The Impact of Marine Pollution on West African Fisheries and Coastal Communities: Developing sustainable fishing practices and pollution mitigation strategies

1. Introduction

The fisheries sector of West Africa contributes to food security, employment, income generation, trade, and economic development in the region. From the legal point of view, fish resources are considered as part of the “common heritage of mankind” and the “exclusive economic zone” is emphasized as the legal area within which the coastal state can exercise its sovereign rights. This is in accordance with the existing rule of law in the sea – the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 1982 (CLOS). In reality, fisheries in West Africa are confronted with various social, economic, political, institutional, and technological issues like lack of enforcement of fishing rules, ecosystem degradation, institutional weaknesses, inadequate infrastructures, and outdated fishing technologies. Marine pollution is also a major challenge to the fishery sector in West Africa. The sustainable use of ocean resources is one of the priority areas within the concept of “the green/blue” economy that is described as an economy in a world of finite resources. It is synonymously used with “green growth,” “low carbon economy,” “resource-efficient economy,” and “circular economy.” The core idea of the green economy is to promote a triple-win scenario in economic growth, ecological balance, and social progress. Stimulating economic growth while ensuring environmental protection and thereby improving the livelihood of the people are some of the basic objectives of the green economy. However, many experts believe that rather than defining the green economy in totality, it is better to outline the path to achieve the sustainable development of natural resources which will finally result in the prosperity of society. In this context, it is important to engage working with the leaders and stakeholders of the coastal and marine activity. Also, it is important to establish strategic and action-oriented approaches that move coastal and marine activities from the business as usual emphasis on short-term resource demand.

1.1 Background

Marine pollution, as distinct from general pollution, refers to the introduction into the marine environment of potentially hazardous chemicals, particles, and manufactured materials. The initial or primary pollution impacts are from the spill or direct input of oil, as well as discharges of chemicals directly into the oceans. Accidental or deliberate discharges from ships also contribute to marine pollution. However, the largest individual source of marine pollution is the result of land-based waste. Runoff from roads, highways, and agricultural land, as well as from industrial sites, accounts for the vast majority of pollution. The accumulation of these impacts and the complications of tracing pollution to a single source have been recognized for some time. Furthermore, marine pollution is a problem of increasing concern today, leading to a growing global recognition of the importance of understanding the impacts on marine life and human communities. Marine pollution is having a greater effect on West African fisheries as the fish are dying and the ocean is suffering. Fishing communities along the West African coast are among the poorest within the region and rely heavily on the sea. This research focuses on pollution from oil extraction and primary extraction activities in the Western Region of the Gulf of Guinea, Ghana. However, attention needs to be paid to the vast number of adverse implications caused by pollution as consequences prevalent throughout the whole of West Africa. Fish are an extremely important part of the Ghanaian economy and diet, making up 60% of the daily intake of animal protein. Also, fish accounts for 50% of the animal protein in the diets of the average coastal resident, considerably more than the average Ghanaian. This shows that marine pollution on West African fisheries can have a large effect on both the economy and the life of the average Ghanaian and needs to be discussed further.

1.2 Problem Statement

Marine pollution is a long-standing issue in West Africa, with devastating effects on the marine environment and prosperity of coastal communities. Despite numerous international and regional regulations and conventions in place, marine pollution in West Africa has not been effectively addressed. The problem of marine pollution is particularly grave in countries around the Gulf of Guinea, the southeast part of the Atlantic Ocean. Both solid and hazardous waste, such as plastics, chemicals, heavy metals, and medical waste, are freely dumped in the coastal and marine environments, without consideration of the consequences of those activities on the environment and human health. The discharge of raw sewage both from vessels and from the cities and towns along the coast is one of the reasons for pollution as well. Moreover, oil pollution resulting from routine shipboard operations, industrial discharges, oil spills, and chronic land-based sources is also a big concern. As a result of marine pollution, fish stocks have been decimated for most species, and the habitats that are crucial for their reproductive cycles and feeding have been permanently damaged. For West Africa, this means livelihoods of millions of people who rely on fishing in the region and its ocean’s resources are under threat. In 2013, fishery in West Africa produced over 3.6 million tonnes of fish, worth nearly $4 billion. But due to overfishing and climate change which affects the ecosystem diversity as well, the marine environment in the region has been stressed, and fish stocks have now been seriously depleted. It is estimated that there are about 15,000 fishers who are currently unemployed because of the decrement of fish stocks in Sierra Leone, a country where fisheries are a main part of the ordinary people’s everyday life. The significance of these problems varies for different stakeholders, including individual fishers, marine environmental researchers, economists, international society, and so on. However, it is clearly the case that the current situation has to be changed so that sustainable fishing practices and pollution mitigation strategies can be implemented for a better future.

1.3 Objectives

The major output of the project will be several fortnight long public displays in The Gambia National Centre for Arts and Culture, The University of The Gambia, School of Medicine and Allied Health Sciences, The Medical Research Council, The Gambia, The UK, The Zoological Society of London, London and its integrated partner, the London Aquarium. The project is based around a collaboration of the University of Durham and The Gambia – the display spaces and support for public engagement are based in both of these geographical areas, with other supporters in both the UK and The Gambia. So, the development of an academic project as an accessible display is highly relevant for this interdisciplinary, international research.

This section introduces the specific objectives of the project and serves as a brief outline of the rest of the study. The main body of the project will take the form of a series of four stand-alone ‘chapters’, which are thematic and responsive to the objectives of the project. Each of these chapters will take the form of an academic essay. However, as the main objective of the project is to engage various publics both in the research process and in the eventual findings and conclusions, these chapters will be supported by display material and narratives. These will respond both to different public interests and knowledge levels, as well as develop narratives which can be best conveyed visually and educationally.

The objectives of this report are to evaluate the impact of marine pollution on West African fisheries using both existing scientific literature and a primary field study in The Gambia, identify and analyze the socio-economic effects of, and visible responses to, marine pollution within West African coastal communities, investigate the potential for the implementation of sustainable fishing practices and pollution mitigation strategies – both for the purposes of reducing the impact of marine pollution on West African fisheries and of creating a blueprint for future, similar projects of public engagement, environmental education and fisheries reform in the region, and explore the potential for inter-disciplinary and international cooperation in addressing the challenge of marine pollution.

2. Impacts of Marine Pollution on West African Fisheries

The destruction of fish and other marine life due to pollution has had a negative impact on West African fisheries. A study by the Environmental Protection Agency in Ghana found that as much as 70 percent of the fish examined were found to have plastics in their stomachs, which accounted for the reduction in fish stocks that has been recorded over the years. Fish, especially juveniles, can die from consuming plastic debris, resulting in reduced fish stocks. Plastic pollutants affect the reproduction of fish as well. Scientists have observed that some chemicals such as PCBs and DDTs, which are found in plastics and persistent in the environment, have the effect of causing abnormalities in fish’s reproductive systems. This can result in a decline in the population of fish over time. Also, polluted water bodies are exposed to frequent algal blooms, for example, blue-green algal bloom. When there is an outbreak of algal bloom, the entire water body becomes poisonous and aquatic life is usually wiped out, and this includes fish and other species. As a result, there would be insufficient fish to catch in the water body and the fisher folks who rely solely on fishing for their income would be out of a job during those periods. Even if pollution were to halt completely as of today, it is estimated that the endangered fish populations might take decades to recover. This is due to the fact that pollutants are not only present within the aquatic ecosystem, they are also persistent. Since the river bodies in West Africa provide the main source of fish for consumption, it could be expected that there would be widescale damages caused by marine pollution.

2.1 Decline in Fish Stocks

The decline in fish stocks in West African waters has been noted by several researchers as well as local fishermen. The effective immediate and long-term causes of declining fish stocks have been scientifically proven and these include overfishing, climate changes, pollution, and other human activities. Research has shown that, due to marine pollution, in areas such as the Gulf of Guinea, which should be characterized by high primary production and abundance of plankton, only a small fraction of the fish population is able to reproduce and in turn maintain and contribute to the overall fish stock size. The general palatability of local fishes and economy of the region has been a major concern with the reported cases of some fish species having declined in number and quality. Over the last two decades, the mean biomass of fish in the West African marine waters has declined and this has consequently affected food supply to local communities and the general economy of the countries that depend on incomes from fishing. The fishery industry in the region supports over 500,000 small and large-scale jobs and this, as supported by more recent reports, is being threatened by the declining fish stocks. The reports also indicate that human activity along the West African coast has led to alarming concentration of waste and chemical products like plastic and pesticides in area waters. Such waste pollution is very dangerous to marine life and can cause irreversible damage not only to the individual fish but also to the general fish stock over time. Localized fisheries associated with rising levels of pollution and fishing activity around urban centers has also been associated with significant reduction of fish stocks in such areas. This is as a result of unsustainable and unjustified fishing practices such as the use of smaller mesh nets which trap and kill juvenile fish and in the process compromising the ability of fish stocks to recover through natural reproduction. Fishing, which is the primary source of protein for millions of coastal inhabitants, has always played a major role in the economy of many West African countries. Reports show that coastal fisheries jointly contribute about a quarter of the overall marine fish production and generate sizable income for the region. The continuously increasing marine pollution levels have attracted the attention of concerned stakeholders including the scientific community, governments, ministries responsible for conservation and wildlife as well as environmental and human rights activist groups. Suitable interventions, such as developing pollution mitigation strategies, are therefore essential in ensuring that the declining fish stocks are not only stabilized in the short term but also maintained at sustainable levels for the benefit of current and future generations.

2.2 Economic Consequences

The economic impact of the dwindling fish stocks in West Africa is substantial. According to the World Bank, the total economic loss due to marine pollution – including the loss of fish stocks – in West Africa amounts to around US$1.3 billion annually. This includes the loss of US$500 million within the fishing industry due to a decline in catches and a further US$300 million loss due to the increased frequency of extreme weather events. Notably, the majority of this economic loss is experienced in local and national economies; the food security and poverty alleviation that the fisheries industry often provides at a local and national level are being severely undermined by the environmental degradation caused by marine pollution. This is because marine pollution degrades the water quality and destroys the sensitive habitats needed for the fisheries, as well as poisoning and killing the fish stocks themselves. As a result of this, the already marginalized communities dependent on the profitability and sustainability of the fisheries are plunged into further poverty and social instability. This can be reflected by the aggregated poverty gap in the region, which is the measure of how far off the current aggregate income is from the poverty line; a higher poverty gap indicates a higher poverty severity across the population. The World Bank estimates that marine pollution has the potential to push both local and national economies within West Africa further and further away from achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, particularly in terms of poverty eradication. Given that it is largely industrial production in sectors such as agriculture and fishing which contributes to the marine pollution problem in West Africa – alongside the major impact of international oil spills from the Niger Delta – growing a more sustainable and green economy it crucial to alleviating the current issues with marine pollution. Implementing sustainable environmental policies would promote the potential development of greener industries and more eco-friendly practices in the region as a viable and economically beneficial alternative to the current issues with marine pollution. This change would therefore help to lessen the economic toll that marine pollution is taking on West Africa’s local and national economies. Ultimately, the vast and diverse wildlife in West Africa’s waters will be healthier and better protected from the harmful effects of marine pollution – most notably the hazardous process of bioaccumulation, which is the process of toxic substances building up within animal tissues when the organism has no method of either metabolizing or excreting it. By breaking the environmental degradation cycle that marine pollution perpetuates, West Africa can safeguard and protect the fisheries from continuing to decline. Ergo, this will benefit not only the ecological system of the wider marine environment but also the economies and prosperity of those communities that are dependent on the viability of the fisheries industry.

2.3 Threat to Food Security

Moreover, the worsening marine pollution is posing a severe threat to the food security of the region. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), food security is achieved when people at all times have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. Nevertheless, the increasing contamination of the marine environment with different kinds of waste is disrupting the aquatic food webs, which could further isolate and trap the people in shoreline communities who depend primarily on fish for their everyday diet. Also, a contaminated aquatic environment could undermine the health of fish and other aquatic organisms in the food web and degrade the nutritional quality and safety of the seafood. For example, a new study by environmental toxicologists reveals that even very low concentrations of the common insecticide, chlorpyrifos, can have profound impacts on individual animals and their entire population. Now, a growing body of research demonstrates that exposure to chlorpyrifos and other organophosphates or synthetic molecules, like plastic additives and by-products, contributes to the emergence of neurodevelopmental and neurodegenerative diseases and neuro-behavioural disorders in humans. In the laboratory, the research team found that low level exposure over time interrupted the way genes and proteins interact in the brain. Consequently, these genetic disruptions cause the same genes not to behave as they should and the brain to shrink. In addition, brain cells related to movement and memory showed significant damage. Therefore, with the continuous pollution of the Atlantic seaboard and the there being limited and ineffective waste management initiatives, the ironical reality is that while the poor continue to depend on fish for their diets, they are consuming more and more of the pollutants that have been deadly to the fish. Such situation will only lead to a vicious cycle of health problems, poor economic productivity and perpetual poverty in the West African coastal communities.

3. Coastal Communities and the Effects of Marine Pollution

Pollution has a significant impact on the health of people living in the coastal communities of West Africa. Marine litter and particularly chemical pollutants can lead to serious health conditions. The general social condition – typically reflected by the socio-economic status and access to healthcare from developed countries – and the site-specific and exposure circumstances define the epidemiological scenario, generally characterized by exposure levels which are normally lower than those likely to induce the early appearance of the most severe health effects, with the exception of only a few localized ‘hot spots’. In many West African coastal communities, health problems connected with marine pollution are generally related to poor sanitation and hygiene, pollution caused by anthropogenic activities taking place at sea, and the inadequate and sometimes unsafe disposal of solid and industrial waste. For example, bacterial emanation due to inadequately treated sewage and greater concentration of pathogenic microorganisms in near-shore waters can cause infections to swimmers and people who eat raw shellfish. Skin rashes and ear diseases are relatively common and may lead to more serious complications. This is particularly relevant if we recall that an estimated 15 million people in developing countries get most or all of their animal protein from fish and shellfish. This could have a significant impact on established public health conditions and policy in many of these countries, since an increase in water quality standards or certain controls on potentially harmful substances could be put into practice not only in view of marine pollution, but also in relation to the improvement of life quality standards. Such a strategy, especially when related to forms of international or bilateral agreements, could find its realization in existing or new policy guidelines for safe, sustainable, and efficient development in accordance with the primary health care approach as expressed in the Paris Declaration on Environmental and Marine Pollution in Nigeria, 14th September 2003, where primary health care is clearly identified as the key to achieving it, allowing appropriate economic and social improvements. The implementation of Integrated Coastal Zone Management in the West African region has to face the problem of sustainable and efficient use of the coast and marine waters in order to justify the applicability of these policies.

3.1 Health Risks to Coastal Communities

In 3.1, we concentrate on the health dangers and conditions that emerge because of marine contamination in coastal West African communities. The difficulty is that there is next to no solid data accessible on the impacts contamination has on the health of individuals who live along the coast. Most of the accessible data is collected from fishermen and ladies whose main route of acquiring an income is fishing. In a study that I did in early 2002, in Berending, a very dynamic fishing village in the Kombo North by locale in the West Coast Region of The Gambia, an aggregate of 98 men and ladies were surveyed. 89 of the respondents were fishermen and ladies while 9 were non-fishermen and less. The study results demonstrated that all together of importance of health, 18.6% of fishermen and 12.5% of non-fishermen quantified the level of toxic marine agrochemicals as a significant health issue. 64.6% of the fishermen and 50% of the non-fishermen quantified it as low while 16.9% of the fishermen and 37.5% of the non-fishermen quantified it as a manageable health issue. In any case, 60% of the fishermen inspected had consumed fish from the polluted marine environment in the last two weeks in contrast with 5% of the non-fishermen. A large portion of the fishermen and ladies analyzed recommended that it was a direct result of poverty that they consumed fish from the polluted environment as they see that it will require an expanded rate of utilization to bring about any type of an extreme health effect. Subsequently, these people group are at a even more serious risk of ailments and diseases that are brought about by the toxic waste. These might incorporate but are not restricted to visual, cognitive and immune system obstructions well as an expansion in particular sorts of malignancy for instance abdominal cancer. The most well-known health issue at display in the vast majority of the families because of the toxic marine agrochemicals is skin irritations with 48% of both the fishermen and non-fishermen recognising it as the notable health problem. Hurtfully, 84% of the families study use the terrible tap water to wash after fishing or working in the plantation. This is because of poverty and an absence of learning on the health dangers that is presented by putting away crude fish in clean water. Moreover, 60% of the families did not have a first aid box to store necessary medical things that could be utilized as a part of the treatment minor diseases as per the general inclination of the people and to alleviate the state of the injury before seeing a qualified health expert.

3.2 Socioeconomic Challenges

The low and inconsistent catches in recent times are attributed to marine pollution, overfishing, and inadequate conservation measures. This has resulted in socio-economic challenges in these West African coastal communities that are largely dependent on traditional fishing as a source of livelihood for almost everybody living in the community. The communities’ economic hardship is further compounded by the introduction of modern fishing trawlers and foreign business ventures, which deplete the remaining fish stocks. These modern fishing vessels fish intensively over a wide area and make many coastal areas vulnerable to over-exploitation. Lack of education and training among the communities in the area of sustainable and modern fishing practices has worsened the situation. Limited knowledge on laws and regulations on fisheries among these communities has made it possible for unsustainable practices to fuel the continued cycle. Unemployed youth in these poor coastal communities often resort to illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing practices in order to earn a living, resulting in further exploitation of the fishery resources. Fish mongers in these communities have reported a decline in the catch from their fishers due to the environmental degradation caused by marine pollution and unsustainable fishing practices. Fish mongers have to travel longer and spend more time and money in acquiring the same amount of fish. Also, the fish has to be sold at a higher price in the market due to increased travel costs and longer time for the fish to reach the market, leading to economic hardship. These coastal communities are often left behind in socio-economic development by the national and regional government. There is often less investment in infrastructure like good road networks, healthcare facilities, and even electricity as compared to the urban cities. Also, the absence of modern industrial and commercial activities in these rural coastal areas makes it impossible for any changes in the local economies, which depend solely on fisheries. Residents in these coastal communities often find it hard to adapt to a modernizing society and changing socio-economic conditions fueled by modern and global trends that are absent in the rural coastal environment. Rapid population growth in West African coastal communities has put an increasing demand on fishery resources as food and a source of income. This has exacerbated the pressure on these resources and has led to over-exploitation, which is worsened by the combination of marine pollution, overfishing, and inadequate conservation measures. The population believes that their lives, livelihood, and future depend on fishery resources, and this has triggered exploitative and unsustainable fishing practices with no care for the long-term impact on the health of the resources. It is evident that immediate and long-term investments in education and infrastructure like schools, roads, and healthcare facilities, as well as opening up of alternative employment opportunities in the rural and urban areas, are vital to break these socio-economic problems affecting the coastal communities.

3.3 Cultural Impacts

These current cultural and community-led movements in affected areas have also provided an avenue for scientists and policymakers to engage with local communities and promote new research and direct action from the ground up. By raising awareness and focusing on the protection of cultural practices, a wider renaissance of traditions could be facilitated alongside practical action to prevent marine pollution. The protection of cultural practices, individual mental well-being and social cohesion is reliant on a global movement to minimize and eradicate culturally impactful pollution that promises a bright, carbon free future every day. By highlighting the importance of culture in every day life and the adverse effects of pollution, it is hoped that further positive action can be made to protect the traditions of coastal communities around the world.

Such damaging and destructive effect on every day life of cultural pollution should not be underestimated. It provides a constant and oppressive reminder of the realities of living in a polluted environment and can lead to feelings of cynicism and hopelessness, a waste of a once pure and pristine natural resource and alienation from the rest of the world that continues to exploit the natural world of that community. Recognizing the impacts of cultural pollution on native traditions and cultural practices is the first step towards meaningful action. Through grassroots and community-led movements and support for wider political action to mitigate and prevent marine pollution, these traditions can be safeguarded. This can involve the promotion of local cultural activities and collective action to demonstrate the importance of these traditions to the rest of the world, as well as pushing governments to recognize and protect areas of cultural significance from further pollution.

Furthermore, the increase in tourism and development along the coast as a result of fishing and urbanization has placed further pressure on the survival of these traditions. For instance, waste and pollution from industries and real estate construction are degrading the shorelines and coastal areas that are integral to native religious and cultural activities. The decrease in environmental quality and the sanctity of important cultural spaces due to pollution are now driving forces of cultural degradation and displacement. As coastal communities lose access to these spaces due to pollution and the decline in fish stocks, the traditions and customs that make them unique are increasingly under threat. This can lead to a level of detachment and crisis of identity amongst the native groups which can be incredibly damaging and traumatic to both individuals and the community at large.

In our increasingly globalized world, it is becoming more and more difficult for native cultures and traditions to survive. The unique cultural practices and traditions of coastal communities that have been passed down through generations are now being systematically eradicated by the impacts of marine pollution. For example, the decline of fish stocks near the coast is leading to a more individualized and commercial approach to fishing as opposed to the collective and community-based nature of traditional fishing practices. Without a necessary abundance in fish populations, many native fishers are forced to embrace newer ways of fishing that involve more advanced technology and more focus on efficiency and profit. Therefore, local and cultural traditions of cooperative and collective fishing are being lost, ultimately leading to a breakdown of social cohesion in these communities.

4. Developing Sustainable Fishing Practices and Pollution Mitigation Strategies

4.1 Implementing Fishing Regulations

4.2 Promoting Alternative Livelihoods

4.3 Enhancing Waste Management Systems

4.4 Strengthening International Cooperation

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