By Chief B.O. Ereku
Are there boundaries in the Atlantic Ocean? Where does the sea boundary of a community along the continental shelf of the ocean start and where does it end? These are some of the naughty but technical questions likely to come up in the resolution of a fishing rights tangle between communities of Akassa clan and some fishermen from Ilaje in Ondo state quartered and supported by the Twon-Brass Elders Forum in Twon-Brass, headquarters of the Brass local government of Bayelsa State.
The conflict arose from efforts by Akassa fishermen to stop what they perceived as “unorthodox methods of fishing” by Ilaje fishermen in the continental shelf in Akassa territory. What then constitutes orthodox and unorthodox methods of fishing? According to Mr. Lucky Williams, the Public Relations Officer of the Akassa Fishing Union (ACFU), an umbrella body of fishermen and women in communities of Akassa clan, unorthodox methods of fishing include use of dynamites and other dangerous chemicals for fishing, as well as trawling along the coast at the continental shelf, instead of in the deep sea, particularly for crayfish as against the orthodox directional method of fishing for crayfish.
Crayfish, according to him, move with the current and the orthodox directional method involves setting the nets in the opposite direction in wait for their entry as they are carried by the current. If crayfish moving with the current are away from one’s direction, he/she misses out of the haul at that point in time. Whereas, trawling by the Ilaje fishermen sweeps the entire area with dire consequences for the fishing environment.
First, they sweep away the whole crayfish and leave nothing for those using the directional method. Second, the Ilaje trawlers over kill and in most cases throw away their excess catch into the sea in order to keep their boat afloat, endangering the environment in the process and causing scarcity of crayfish at the continental shelf. “If the Ilaje fishermen want to trawl, they should go to the deep sea,” he said.The effort of the Akassa fishermen to stop the Ilaje fishermen resulted in the Akassa fishermen reporting the Ilaje fishermen to the navy at Kongho – Akassa. On the orders of the navy, the Akassa fishermen brought the Ilaje fishermen to the navy, but both Akassa fishermen and the Ilaje fishermen were flogged by the navy under some queer and unknown circumstances, and asked to go and keep the peace.
The Ilaje fishermen reported the incident to their hosts, the Twon-Brass Elders Forum who sent what was described as “vexatious and provocative messages” to the Akassa fishermen, warning them to desist from preventing their Ilaje hosts from fishing in the ccontinental shelf close to Akassa territory. The Twon-Brass Elders Forum further accused the Akassa fishermen of being responsible for the loss of Ilaje fishermen’s fishing boats and engines.
The Ilaje fishermen heightened the ante by warning they would sink boats of Akassa fishermen if ever they tried to prevent them from carrying out their fishing in Akassa territory, asserting that there is no boundary in the ocean.Despite the provocative messages, accusations and threats, the Akassa fishermen under the aegis of ACFU took a mature and reconciliatory step by timely writing the state police command reporting the incident and asking them to convey a meeting between the union executives, the Twon-Elders Forum and their Ilaje counterparts in the presence of the police and officials of the department of fisheries in the state ministry of agriculture with a view to finding out the truth and resolving the matter amicably.
ACFU in their letter to the police said that that even if it is true that there is no boundary in the ocean,the Akassa people are determined to continue to ensure the enforcement of orthodox fishing methods along the continental shelf of the Atlantic Ocean, particularly in the area bordering Akassa territory, adding that anything contrary to that would mean that there would be no crayfish for the present and future generations of Akassa fishermen and women. Besides, ACFU said it was for the same reasons that the unorthodox method of fishing for crayfish used by the Ilaje fishermen are not allowed at the continental shelf in Rivers and Delta States.
In the letter signed by Kudu Kiani, Lucky Williams and Samuel George, chairman, public relations officer and secretary respectively, ACFU also called for education of fishermen and fisherwomen and fishing unions in the Brass local government area of the state on the practice of orthodox methods of fishing, and for the regulation and enforcement of fishing laws in the waterways to prevent inimical or unorthodox methods of fishing in the continntal shelf and protect the environment in the process.
But in a swift reaction, the Twon-Brass Elders Forum, in a counter letter to the state commissioner of police, denied the allged threat to the Akassa Clan Fishing Union, describing the ACFU letter to the police command as “frivolous and unfounded”, just as it commended ACFU (the petitioner) for choosing the right medium (the police) to lay their complaint.
It appealed to the Brass Divisional Police Officer to coordinate a joint meeting among the communities fishing at the same points.Meanwhile, a joint reconciliatory peace meeting of the two warring parties of ACFU and the Twon-Brass Elders Forum with the state police command slated for August 27 could not hold as the investigating police officer (IPO) in the matter was said to have travelled out of Yenagoa on official assignment.