West Africa’s charismatic marine life, or “aquatic bushmeat,” under threat

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 A sea turtle rests on a rock in Guinea-Bissau. Photo credit: IBAP


In Ghana, coastal erosion and rising seas are burying some seaside villages, like Fuveme, which is now completely under sand.  As in neighboring countries, hydrocarbon exploration is well underway not too far from the shore, and coastal urban areas are expanding. The fish stock has declined dramatically, and formerly thriving fishing communities are in trouble.

Fishers who sat down with me near their dry boats in the bustling fishing village of Elmina, Ghana, last year, said they can go two weeks without seeing any fish. This widespread decline causes some fishers in West Africa to look for new ways to make a living, including an increase in the hunt for what advocates now call “aquatic bushmeat”— which includes dolphins, small whales, manatees, reptiles, sea turtles, and birds.

The term aquatic bushmeat may not resonate with all, but it does catch one’s attention.

According to the marine wildlife protection and research group OceanCare, who brought the aquatic bushmeat issue to my attention, these endangered species are being over-harvested for human consumption or as bait. While conventions and agreements should have provided frameworks for managing these species, it appears that this issue is falling through the cracks between legislative and regulatory agencies.

Terrestrial wild animal meat has always been part of the diet of indigenous and local communities, but with increasing demand from a growing population, it is proving to be unsustainable. As data collection on this issue is sparse and hard to collect, trends have to be based on case studies and anecdotal information, and this shows similar trends with aquatic bushmeat.

In 1980s Ghana, dolphin was considered inedible and caught in nets only by accident. But this is no longer the case: captures of these mammals are increasing. Researchers in Dixcove found a dramatic increase in dolphin catch in the past decade. In some West African countries, manatees are also under threat, and listed “vulnerable” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.

There is concern that local markets in Guinea and Togo, as well as in Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea, may develop a demand for aquatic bushmeat and bait, such as what already exists in Ghana. Such markets would create pressure for fishers to increase landings of dolphins and manatees, among other aquatic bushmeat already utilized.
According to OceanCare, 20 countries across West and Central Africa record trade of West African manatees, coastal dolphins and small whales for food and other uses. Smoked dolphin and whale bushmeat is traded as far away as northern Togo, Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali.  In 2014, researchers estimated that terrestrial bushmeat consumption had grown to about 5 million tons for the Congo Basin alone. Less is known about the rise in aquatic bushmeat.

Should we care, and if so, what can be done about it?

Officials I met recently from Guinea Bissau and regional organizations confirmed that catch of Endangered, Threatened, and Protected (ETP) species, intended or unintended, is indeed prevalent. The issue is also a regional one. For example, the 30,000 turtles nesting in protected areas in Guinea Bissau migrate along the coast, and are at risk of not returning, putting the tourism revenue of the country and local communities at risk. The loss of the ETP species is part of the global issue of biodiversity loss, widely recognized as a threat to overall ocean productivity and economic potential for local development—tourism in particular.

There are a few immediate no-regret actions that could be taken. Better reporting and data collection is one of them to get a grasp on the extent of the issue, and in turn establish allowable catch if current agreements allow it.

But the bottom line is about informed decisions at local, national, and regional levels. Everyone should be interested in making decisions to manage species, coastal areas, and the ocean, so that it stays healthy and productive. Without that, food security and nutrition is at risk, and economic opportunities now and in the future are compromised.

Through the West Africa Coastal Areas Management Program (WACA), the World Bank supports governments with funding and technical assistance to determine the factors threatening people, ecosystems and economic assets along the coast. And, through the West Africa Regional Fisheries Program (WARFP), we support governments to sustainably increase the overall wealth generated by the extraction of the marine fisheries resources of West Africa.

There is no better time than the present—before aquatic bushmeat species grow even more threatened and depleted. My hope is that West African regional conventions and commissions will help bring the issue and awareness of the ETP or “aquatic bushmeat” to the forefront, and that the international community will support countries’ efforts to manage their marine endangered, threatened, and protected species.

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Peter Kristensen

Lead Environmental Specialist in the Environment and Natural Resources Global Practice at the World Bank Group

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