Nigeria’s multi-million dollar fish trawling business is in danger of total extinction as incessant pirates/sea robbers’ attacks have continued to scare away trawler owners and seafarers from their once lucrative business.
This is as maritime stakeholders say the nation’s territorial waters are now dreaded by seafarers on fish trawlers for fear of losing their consignment and lives in some cases.
They insist the patrol operations by the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) and the Nigerian Navy are grossly insufficient as much of Nigeria’s territorial waters are poorly policed.
Just last week, dare-devil pirates abducted two out of 14 crew members – the Captain, Omodaji Awobu and Chief Engineer, Abbukkudan Manikuggan, aboard a trawler vessel, MV KULAK IX, off Dodo River in Bayelsa State.
Though much of the cargo aboard the vessel belonging to Barnaly Fisheries Nigeria Limited, were not stolen by the pirates, the incident frightened other seafarers fishing along the nation’s waters as they reportedly fled the sea even without any catch.
Economic experts say fish trawling business employs thousands of Nigerian youths and contributed heavily to the nation’s economy between the early 1980’s up till early 2000’s when pirates’ attacks were much less.
But local trawler operators are alleging that foreigners who are eyeing the business are now sponsoring mercenaries to attack them with a view to taking over the business.
A fish trawler proprietor who does not want his name in print, lamented that escalating pirates’ attacks have dealt a deadly blow on his business, even as he lamented that they are rarely reported.
“These attacks are largely under-reported. We’re in danger. When you set out to sail, you don’t know what lies ahead of you. The trawler can be attacked. The cargo stolen, the crew kidnapped for ransom and in some cases, they may even be killed or wounded. Today, most seafarers dread Nigerian waters and you just cannot blame them. The government should help us out”, he lamented.
On the effect of piracy on fish trawling business, the former President of the Nigerian Trawler Owners Association, (NITOA), Margaret Orakwusi, lamented the continued pirates’ attacks have forced a lot of indigenous operators out of the business. She noted that the number of companies operating in the sector in 2005/06 was about 39, but this has drastically reduced to nine by 2014.
“Fish trawling is a capital- intensive project and it also brings the much needed foreign exchange. There was a time the industry ranked second to the oil industry in foreign exchange earnings; I will like to see us go back to that period.
“In 2005/06, we had about 250 trawlers, but by year 2014, we had 124. When we were really booming, we had about 35 companies operating in the sector but over the years, it has reduced to just nine.
“It’s just like the sea pirate’s attacks; most of the attacks are not being reported, probably out of frustration by the owners of the vessels. You know when you continuously report and nothing is happening and the victims are not helped, nobody comes to their aid either financially or otherwise and you look at it and you say well, if you can keep up with the whole situation, you remain in the business or you just get out.
“That is why the number of trawlers has drastically reduced and they are still reducing but then, that is why some of us are happy about what is happening to the price of oil, so that it can boost diversification of the economy.
“The fishing industry is not just one industry that feeds our people with quality and rich protein products, but it is an industry that can offer employment to a lot of people.
It is an industry that can also assist the growth of auxiliary industries that are helpful to the economy,” she said.
Also commenting on the incessant attacks by sea robbers, an official of the Nigerian Merchant Navy Officers and Water Transport Senior Staff Association (NMNOWTSSA), who prefers anonymity said NIMASA covers less than ten percent of Nigeria’s coastal waters.
“The presence of NIMASA is limited to the Lagos area and may be Port Harcourt too. NIMASA has not been able to cover ten percent of Nigeria’s territorial waters.
“The areas where the pirates operate, you hardly see the security men there; those are the extreme and interio frontiers, not the city areas. Where you see NIMASA, you don’t see the sea pirates and where you see the sea pirates, you don’t see NIMASA. The number of patrol boats and personnel deployed to secure the Nigerian coastal waters are not enough.
“But the basic fact is that if you really want to engage the Navy, the number we have here is less than what can cope with the challenges and sometimes when they come out, they don’t have the enough experience compared to the sea pirates.
“With that for now, we cannot say that we are secured but rather, it is only God that is touching their hearts. The relief we have is that they have relaxed to watch how we respond to their demands.
“Everybody is sailing with fear,” he stated,” he explained.
The official said seafarers aboard fishing trawlers face harrowing experience in the hands of some coastal communities who demand ransom from the trawler operators before they could be allowed to carry out their activities in those communities.
“The hoodlums demand between N5 to N10 million from each boat. But we’ve resisted that. How much are we making?
He explained further that as a result of their resistance, seafarers and trawler owners sail the sea with fear even as he alleged that the priates at times enjoy the backing of the elders and leaders of the communities.
He pointed out that Bayelsa and River state waters were the most notorious for the act saying “those boys are still preparing to launch attacks on trawlers just to have their way”, he noted.
But an official of NIMASA, said there was no way it’s staff can be at all spots within the Nigerian waterways, adding that its Memorandum of Understanding with the Nigerian Navy has helped reduce pirates attacks in Nigeria.
“The records are there. Before the MoU, we know the record of pirates attacks in the country. It was almost like a weekly thing. IMO was on our neck but since we began patrolling the waterways, it has reduced. We’re not there yet but there’s progress. We respond to distress call when we get them”, the official said.