.
“In the past, one would go for only two or three nautical miles into the sea and catch sufficient fish for the day. But this is not the case today. We do not have much fish here,” Jammeh observed.
“We have seen at least 40 percent reduction in our catches. Sometimes, it takes us a whole week without a decent catch at sea.”
A random interview conducted with fishermen and fish-mongers at Tanjeh, Bakau, Tujereng and Tankular fish landing sites revealed a similar downtrend in the catches of fish.
This alarming decrease in the number of fish in the ocean has inevitably created some disruptions in supply and demand on the market.
Almamy Ceesay, a fish monger in the country’s biggest fish market, Tippa Garage Fish Market, revealed that previously, “the supply” of fish normally “outclassed demand but now the demand is more than the supply”.
Ceesay, who has been in the fish business for 30 years, said that an estimated “60% reduction in the catches” is pushing the price of the fish to an unaffordable level.
“You could get a big container full of fish for D1000 then, but you spend more than that same amount today on one fish that weighs just ten kilos. In the past we would sell a kilo for D80 which is now 150,” he revealed.
In a country where about 48% of the population lives below one dollar per day, the spike in the cost of fish threatens the protein source of a bigger chunk of the population.
This was confirmed by Isatou Cham, a buyer at the Serrekunda Fish market.
“The fish is now very expensive. Even sardinella that most people were not buying then is difficult to afford,” she explained.
Meanwhile, Neneh Conateh also revealed that the diminishing fish stock at sea equally affect their abilities to take care of their financial commitments.
“When catches at sea goes down, so does our income. And affects our ability to pay our children’s school fees,” Conateh said.
But despite the problems associated with the reduced catches at sea, there has never been a scientific study that explained the decline of the fish population in the country’s waters.
However, Dawda F. Saine, secretary general, National Association of Artisanal Fisheries Operators, NAAFO, revealed that the country’s vulnerability to climate change partly explains the problem.
Saine said the pelagic species which makes up 75% of the country’s fish landing could be at the risk of increased ocean acidification.
He noted that there was no scientific research done to gauge the impact of climate change on marine resources in the country, but ocean acidification which is caused by the phenomenon has more impact on pelagic species which makes “75% of the country’s fishing landings”.
“Majority of the fish we consume in The Gambia (about 75%) are pelagic species,” he said.
“If ocean acidification affects the pelagic first and subsequently the semi-pelagic and the demersal species, it then provokes the question: how do we attain food security?”
Mr Saine explained that when carbon dioxide enters sea water, it produces a weak acid call carbonic acid which spreads around the whole marine environment leading to an increase in hydrogen ions.
He revealed that the increase in hydrogen ion which turns into an acid in the water affects the pelagic species.
The pelagic species are found in the upper part of the ocean and “acidification first affect the surface (pelagic zone) of the ocean”.
He further explained that the effect of the acidification can reach the semi-pelagic and the demersal zone through “intense up-welling and down-welling”, a process which “mixes the water in the ocean from up to bottom and the bottom up”.
“There is a threat and I think there should be a national study to examine the impact of ocean acidification on the pelagic species because we don’t know the extent of the impact right now,” he added.
“This is very necessary because ocean acidification might be affecting the reproduction and even the survival of our pelagic species.”
The Gambia has seen, in recent time, desiccation of mangroves due to high salinity content in river banks caused by sea-level rise.
Mr Saine said that is not a good news as mangroves “are very important to the survival and reproduction of fishes”.
“The desiccation of mangroves is happening and it is caused by too much heat from the sun and high salinity content of the water,” he said.
“The sea level is rising and it pours so much saline water into the river causing mangroves to desiccate.”
This view was corroborated by Alpha Jallow, the focal point for the United Nation Framework Convention on Climate Change working at the country’s Department of Water Resources.
Jallow said the impact of climate change on The Gambia, like all least developed countries, has reached an alarming level.
Meanwhile, Cherno Joof, President of the Gambia Artisanal Fisheries Development Agency, GAMFIDA, said though overfishing and lack of observation of conservation measures by “bigger fishing boats” play a role in the depletion of the country’s fish population but not without the effects of climate change.
“Climate change is affecting our marine resources – if you have been observing, we have been experiencing erratic rainfall patterns, unpredictable salt water intrusion, rising water level now than we were before and those are effects of climate change,” Joof noted.
“I would not say that we have species that are threatened with the exception of a Horse Shoe Crab but there is a lot of reduction. There is though a threat of massive reduction of fish stock if not enough is done about climate change.”
Perhaps more evidence-based is the Living Blue Planet Report by World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in collaboration with the Zoological Society of London which has revealed that the amount of fish in the oceans around the world has halved since 1970, plunge to the “brink of collapse” caused by climate change and other threats.
Recently, stakeholders from the Agriculture and Natural Resources Sectors of The Gambia have had a drafting session, otherwise called Visioning Workshop to produce a national climate change policy by early 2016 to, among other things, mitigate its effects on marine resources in the country.
Notwithstanding, there is a growing concern that some beaches in the coastal settlements of the country, as a result of rising sea-level, are depleting at a rate of 1-2 meters a year.
This is more evident in Fajara beach where local authorities were forced to mount a concrete wall to prevent the water further advancing towards the hotels and Jallow warns of “further damage to our coastline” as climate change induced rising sea level becomes more apparent.
About ten years ago the little country has had itself on the defensive battling to push back a rising water level that threatened to take its island capital, Banjul.
In late August, the Basse-Wuli River crossing point was overwhelmed with water as heavy rain and rising water level from the river pushed the water by, approximately, over 100 meters onshore, leaving market stalls by the river inundated with water.
In late September, The Gambia has sent its Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) ahead of a new universal climate change agreement expected to be reached at the UN climate conference in Paris which started on 30th November.
The Gambia, responsible for only an emission rate of 0.01%, revealed in its INDC that “Energy, Water Resources, which are vital sectors for the Gambian economy will severely suffer if global and deep cut do not occur in a near future”.
The country has also indicated in its INDC that it is going to cut emission level in major sectors of the economy mainly energy, where the implementation of renewable energy sources will contribute to greenhouse gas emission reductions of 45.6 GgCO2e in 2020, 78.5 GgCO2e in 2025 and 104 GgCO2e in 2030.
But despite the fact that the country has existing policy documents on fisheries, and other sectors that seek to provide a guideline for her battle against climate change, the phenomenon remains a threat to any food security initiative.
Regardless of the improvements in acquiring and installing state-of-the-art technologies and infrastructure for climate monitoring in the country under the National Adaptation Programme of Actions early warning projects, human capital to continue maintaining and monitoring climate and weather remains inadequate.
But notwithstanding the already negative impact of climate change on the Gambian economy, the end appears to be farther than the country could wait.
Jallow warned that the country could pay huge cost if a substantive global climate deal is not achieved in Paris.
“If no proper climate change mitigation actions are taken or no deal is made in Paris, global temperatures will continue to rise and climate change will persist with all its consequences,” he argued.
Though the “need for a good global climate deal” is urgent, Dawda Saine contended the prospects of a good deal with globe’s biggest emitters is “less likely” without a common, strong position taken by all Africans.
“With regards to a climate deal, there are all sorts of conventions, protocols, legislations and strategies but the evil still remains. That goes to show that the change that we need as far as climate change is concern. It is not a change of system, strategies, conventions or declarations but a change of human behavior towards the environment,” he said.
“So documents won’t solve climate change; states will have to seriously change their approach towards the protection of the environment. Africa should come together if they want to make a strong case because we are the less emitter and yet the most affected- America and China emit more than the whole of Africa at 7%.
“For example, Europe relies on Africa for most of its fish and African countries can suspend all European fishing trawlers in our oceans until they agree to something on climate change- we could barter a climate deal for our fish resources.
“We have European fishing trawlers in The Gambia, Senegal, Mauritania and Guinea Bissau and they are fishing in our ocean under the pretext of a fishing agreement. Africa must work together like that if they must get any good deal in Paris.”
Apparently, the cost of doing nothing now will be astronomical in the long term, but transitioning to a climate resilient economy, for a least developed economy like The Gambia, will equally come at a cost that will be beyond the reach of the impoverish country.
As a result, the Paris climate talks which ends tomorrow, holds the fate of a future Gambia as any reluctance on the part of the bigger economies who contribute the largest share of the CO2 emission to reduce their emission rate will cost the country dearly.
Moreover, given the incredible reduction in the fish population of the country, as reported by fishermen and fish mongers, a study is required to gauge the impact of climate change on marine resources in the country, and necessary adaptation measures taken if the nation is to save the employment and protein source of thousands of its poor population that depend on the fisheries sector for survival.
The Standard newspaper production