[Marxism] A crisis in the water is decimating this once-booming fishing town in Angola

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Nov 27 07:20:42 MST 2019

Washington Post, NOV. 27, 2019
A crisis in the water is decimating this once-booming fishing town
By Max Bearak and Chris Mooney

TOMBWA, Angola — His ancestors were Portuguese colonialists who settled 
on this otherworldly stretch of coast, wedged between a vast desert and 
the southern Atlantic. They came looking for the one thing this barren 
region had in abundance: fish.

By the time Mario Carceija Santos was getting into the fishing business 
half a century later, in the 1990s, Angola had won independence and the 
town of Tombwa was thriving. There were 20 fish factories strung along 
the bay, a constellation of churches and schools, a cinema hall built in 
art deco, and, in the central plaza, massive drying racks for the tons 
upon tons of fish hauled out of the sea.

Since then, Tombwa’s fortunes have plummeted; Santos’s factory is one of 
just two remaining. The cinema hall is shuttered. Kids run around town 
barefoot instead of going to school. The central plaza is overgrown by 
weeds, its statue of a proud fisherman covered in bird droppings.

Almost all of Tombwa’s residents rely on fishing for their livelihoods, 
but the decline of some fish species has put the town’s future in question.

“Six or seven species have disappeared almost entirely from here, 
sardines and anchovies included — the ones these factories were made for 
processing,” Santos said in his office, after inspecting the day’s catch.

“We’ll just have to close shop at some point.”

The gradual disappearance of fish is a death knell for Tombwa, a town of 
50,000 that has little else to offer residents. The approaching bust is 
the result of three powerful forces: Fish are suffocating in 
oxygen-depleted waters, huge foreign trawlers are grabbing what’s left, 
and the water is heating up far more rapidly here than almost anywhere 
else on the planet.

Sea temperatures off the Angolan coast have warmed 1.5 degrees Celsius — 
and possibly more — in the past century, according to a Washington Post 
analysis of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data.

In recent years, multiple studies have identified the waters along 
Tombwa’s coast in particular as a fast-warming hot spot: In one 
independent analysis of satellite-based NOAA data, temperatures have 
risen nearly 2 degrees Celsius since 1982. That is more than three times 
the global average rate of ocean warming.

Ocean warming in key hot spots around the globe — from Canada to Japan 
to Uruguay, where temperatures have risen 2 degrees Celsius or more — is 
disrupting an array of fisheries, including lobsters, salmon and clams, 
The Post’s reporting has found.

The impact is especially acute in Angola, among the most vulnerable 
countries in the world to climate change, even though the entire 
country’s carbon dioxide emissions amount to about 0.1 percent of the 
world’s output each year.

The warming ocean temperatures compound the effects of two other 
ecological catastrophes playing out in this southern African country of 
30 million: Illegal fishing depletes the ocean of tens of thousands of 
tons of fish each year, and increasingly oxygen-poor seawater makes 
coastal areas inhospitable to a diversity of marine life.

Fisheries data from the southern coast of Angola, a country wracked by 
civil war until the mid-2000s, is sparse. But a number of species 
integral to the area are being hard hit by the disruptive consequences 
from this triple threat:

● A species of fish critical to subsistence fishermen in Tombwa, the 
blacktail seabream, is losing its ability to reproduce here as waters 
warm: Its reproductive output is estimated to have declined by 20 
percent per decade over the past 30 years. Instead, the fish are moving 
south, to cooler waters, according to a study by Warren Potts, a marine 
biologist at Rhodes University in South Africa.

● The dusky kob, a massive fish that can grow over six feet long and is 
popular with anglers in southern Angola, is also shifting southward, 
sparking a bizarre evolutionary event: Two kob species that had been 
separated for some 2 million years have reconnected and are 
interbreeding, Potts has found. That development implies that warming 
levels here may have breached a new threshold.

● Beyond the southern coastline, a species key to the Angolan diet has 
been disappearing from the country’s waters: Cunene horse mackerel 
levels in the region dropped from an estimated 430,000 tons in 1996 to 
137,000 tons in 2013, a “historic low and critical level,” according to 
a technical report written to help Angola manage the species.

Ultimately, unchecked warming could also cause Angola to lose 20 percent 
of its fisheries, according to a recent study by Rashid Sumaila, an 
oceans expert at the University of British Columbia in Canada. The 
projection uses ecological and economic modeling to determine what could 
happen to fisheries if countries fail to cut emissions.

Oceans are complex ecosystems, and marine life is highly sensitive to 
even the slightest shifts in temperature and oxygen levels. Potts, who 
is alone in studying the warming near Tombwa firsthand, says the chain 
reaction the changes will wreak here is hard to predict — but almost 
inevitably dire.

“Imagine that one species of fish is able to adapt to the warming, but 
it so happens they’ve evolved to only eat another species that wasn’t 
able to adapt. Then what?” said Potts, 45, an avid fisherman who, like 
many South Africans, was initially drawn to southern Angola for its 
legendary angling.

Potts and his team of postgraduate researchers travel to southern Angola 
at least once a year. They don scuba gear and dive to collect sensors 
that take the temperature of the water.

In February 2016, those sensors registered a strong ocean heat wave. 
Temperatures spiked above 28 degrees Celsius multiple times during the 
month — well above averages that have hovered around 21 degrees Celsius 
in recent years. The entire month was more than 3 degrees Celsius warmer 
than any other February that Potts’s team has recorded.

Angola lacks the capacity, especially in vulnerable fishing towns like 
Tombwa, to adjust or adapt to the drastic changes.

Tombwa’s inhabitants are mostly migrants from even poorer regions of a 
country that suffers from other climatic calamities, such as cycles of 
drought and flood. Even as factory jobs dwindle, along with the tonnages 
hauled and the sizes of the fish themselves, people continue to settle here.

Jobs in commercial fishing are increasingly hard to come by as most of 
the region’s fish processing plants have closed.

Most of Tombwa’s fishermen now go out on their own, in homemade crafts 
of plastic foam and chopped-up pieces of buoy, hoping to catch the fish 
that remain.

“Together with the massive exploitation going on, Tombwa isn’t likely to 
exist in 20 or 30 years,” said Potts.

That prediction inches closer to reality each day for Santos, the 
factory owner. His boats used to leave early in the morning and his 
fisherman would be back on shore by lunch.

“Now we travel much farther than we used to — nine, 12, 16 hours on our 
boats,” he said. “We are no match for the changes.”

‘Just surviving’

On a long, deserted stretch of beach, two women watched expectantly as 
Joao Bautista paddled his tiny craft back into Tombwa from the open sea. 
He’d spent the whole morning bobbing out there alone on his simple 
flotation device, using plastic plates as oars, his legs dangling in the 

They were hoping he’d caught enough fish for them to buy and then sell 
for a small markup at the market, where fish is salted and shipped to 
distant towns. That is mostly what drives Tombwa’s economy nowadays.

But the look on his face as he landed on shore that morning in May was 
of exhaustion and disappointment. His haul after six hours at sea was 
measly: nine small squid. The women were unimpressed, but they bought 
the entire catch for 450 kwanza (roughly $1), enough for the fisherman 
to buy two meals.

Bautista, 26, has been fishing for a living since he was 10, in the same 
waters that older folks say used to produce glistening catches with just 
the dip of a net.

“I am not making a living anymore, just surviving,” he said.

What Bautista is seeing plays out along the southern Angolan coastline.

The fishing in Tombwa is now less of a commercial venture and more of a 
free-for-all. Fishermen build their own boats out of discarded material.

Awaiting the fishermen’s return are women like Olga Lucas, who cleans 
and salts the fish to sell later.

Tombwa’s new informal fishing economy has drawn thousands of people 
looking for quick work, even if it doesn’t pay much.
Some of the drop in numbers of marine creatures can be attributed to 
overfishing. But what’s happening off the coast of Tombwa is a striking 
example of how temperature-driven changes in wind and current patterns 
can have extreme consequences in small patches of the globe.

As the Earth has heated up, the warm air in the tropics around the 
equator has been expanding outward. In the South Atlantic, the warmer 
air pushes a giant high-pressure zone southward. That zone comes with 
high winds that drive currents such as the Benguela, which carries cold 
southern waters north along the southwest African coast.

This wind circulation once consistently drove the top layer of the ocean 
away from the southern Angolan coast, forcing cooler water from the 
depths to rise — a process called upwelling. It’s critical to fisheries 
because the cooler, deeper waters tend to be rich in nutrients that fish 
need to survive.

But the shift in the high-pressure zone has meant slowing winds and less 
upwelling. As the water there stagnates, warmer currents seep in and 
take the Benguela’s place.

That means much less cold water has been reaching the surface. Between 
2009 and 2014, the volume of cool water that rose to the ocean surface 
in the northern Benguela current region shrank by more than half 
compared to average figures from the prior 30 years, according to recent 

These shifts have driven the dramatic rise in ocean temperatures here, 
said Edward Vizy, a climate scientist at the University of Texas at 
Austin. He and his colleague Kerry Cook conducted a NASA-funded study of 
the region that used NOAA satellite data to document the above-average 
warming here.

“We talk about global warming, but what people feel are the regional and 
short-term extremes,” said Michael McPhaden, an oceanographer at NOAA’s 
Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory.

The major heat wave that Potts’s team recorded in February 2016 put this 
process on full display. Weaker winds and a probable resulting decline 
in upwelling were key factors in the spiking water temperatures, 
according to a recent study led by Joke Lübbecke, an ocean researcher at 
the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Kiel, Germany.

Sudden, drastic warming can have disastrous effects on fish.

People here can sense that the ocean is changing but feel powerless to 
stop it: The water is warmer, the air more stagnant, the fish fewer.

“Water conducts temperature a lot better than air, so if the water 
temperature is 28.5 degrees [Celsius], the [fish’s] body will most 
likely follow suit,” said Alexander Winkler, a postdoctoral researcher 
working with Potts.

In Tombwa, the people most keenly aware of the rise in local sea 
temperatures are those who own boats equipped with thermometers, like 
Paulo Peleira, a 42-year-old captain of the midsize Principe das Ondas, 
or Prince of the Waves.

Even though his livelihood depends on hauling fish out of the sea by the 
ton — which are then vacuumed out of his boat into a pipe at one of the 
remaining processing plants — he said he feels sorry for the fish.

“Our fish can deal with water 18 to 22 degrees [Celsius], but even just 
this week it was like 26 for days. Imagine what it must be like for 
them,” he said, standing on the dock with his crew of eight.

“You know, fishermen are typically hopeful people, going out every day 
not knowing what we’ll find. That’s why, at first, we thought the 
warming was just a phase. Well, it’s not. Seems to me we’ll spend the 
rest of our lives zigging and zagging in this ocean just to find the fish.”

The environment is in flux in other parts of Angola, too, causing cycles 
of droughts and floods in the country’s interior. Despite the foreboding 
signs in Tombwa, people from those regions still see an opportunity to 
make a living or at least catch some food here.

Multiple studies, including by Vizy and Potts, have documented the rapid 
warming trend along this coast over the past three decades. But in the 
scientific community, a dearth of longer-term data has led to some 
disagreement over the degree and causes of the warming, especially 
before satellite data became available in 1982.

Mathieu Rouault, an ocean scientist at the University of Cape Town in 
South Africa, doesn’t doubt the recent warming trend near Tombwa. But he 
emphasizes that natural ocean cycles, which deliver occasional pulses of 
warm tropical water to the area called Benguela Niños, are also crucial 
to understanding what’s happening.

For instance, temperatures here were warmer in the 1960s than during the 
cool 1980s, when the current sharp warming trend began. This suggests 
that temperatures were driven by natural variability, rather than 
showing a clear upward trend. But over a longer period, since 1880, NOAA 
data shows large warming, above 2 degrees Celsius along the Angolan 
coast. Scientists are not certain whether to trust the results, however, 
because along this coastline very few temperature measurements were 
taken by ships in the late 19th century.

Another change that goes hand in hand with warming: declining ocean 
oxygen levels.

Waters along the coast of Angola are losing dissolved oxygen at the rate 
of about 2 percent per decade, which is among the fastest losses seen 
across the global ocean, according to Lothar Stramma of the GEOMAR 
Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research.

Deoxygenation can have dire consequences for fisheries. In oxygen-thin 
water, lower parts of the food web, such as zooplankton and small fish 
like sardines and anchovies, suffer the most. The impacts can ripple 
through the entire ecosystem.

Potts says the declining levels of oxygen in waters around Tombwa mean 
the fish found there are typically smaller, because younger fish need 
less oxygen. At the same time, more adults are now found farther south, 
in Namibian waters.

The sea temperature changes have come so quickly that even younger local 
fishermen remember the days when water over 21.1 degrees Celsius was 
worrisome. Nowadays, it can push to 26.7 degrees Celsius.

“With what we see around here, with the currents fighting for position 
and the warmer current winning out, we’d expect to see a reduction in 
everything fishwise: sizes, quantities, even a reduced capacity to 
withstand temperature shocks among those that remain,” said Potts. “It’s 
a weakening of the ecosystem.”

Everyone in Tombwa — from Bautista, whose legs dangle in the unusually 
warm water off his makeshift paddle board, to Potts to Peleira to Santos 
— feel like they are watching their boomtown go bust.

“It is just a race now to get everything out before it all goes away,” 
Bautista said.

Most of the fishing in Tombwa is unregulated, especially among artisanal 
fishers. But illegal trawling by huge foreign vessels is the main driver 
alongside climate change in depleting fish populations.

Crews of commercial fishing vessels in Tombwa complain they have to 
search for longer than ever before to find fish.

Small- and medium-sized vessels are no match for trawlers, many of which 
come all the way from China and South Korea to plunder Angola’s loosely 
patrolled waters.

‘Running out of time’

In the race to fish southern Angola’s warming seas, everyone here 
agrees: The winners are huge commercial fishing trawlers and the losers 
are those who have made Tombwa their home.

To 60-year-old Vital Sousa Marção, it is infuriating.

“It is done by people who do not sleep here, eat here, know here,” he 
said, on the brink of tears. He runs the town’s boatyard and once was a 
union leader when there were more than 5,000 fishermen here — about five 
times as many as there are now. “The trawlers, they are committing a 
terrible sin.”

Angola’s waters are largely unregulated, whether for trawlers or what 
the government calls “artisanal” fishers, like Joao Bautista.

For those who’ve spent their whole lives in Tombwa, like Vital Sousa 
Marção, the advent of trawling compounds the pain of an already changing 

The available evidence indicates that most illegal fishing off Angola’s 
coast is carried out by private, independent-owned vessels that 
originate in China and South Korea.

The Angolan government has insufficient patrol boats to guard its waters 
against trawlers that use giant nets to catch huge quantities of fish 
without permission. Compounding the problem is Angola’s indebtedness to 
China. Fisheries make up about 4 percent of Angola’s gross domestic 
product, but the country’s economy is dominated by a massive oil 
industry. Most of that oil is bought by China, which in turn owns about 
70 percent of Angola’s debt, or around $23 billion.

Marção and Santos say that indebtedness explains what they see as the 
Angolan government’s apathy in cracking down on the trawlers.

“I don’t think there’s anything we can do to stop climate change,” said 
Santos, who says trawling is speeding his business’s decline. “But the 
least the government could do is stop the overfishing.”

Angola’s Ministry of Fisheries did not respond to repeated requests for 

At a much smaller scale, the influx of artisanal fishers is also 
contributing to overfishing, though of species found at shallower depths 
closer to shore, a trend the fishermen are acutely aware of as they see 
it every day in diminishing catches.

Welwitschia Mirabilis Adolf is one of the thousands who have recently 
moved to Tombwa. His parents named him after one of the few plants that 
can survive the Angolan desert, a wilted-looking shrub that even when 
healthy looks as if it has melted into a puddle of agave-like leaves.

In his native region of Huambo, he says the sun has been more scorching 
and the rain less frequent. His family’s livelihood in Huambo — herding 
cattle — has become almost impossible. Neither the cattle nor the people 
have sufficient food.

Despite spending hours at sea, Joao Bautista returns with a small haul 
of squid.

“There’s hunger where I came from,” he said. He is now part of a 
five-man squad that fishes from a small wooden rowboat. “At least here 
you can catch a few fish and eat.”

There is no monitoring of the artisanal fishermen — no landing sites 
where quotas might be enforced or policing body that could punish 
infractions like not throwing back pregnant or juvenile fish. Those 
simple practices can help protect vulnerable fisheries.

“Artisanal fishing is simply anarchy,” said Carmen Van Dúnem Santos, an 
Angolan professor who collaborated with Potts and who leads a 
government-run ocean sciences academy an hour north of Tombwa. “But the 
trawlers, they are the kings. They can do whatever they want, and many 
of them have no respect for the future.”

She is part of the Angolan government’s delegation to the Benguela 
Current Commission, which includes officials from Namibia and South 
Africa, and aims to promote sustainable fishing. It was established more 
than a decade ago, but she says Angola hasn’t adopted any kind of 
coastal management policy.

“There are lots of proposals, but no action,” she said. “I am afraid we 
are running out of time.”

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