There is enormous potential in fishing. But pirates and unauthorised foreign vessels are depriving operators of the expected gain. In this interview with OLUWAKEMI DAUDA, the immediate past president, Nigerian Trawler Operators Association (NITOA) and Chief Executive Officer (CEO), ORC Fisheries Limited, Mrs Margaret Orakwusi, speaks on the challenges facing the sector.
As a major stakeholder in the maritime sector, how secured is the coastline from pirates?
It is just the same. Nothing has changed. If anything, it is becoming more rampant and more aggressive in nature. The pirates, I will call them regional now, it is as if they now have associations. For instance, when they take vessels, say from Nigeria, they can move it to anywhere in West Africa to attack other vessels. I also believe they are more organised now than before. But then, what do we expect when they have operated over the years without anyone challenging them? So, I believe this naturally gives them reason to have more converts, and then carry out more attacks.
There has not been any attack from pirates on your members’ trawlers. Is it as a result of your partnership with the Nigerian Navy?
I am sure either the person who told you that is not from the maritime sector or the person does not own a trawler. We are the operators, we have our trawlers everywhere. There is no single day that we do not suffer one attack, at least. What they now do, because the trawlers are more vulnerable to attacks by nature of what we do and the way we do it, they wait till a trawler releases its fishing gear, and it takes time to haul up and go, even if they see a pirate gang coming. Since they can’t haul up and run, they are easily overtaken by pirates who freely gain access into the vessels. But beyond this, some of the pirates, after they attack any trawler and take it over, they use it as a bait to attack other vessels. This has made the other trawlers to become even more vulnerable. These pirates are busy, duly perfecting their act, and till now, we do not have anybody challenging them. There must be an effective challenge. It is not fair for somebody to just cover only a few nautical miles and then sit back to tell us ‘don’t worry, something is being done’. Let them swoop on the pirates, catch them, take them to court and jail them and then we will believe something is really being done. We have been talking about pirates, but as a nation, something has to be done about protecting our natural resources.
Can you tell us the level of loss to your members to date?
From November 2002 to date, Nigerian trawler owners have incurred losses amounting to several billions of naira. This sum includes the entitlements paid to families of those who lost their lives at sea because of the attacks and ransoms paid for those kidnapped by the pirates. The hijackers frequently seize vessels, threatening to blow them up if ransom is not paid. The trend, which started as ordinary stealing some years back, has since turned into Nigeria’s greatest problem. Because of the huge ransoms trawler operators in Nigerian waters pay to secure the release of their vessels or personnel seized by hijackers, the hijackers routinely order that the money be deposited in their bank accounts. But it is baffling that these financial institutions, which in a bid to promote accountability, demand utility bills as part of the requirements for opening accounts, have, however, failed woefully in tracing the owners of the accounts where the ransoms are lodged.
Why do you need to negotiate?
We have to negotiate because, on several occasions, they kill our workers. Between 2007 and 2008, for instance, we recorded over 20 attacks on vessels, with loss of over 10 lives. Therefore, we need help to survive in the business.
Do we have foreign vessels operating illegally on our waters?
We have very big vessels, mostly from Asian countries, coming into our waters to poach on our natural resources; and they fish in the most irresponsible manner. You can’t believe how many millions of dollars we are losing annually to illegal fishing. And these are people who don’t have any licence to fish in our waters; these are people who are not regulated by our government nor respect any international laws. So, they can do their business anyhow, take anything they want, and go. They fish in the most irresponsible manner. You and I can understand this because they have no stake in our future. They do not comply with any fishing regulations. Sometimes, such group may even come, steal crude (petroleum products) and flee.
What is the effect of this on the nation’s fish stock?
Fish stocks in Nigeria and other African coasts are depleting rapidly, no thanks to the presence of illegal industrial fishing boats that are raking in large quantities of fish for export. Experts say illegal fishing costs African countries over $1 billion yearlly. Illegal fishing and poor management of marine stocks cost the world $100 billion every year. It was learnt that Nigeria loses about $60 million annually through illegal fishing in its territorial waters. In reverse, the nation is importing over $200 million worth of seafood products annually to supplement local production.
How can this be corrected?
There must be a dedicated force, be it Navy, be it marine police, be it anything else, established by the government to patrol our waters 24/7 so that, at least, when a pirate or a robber out there gets ready to steal, he knows he too is vulnerable. At least, there should be some fear of either being caught or being frustrated. But a situation where nobody cares is cause for all of us to be worried.
Would your association be glad to have the Presidential Implementation Committee on Maritime Security (PICOMSS) coast guards take over this assignment then?
Listen, you know we have often been tied down in this country with the problem of terminology and big grammar. We know that there is a problem out there in the seas. We also know what should happen for us to, at least, if not to eradicate it completely, to minimise it, as part of facing the challenges which created it. It is simple! This problem is not a unique problem to only Nigeria; it is a problem frequently faced by all coastal countries. But other nations have the coast guards, marine police or other dedicated forces to face the issue. It should just be like the way we have the Nigeria Police on ground. So, the solution may not be found in a name; whether we have it as ‘police’ or ‘NIMASA’. As operators, we are not interested in the names. We are interested in the equipment. All we are interested in is that the problem should be solved. The fish we consume in this country is 90 per cent imported. Now since we do not want the local ones to grow, should we not at least provide enhanced maritime security for these vessels to operate?
As an active marine operator, do you think there is adequate security to ensure that the local industry continues to thrive?
I am presently concerned about my industry, which is deep-sea fishing, or trawling where there is no protection, whatsoever. Up till 2004, we had over 200 fishing vessels operating in this country. Right now, there are less than 120 fishing trawlers. In the time under reference, we had over 30 fishing companies involved in deep sea fishing. Right now, there are less than 10.
In that wise, how do you access the food security scheme of the government?
The real tragedy is that we always talk about food security. The fishing industry is an industry that should grow, to at least provide us with the protein needed to boost food quality, at the lowest, we all know that consumption of fish is healthy; it is healthier than eating meat. This means a lot of people should depend on fishing as source of their livelihood. The fish business should create a lot of employment. But, right now, it is like the government is neglecting industrial fishing. Nigeria has a population of about 150 million. Fish consumed by a population of that size has about 90 per cent of it imported. Are we not feeding the people with imported fish of low quality? Can we guarantee the quality of the area the fish was caught? Why can’t we grow our own local industry? Nigeria has a lot of potential in fishing business. Can’t we bridge the gap by reducing the imported 90 per cent to 50 per cent?
So, what do you suggest as a viable solution at this point?
We must revisit our national fishing policy; because what we have right now does not seem to be working. If it is working, you wouldn’t see increasing reduction in fishing activities in the country. We should see growth. We should revisit it. We should allow people who know about fishing, whose passion is fishing to be among those who formulate policies. We should work towards reducing the quantity of fish being imported. We should encourage the fish farmers; we should also encourage industrial fishing as well.
Apart from trawlers, which other materials pose a challenge to your business?
The other material is diesel. 85 per cent of the sector’s operations depend solely on diesel and we are incurring huge overhead costs. This is so because it is only in the fishing industry that diesel alone accounts for 85 per cent of the production cost. For instance, each vessel consumes an average of 60 tonnes of diesel daily and that is over N10 million per 45-day fishing trip. That is why we want the Federal Government to approve direct allocation of diesel from the major marketers to the operators. We are appealing to government to also subsidise diesel. If the farmers enjoy fertiliser subsidy and importers are enjoying waivers, then the fishing sector should have an incentive to enable the sector thrive. The supply of diesel to the industrial fishing operators requires government intervention and support, if all the fishing companies would not fold up.
Was any terminal allocated to NITOA?
The terminal that was duly approved and allocated to the sector by the Federal Government in 2005 is situated at Kirikiri, Phase 2, Lagos. We are worried because some people want to control the land approved for fish products to boost export. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo approved the terminal to save the industry from imminent collapse. The approval was communicated to NITOA through the Presidential Sub-Committee on the Lagos Fishing Terminal vide its letter dated December 5, 2005. We have documents to support the approval. The then President also set up a committee for the development of the terminal to serve as a centralised fishing terminal in the state.
What is your position on centralised fishing terminal?
We do not have a centralised fishing terminal in Nigeria. We should have one so that we can attract more people into the business by eliminating the basic problems which frightens away new entrants, like funding for jetties, workshops, cold rooms, fuel dumps, health facilities, all of which can be centralised and commercialised, so that the problems faced by new entrants would be reduced simply to how to acquire the trawlers!
Of what effect would that be?