An Industry on Sick Bed
By Andrew Airahuobhor
Sunday, August 24, 2008
Sea piracy and the high cost of diesel are gradually killing the fishing industry in Nigeria
The Fishing industry is dying by installment. The business, which used to be the second largest non-oil export earner after cocoa, generating more than $60 million annually and providing direct and indirect employment to more than 250,000 Nigerians, has become a shadow of its former self. Some of the fish products are finfish, which are the normal local fish and shellfish, which include prawns, shrimps and lobsters. Nigeria is regarded as having the best quality of shrimp products in the world.
Newswatch gathered that the dwindling fortunes was occasioned by the incessant pirate attacks on fishing vessels at sea, prohibitive cost of diesel also called AGO and other unbearable environmental conditions. In 2002, there were 45 functional companies under the aegis of National Fish Trawler Owners Association, NITOA, operating in the industry. There were also 450 trawlers otherwise known as vessels used for operations. But today, only about 19 companies still exist with less than 163 trawlers operating. There are fears that the number may further reduce to less than 10 companies by the end of the year.
In recent times, operators in the industry have suffered severe attacks from pirates also known as sea robbers. They come in very fast moving vessels, occasionally masked and clutching AK47 riffles and other sophisticated weapons. Newswatch learnt that their operations are often well organized and precise. More than 10 crewmembers have been killed in different attacks in recent times and several millions of naira carted away in the process. The constant attacks forced the association to withdraw their trawlers from the high sea in a protest led by Margaret Orakwusi, first vice-president of NITOA, for several weeks. For the period of withdrawal, the association accumulated a loss of more than N1.8 billion.
The trawlers returned to sea when the Nigerian Navy gave the owners assurance that the sea was safe after a three-day international conference on piracy and armed robbery at sea organised by the Nigeria Maritime Administration and Safety Agency, NIMASA in Abuja, in conjunction with the federal capital territory. At the end of the conference, participants recommended for the establishment of a joint maritime security equipment fund. The fund, they explained, should operate like the police equipment fund. It was also recommended that the fund should be used to acquire platforms for safety and security at sea. The platforms include offshore patrol vessels, long range maritime patrol aircraft, coastal radars, in-shore patrol crafts, flat bottom boats, helicopters and police patrol boats.
Newswatch gathered that the attacks on fishing vessels have continued in a new dimension in spite of the assurances from the Navy. The difference is that the trawler operators are no longer recording deaths. The pirates attack the vessels, take them to a hidden corner, evacuate the products on board, hold the crew hostage and start calling the companies to pay ransom. In the past, crew members used to have lots of cash on board which stopped when the attacks became constant. The crew then started carrying less than N200,000 as immediate imprest in case of any emergencies like when the vessel sinks or if a crew member needs to be taken to a nearby hospital. Since crew members now carry less cash, the pirates now hijack vessels and demand for ransom.
Trawler operators are worried that in spite of incessant attacks by pirates, the navy or other security operatives have not reported any arrest. But Ganiyu Adekeye, former chief of naval staff, recently said that the navy has acquired more platforms and equipment and have embarked on the training of its personnel to enforce safety. This was part of the communiqué reached at the international conference on piracy and armed robbery at sea.
Apart from the issue of pirate attacks, trawler owners are lamenting over the increase in the cost of diesel. At the current cost of N150 per liter, Newswatch was told that the cost of sending a vessel to sea has escalated to almost N12 million per 40 days trip. This accounts for almost 80 percent of total operational cost.
"The industry is almost finished," said Michael Bisong, executive secretary of NITOA. He told Newswatch that the fishing industry is the only industry that utilizes AGO as its major source of raw material. According to him, "From the very day they start the engine, they must have at least 40 to 60 metric tons of AGO, 1,800 liters is used per day." He said that they cannot put off their engines at sea because of refrigeration of products. "The vessel is like a moving factory at sea. They catch, process, package and store while on sea. They come back with finished products ready for export," Bisong told Newswatch.
Although the issue of high cost of AGO is global, Bisong noted that other countries that have identified the industry as very relevant and important have taken a lot of measures to cushion the effects of high cost of AGO through subsidy, aid or grant.
Bisong said that the industry used to have provision for 10,000 metric tons of AGO allocation from the federal government some five years ago by the administration of former President Olusegun Obasanjo. He said that the allocation stopped due to political undertones. A fortnight ago, members of the association were in Abuja, the federal capital territory, to follow up the issue of federal allocation with the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC.