Nigerian fishers hit by criminals, imports and climate change

From African waters to China and back again, over half the fish on Nigerian tables is imported

Fisherman catching fish on the lagoon by the third mainland bridge in Lagos, Nigeria.

Credit: Andrew Esiebo

Makoko: the fishing community running out of fish

There is a legend about the neighbourhood of Makoko. It holds that birth in the “world’s largest floating slum” is celebrated by the father throwing his newborn into the Lagos lagoon. If the infant floats it is embraced by all. A baby that drowns is illegitimate and its mother must be banished from the community. “But all babies float,” is a refrain you hear, often accompanied by a mischievous smile.

Editor’s note

For this multimedia story Nosmot Gbadamosi travelled with photojournalist Andrew Esiebo to fishing communities and food markets in Lagos. They talked to fishers and sellers throughout the city, as well as activists and experts based further afield.

Although a terrifying myth, it defines the lagoon’s importance as the linchpin of life in Makoko, where residents eke out a living from the polluted waterway snaking through Africa’s most populous city of around 20 million people.

On a cloudy Monday morning, Jacob Lodun, 20, readied his boat for a 12-hour slog on the water. A fisher born in Makoko, this has been Lodun’s daily routine since he was nine.

Back then he and his father would return home from a trip with scores of catfish and a heap of smaller species. Some would be cooked up in pepper soup while the rest went to early morning markets.

“Now we don’t get any fish to kill,” he said. “The fish are running further away.” Sat in a dugout canoe with no outboard engine, he is unable to chase them.

“To buy a motor is around 500,000 naira (US$1,390),” Lodun shrugged – more than triple his monthly income.

Fisherman catching fish in Lagos lagoon, Nigeria
Credit: Andrew Esiebo

Lodun’s predicament points to a much bigger problem facing Nigeria’s 190 million people. The coastal nation is marine-rich but over half the fish served there are imported from countries like the Netherlands and, increasingly, China.

At a time when growing evidence suggests warming waters are pushing fish further from the West African coast, the fishing grounds of developing nations like Nigeria are today some of Asia and the EU’s most targeted. Lack of investment in the local fishing industry has compounded the problem.

Looting Nigeria’s seas

In 2018, the Nigerian navy declared the country was losing US$70 million annually to Chinese trawlers fishing illegally in its waters. Going in the other direction, China exported roughly US$42 million worth of fish to Nigeria in 2017, more than double the year before.

Nigeria is the fourth largest importer of fish. Foreign imports plug a 2 million metric tonne supply gap to a growing population predicted to exceed 300 million by 2050.

“Coastal communities are fighting not only illegal fishing or overfishing, they also have to suffer from the impact of climate change,” said Ifesinachi Okafor-Yarwood, a maritime security researcher at King’s College London.

“Officially Nigeria does not have any fishing arrangements with distant fishing nations such as China or the European Union. But they are able to fish in Nigerian waters illegally because maybe they have arrangements with [the nearby island nation of] São Tomé and Príncipe so they have a reason to be at the border,” she explained. Around 34 ships fish for tuna in the waters of São Tomé under a Fishing Partnership Agreement with the EU. Two years ago, the nation signed its first fisheries agreement with China.


A map of West Africa, showing the Gulf of Guinea, and the location of Lagos, Nigeria

A report from the Overseas Development Institute used satellite tracking to monitor the methods of exploitation used by foreign fleets within the stretch of water from Senegal to Nigeria. It revealed fishing boats commonly transfer catches to other vessels in order to flout quota regulations. Catches are also transported via container ships that are subject to less stringent checks. Vessels from China, the Netherlands and Spain were identified.

Okafor-Yarwood studied Nigeria’s fisheries in 2015. “The department of fisheries cannot engage in pursuit because they do not own [an effective] patrol vessel,” she said. Their vessels have a range of no more than 200 nautical miles.

“The navy are trying, but their vessels are derelict… Then you find corrupt personnel taking backhanders to let certain things slide.” This includes fishing with finer-mesh nets to catch more fish.

In December 2018, the Nigerian government approved the purchase of two patrol boats for the department of fisheries “to monitor unreported, unregulated and illegal fishing by Chinese vessels”, according to local media outlet the New Telegraph. But Okafor-Yarwood is worried that the vessels will be manned by the navy, which has no expertise in collecting evidence of fisheries crimes.

Fresh fish being frozen out

In the nineteenth century, Makoko was a tiny fishing village in the growing trading hub of Lagos. Economic dreamers from Nigeria’s coastal states and neighbouring countries journeyed to the area in search of wealth. But short on affordable land, they expanded onto water.

Today, more than 100,000 people call this stretch of water home. Their stilted shacks, a testament to Lagosian ingenuity, are considered illegal by the Nigerian government.

Located by the side of Nigeria’s most famous slum is Asejere Makoko fish market. On a Thursday evening, before the sun sets over Third Mainland Bridge, the ringing of commerce in this sprawling market can be heard from afar as journeymen, businesswomen and students buy their evening meal. Croaker, mackerel, tilapia and sharp-toothed barracuda are piled unceremoniously in plastic buckets.

Fish being sold at the Asejire fish market in Makoko, Lagos
Credit: Andrew Esiebo

Fishwives on the lookout for buyers slice and dice fish caught earlier by their husbands, while wheelbarrow boys carry assorted livestock parts, hollering their presence as they carve a path through the crowds.

Many of the fish caught, filleted and sold in Asejere, are destined for a stockpot of obe eja tutu (Nigerian fresh fish stew) and have come from the nearby ocean.

But 18-year-old Janet Hunukon has no fresh fish to flog. She is more concerned with enticing customers down a concrete alley nestled in the market’s belly where her ice block coolers sit full of frozen fish.

Farmed Chinese tilapia is popular because it is cheaper and more profitable than locally-caught fish. “We make more money from frozen,” said Hunukon. “If you buy a carton for 8,500 naira (US$24) you can sell it for 12,000 naira (US$33).”


In a country lacking constant electricity, keeping fish fresh often means selling at a loss. And Agnes Bentos, an astute 27-year-old, knows she too will have to diversify.

Her stall has a dismal half-dozen fish for sale. “They’ve gone out to sea but they haven’t seen anything,” she said about the local fishers who supply her trade. “Usually they are back by now.”

Bentos has made a living from the fresh fish business just as her great-great-grandmother did. “When my mother gave birth to me and I looked all around, fish was the first thing that I saw and they said this is where your work is,” she said.

Nigeria is Africa’s wealthiest economy, a status built on oil, finance and manufacturing. But this has not reverberated to all its citizens. Fishers earn US$3 a day, and half the country lives on less than US$1.90 a day – the international measure of extreme poverty.

Fishing, an industry employing 790,000 Nigerians, is a tradition now under threat from climate change and overfishing.

The ‘ice kings’ of Ijora

A fish seller weighing imported frozen fish for sale at Ijora frozen food market in Lagos, Nigeria
Credit: Andrew Esiebo

A half-hour drive south from Makoko, the Ijora Olopa frozen food market in Lagos is an orderly line of refrigerated coolers.

Buyers navigate muddy paths in search of a bargain where the competition for foreign over local fish has become intense.

Fishmonger Sodiq Oluyede, 22, was energetically hacking up beefy tilapia on wooden blocks, before swiftly chopping it into more manageable chunks for a well-heeled customer.

“Tilapia is imported plenty,” he said, this despite Nigeria’s Tilapia and Aquaculture Developers Association calling for an outright ban to protect the local aquaculture industry. “It is the one that is all over the market.”

Tilapia is a freshwater fish native to Africa. But according to statistics from its Ministry of Agriculture, China produced 1.86 million tonnes of farmed tilapia in 2016 – one third of total global output.

Today the majority of frozen tilapia sold whole and filleted in Ijora comes from China, the world’s biggest seafood exporter. In 2017, China exported more than US$2 million worth of frozen tilapia to Nigeria.

“Let’s say you are doing a birthday party and you need a large crate of whole fish. For that you will pay 35,000 naira (US$97) for local fish, while the imported fish is bigger and is 20,000 naira ($55),” said Oluyede.

Omotosho Razak, 29, heaved a giant barracuda onto his workbench as he waited for clients from abroad. Razak is one of a few benefitting from exports. “I have regular customers from China who come and buy and sell to places like Germany,” he smiled. “We sell it to Chinese men the same as locals. It is a fixed price. But the Chinese buy more.”

From Nigeria to China and back again

Walk a few blocks behind Ijora’s market, crossing the city’s sprawling network of motorways, to Ijora’s gated cold storage facilities, and fishwives sit patiently waiting for a glimpse of wholesale sellers.

Juliet Ozalagba has worked as warehouse manager at Orbit Agro Exports for the past five years. “Tilapia is mostly coming from China, although a lot of it is actually Nigerian tilapia. It is packaged in China then they sell it back to us again,” she said. Most would bristle at the logic. But because of China’s investment in machinery, it’s a common practice globally, including for fisheries in the United States, to ship fish to China for filleting and processing.

Cartons of imported frozen fish at large cold room at the Ijora frozen food market in Lagos.
Credit: Andrew Esiebo

Then there is the problem of who fishes and how much they catch. “I would say only about 10% of fishing companies in Nigeria are owned by Nigerians,” added Ozalagba. She blames unchecked government fishing licences doled out in previous years. “They gave a lot of licences, especially to foreign companies,” said Ozalagba, as she sat at her desk registering transactions into an oversized ledger book. “There was a lot of overfishing… a lot of people went out of business.”

Stepping into Ozalagba’s cold room, primed at 28 degrees below zero, a walled fortress of cardboard boxes packed with frozen herring and mackerel bears Russian and Irish stamps.

Despite an official ban on imported mackerel in 2017, levels remained constant, with Russia, Iceland and Ireland continuing to export.

“What the government was trying to do, it cannot work,” Ozalabga’s colleague Jacob Alison added about import restrictions. “You cannot say everything stop. You have to reduce it gradually.” Alison believes overfishing has meant some species have entirely vanished, creating a gap filled by imports.

“Since the water is not controlled by anybody, people just come with their boats and take whatever they want,” he said.

Around 61 species native to Nigeria are listed as either vulnerable or critically endangered by research institute FishBase. There are “too many boats fishing for too few fish” said Dyhia Belhabib, a researcher at the University of British Columbia, who has been studying illegal fishing in West Africa for years. “China is easy to blame because it’s the one that is most visible … but they are not the only ones. Bluefin for example are an endangered species that should not be caught, but it’s still caught even by the EU fleet.”

‘The water belongs to us’

Smoked fish for sale at Liverpool Apapa fish market in Lagos, Nigeria.
Credit: Andrew Esiebo

Drive another half hour south from Ijora and the Tincan-Apapa flyover curves across Liverpool Street. Underneath, the Apapa food market takes refuge. At the entrance, motorcycle boys convene for shade and gossip. But head past the rows of stalls selling ata rodo (scotch bonnet chillies) and curled dried fish, and you’ll find fishwives loudly hawking their prized frozen goods.

On a Wednesday afternoon, the fresh catch market that springs to life at 7am was long over. But a few fishers could still be seen drinking iced beer as street children employed as porters whizzed past carrying pans of assorted vegetables and meat to impatient buyers. Around US$3,500 worth of profit in sales of local fish is made daily at Apapa market, according to the Nigerian Institute for Oceanography and Marine Research.

When times were good, the fishers who bring their catch here only ventured to the open sea once a week. Now, “trawlers have scattered the water” according to Yekub Teiwo Degbeyin, president of the Liverpool Apapa Fishermen Association. “You can go more than four hours before you set your net.”

At present his crew of five make just US$11 on each trip. Each day the ocean they rely on is offering up less and further out.

“Formerly when we go we can [catch] almost 120 kilograms of fish, but these days it is very hard for us to see 40 kilograms,” he said, adding that their outboard engines are shared amongst association members.

In 2012, already burdened by inflated costs on motors, many artisanal fishermen could not afford to keep their vessels running after Nigeria’s federal government removed fuel subsidies. This diminished distant-water fishing by Nigerians, according to a 2015 report.

“We have resources here, the water belongs to us,” said Degbeyin. He wants Nigerians to invest in commercial fishing to address the market dominance of foreign-owned vessels. “It is only our government. They have the money to buy trawlers – they did not buy. Our [wealthy] big men have the money to buy the trawlers – they did not buy.”

Diminishing returns, destructive measures

The desire to compete with internationally-owned trawlers is putting pressure on Nigeria’s fisheries by increasing the incentives for local boats to use even more destructive catch methods.

“They go to areas that have been restricted to them, including where [oil] pipelines are, to fish, and obviously there is a risk of bursting the pipeline and the cycle continues,” said King’s College London researcher Okafor-Yarwood.

Pollution from Nigeria’s oil industry and coastal sand dredging for megastructure developments are just part of a grim puzzle keeping fish away from local fishers.

There are fewer fish as oceans warm, according to a 2019 study in the journal Science. Oceans have absorbed 93% of the planet’s heat trapped by greenhouse gases. “When you hear about climate mitigation, a lot of the things… are about agriculture and farming and much less on what they can do to support coastal states,” said Okafor-Yarwood.

The Sahel region, which includes Nigeria, is “ground zero” in the battle against climate change, according to one UN official. Nigeria stands to see a 52% drop in landed fish catches by 2050 in the worst-case scenario predicted in a 2012 study on the possible impact of climate change on fisheries in 14 West African countries. That’s equivalent to a loss of US$87 million.

“Because of climate change in Nigeria, now along our coastal waters there is a weed that has come in called sargassum,” said Anetekhai Martins Agenuma, a professor of fisheries at Lagos State University. “During the period that it is around, the fishermen are unable to go fishing, it destroys their nets, it creeps into their nets… We must be prepared for what is coming.”

To reduce reliance on imports, the Nigerian government has made aquaculture a high priority, with some success. The country is one of the top producers of farmed tilapia in Africa.

But local fish farmers worry they cannot compete against cheaper foreign goods. “If you allow importation to take place unregulated you will end up killing the local industry that is just coming up,” Martins Agenuma explained. “If you flood the market with fish of lower quality, and it’s cheaper than what is produced locally, then local production cannot go on.”

Battling illegal fishing

A general view of Sea Shepherd's Bob Barker ship in Certosa Island
Credit: Andrea Spinelli / Alamy

Something else worries Peter Hammarstedt, captain of anti-illegal fishing ship the Bob Barker currently patrolling West African waters on behalf of conservation group Sea Shepherd.

“We must see illegal, unreported and unregulated [IUU] fishing within a broader maritime security context,” he said. The activities of pirate trawlers like the notorious Thunder are part of this context.

Claiming to belong to at least eight different nations, including Nigeria, Thunder pillaged the world’s oceans for almost a decade. As far back as 2013, Interpol gathered information about the trawler from Nigeria and Togo, another country it supposedly flew the flag of.

In 2015, Thunder was chased for three and a half months before its captain sank the vessel in São Tomé and Príncipe’s waters, aiming to obscure evidence for prosecution. By the time crew members were arrested, it had earned more than US$60 million from illegal fishing. Nigeria had de-registered the vessel less than a month before it was caught.

“By changing name and flag constantly, illegal operators try to make it more difficult for authorities to track the movements of their vessels,” Hammarstedt said.

Including Thunder, two ships in Interpol’s most-wanted group “The Bandit 6” flew Nigeria’s flag without carrying any Nigerian crew members.

Coastal nations in the Gulf of Guinea are often targeted because they have no laws to cover waters beyond 200 nautical miles off their shores. “In many cases the registries have been chosen by the operators because of this lack of control of their vessels on the high seas, with no licence conditions or reporting requirements,” said Alistair McDonnell, a former criminal intelligence officer, part of the environment security team at Interpol. “Historically this has been a common occurrence globally and is one of the key corrections that have had to be made by several countries.”

Turtles under threat

In 2017, Star Shrimper XXV was arrested by Liberian coastguards. It had no authorisation to fish in Liberian waters and was doing so without a legally-required device designed to help endangered turtles swim out of nets.

The ship is part of a massive fleet of 70 fishing vessels belonging to Nigerian company Atlantic Shrimpers – a company ultimately owned by Dutch fishing giant Cornelis Vrolijk. Its high-value shrimp is certified for export into American and European markets.

“Interestingly, the Star Shrimper XXV had turtle exclusion devices on board but were not using them when they were arrested,” said Hammarstedt. When Sea Shepherd boarded the vessel, they found some shrimp already boxed-up and set for export to Greece.

Illegal fishing can prove lucrative for sophisticated outfits. “Depending on the size of the vessel, an individual voyage can net between US$3 to US$5 million a trip,” said McDonnell. “Also there is a significant contamination issue if IUU fish is mixed in with legal fish and processed.”

A breeding ground for crime and conflict

One in four catches from West African waters are hauled illegally. Okafor-Yarwood pointed out that Chinese vessels often move close to shore at night prowling for shrimp. “That’s supposed to be the breeding ground,” she said, “and that is when they clash with fishermen. According to the fisheries department, Nigeria makes about US$29 million a year exporting shrimp and loses the equivalent on illegal shrimping.”

Dwindling catches have escalated tensions amongst local fishers. In 2017, 97 Nigerian fishers were killed in neighbouring Cameroon in a US$300 dispute over fishing taxes. Officials have tended to view illegal fishing and subsequent imports as “victimless” rather than serious crimes that affect their communities.

“Corruption is a major concern,” said Agnes Ebo’o, regional organised crime observatory coordinator for Enact, a group supported by the EU to enhance Africa’s response to organised transnational crime. “I can’t imagine the port of Douala [in neighbouring Cameroon] or Lagos port authority turning away a vessel that has 500 tonnes of fish just because they have ratified an agreement,” she said, referring to the Port State Measures Agreement, a law designed to stop trade in IUU fish by denying port access to suspected vessels.

Ebo’o added: “The one organ that is supposed to look into fisheries more closely is the Gulf of Guinea Commission, and that’s just a non-starter.”

Launched in 2001, almost two decades later the commission has failed to come up with a legally-binding framework for countries in the region to tackle illegal fishing. Staff did not respond to repeated requests for an interview. chinadialogue also contacted the Nigerian government for comment, including the Department of Fisheries and Maritime Administration and Safety Agency, but has had no response.

To know the fishing fleet size and number of licences given out each year is a struggle for most African countries, according to Ebo’o.

“This is how badly something like corruption can ruin a nation’s resources,” said Okafor-Yarwood.