[Marxism] A crisis in the water is decimating this once-booming fishing town in Angola
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
“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
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
“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.”
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
“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
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,”
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
‘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
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
“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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