Joseph B. Treaster: Water and The World

A Continuing Discussion on Water and People on A Warming Planet

Apr 15 2010

A Dying African Lake, Polluted, Overfished; Bad And Getting Worse

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under Uncategorized

DUNGA, Kenya—It was shortly after daybreak and a long, wooden fishing skiff crunched up on the stony beach here along Lake Victoria. Women who sell fish in the market in nearby Kisumu swarmed the boat. They grabbed slippery Nile perch and tilapia and tossed them into their plastic baskets. Then they began haggling.

The catch that day was meager, and one woman came away with nothing. “The fishermen don’t get enough fish,” said Salin Atieno, 37. She has been buying fish at the Dunga landing for seven years. “There are not that many fish now.”

Lake Victoria, one of the largest fresh water lakes in the world, is suffering. It is polluted with raw sewage and it is muddy from the erosion of soil from nearby hills that have lost trees and shrubs to people in search of firewood. Like Lake Chad in West Africa and a few other lakes around the world, it has also been shrinking. Parts of Lake Victoria are clogged with hyacinths and algae. All of this has been thinning out the fish.

“The lake is dying,” said Dr. Raphael Kapiyo, the head of environmental studies at Maseno University in Kisumu, an East African trading post of a city with about 400,000 people.

As Kisumu and other towns and cities around the lake have grown and economies have struggled, more people have begun trying their hand at fishing. They forget about fishing seasons, if they ever knew about them, and they fish with nets that trap the smallest minnows. This all adds up to overfishing.

The governments of Kenya and the two other countries bordering Lake Victoria, Uganda and Tanzania, have established regulations on fishing and pollution. They have organized fishermen groups and restricted fishing on one of the most popular local species to give the fish breathing room for recovery. But conditions in Lake Victoria keep getting worse.

Fish processing factories dump their waste into the lake. New factories have sprung up, some of them producing soap and, as a by-product, pollution.

Kisumu has a sewage treatment plant, Dr. Kapiyo said, “but it is far from adequate and a lot of raw sewage flows directly into the lake.” Sewage spills into the lake from Uganda and Tanzania, as well. Rivers flowing into the lake pick up the runoff from farms: cattle waste and fertilizers and pesticides. The pollution might be worse were it not that the millions of poor, small farmers in East Africa use fewer chemicals than farmers in many places.

Dr. Kapiyo said the lake has receded as much as 150 feet in some places. Because of higher temperatures in Kenya, possibly because of global warming, the rate of evaporation has risen. Moreover, water is being diverted from the lake for use in running hydro-electric power plants.

“The amount of water flowing into the lake is becoming less and less,” Dr. Kapiyo said. It was late afternoon and we were talking in a garden shaded by bougainvillea and ficus trees.

“The amount of water going out of the lake,” Dr. Kapiyo said, “has become more and more.” In the shade of the trees, the baking heat had eased and there was even a little breeze.

On the Dunga beach the rising sun glinted off the water. I talked with Samson Masero. He is 29 years old and has been fishing for five years. Even in his short time on the water he has noticed a decline in fish. But as far as he can tell, he told me, there has been “no big change in the water.”

“This is like our office,” he said. “There has not been any big change.”

Jason Agwenge, 40, has 20 years more experience on the lake than Mr. Masero. He remembers a different Lake Victoria. “The water was so clean,” he said, “we used to drink it.”

Mrs. Atieno, the market woman who came away with an empty basket, was wearing a bright blue basketball jacket the morning I met her. Her hair was clipped short. Her long, leaf-patterned skirt fell to her sandals. To her, the biggest problem on the lake is overfishing. “There are not any kinds of jobs here,” she said, “and they just go to the lake. There is not any other kind of work they can do.” #

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Mar 25 2010

Fish In Haiti Are Almost As Rare As Trees

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under

MIAMI—As a boy in Haiti, Jean Wiener liked to poke around the coral reefs just offshore. The coral was thick and wild and splashed with bursts of orange and purple. Swarms of Yellow Tail Snappers and Nassau Groupers cruised past undulating sea fans and nibbled at rich, green sea grass. Sometimes young Mr. Wiener would catch a fish and grill it on the beach.

Now, several decades later, most of the fish are gone. “If you see anything at all,” Mr. Wiener told me the other day, “it’s almost never longer than six inches. You see little baby fish.”

Haiti has been seriously fished out. As the impoverished country’s population has risen to more than 10 million, more and more people have turned to the sea for food. It is against the law in Haiti to take under-size fish. But no one is enforcing the law and many Haitians are hungry.

Mr. Wiener grew up to be a marine biologist and one of the few specialists with an enduring interest in the coastal waters of Haiti. Now that the earthquake in January has people thinking of ways of helping Haiti, he is hoping some of them will recognize that the coastal waters could become a tremendous source of food. Tourists might also enjoy the beaches and reefs as he did as a boy.

For now, the reefs and coastal waters are as barren as most of Haiti’s land. The overworked fields of Haiti yield a tiny fraction of the produce of most other countries and in a world where overfishing is epidemic, the waters off Haiti are a model of how bad it can get.

With high unemployment, Mr. Wiener said, lots of people have become part-time fishermen. The newcomers and the experienced fishermen go at the fish relentlessly. The idea of fishing seasons is ignored and anything that gets caught stays caught. “Nothing is thrown back,” Mr. Wiener said.

To gain perspective, Mr. Wiener talked with an 80-year-old fisherman. “We used to let the sea rest during the months of January, February, March and April,” the old fisherman said. “Now there are more traps, more boats, more fishermen, more types of fishing methods. They are laying out nets all the time, everywhere.”

It’s not just pressure from hungry fishermen. The offshore waters have become a miserable place for fish. Fish thrive on healthy coral reefs. In Haiti, you don’t have that. Mr. Wiener, the founder of FoProBiM, the Fondation pour la Protection de la Biodiversite Marine of Haiti, estimates that perhaps 80 percent of the reefs along Haiti’s 1,100-mile coastline have suffered some degree of damage, some of it very heavy.

Little fish, that in the right conditions grow up to be big fish, like to nestle in sea grass beds and the tangled branches of mangroves at the edge of the shore. But maybe a third of Haiti’s sea grass has been smothered by silt that gushes off the land every time it rains because most of the country’s trees have been chopped down for firewood. Mangrove branches also make fine firewood and much of Haiti’s mangroves are also gone.

Mr. Wiener has some ideas. He is getting a little help. But he and the coasts of Haiti could use a lot more. The coasts are being included in a restoration project – mainly on land – by the United Nations Environment Program and Columbia University’s Earth Institute. The Reef Check Foundation, a marine conservation and research organization in Los Angeles, is looking for grants to finance work in Haiti’s coastal waters.

One idea is to begin creating Marine Protected Areas – places where no fishing is allowed and where reefs and grasses are cultivated. Fish get a chance to recover. As they become more abundant, some of them leave the protected areas. The coastal waters begin to recover. Reef Check has a project like this in the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, and, true to script, more fish are being seen.

There is a lot more to do in Haiti. But this would be a start. “Haiti is the only country in the Caribbean without a Marine Protected Area,” said Dr. Gregor Hodgson, the founder and executive director of the Reef Check Foundation. #

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Sep 17 2009

Way Out In The Pacific Ecology Zone Promises Climate Insights, Jobs

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under Uncategorized

MIAMI—You don’t hear much about the nation of Kiribati.

It is a little out of the way, out in the Pacific Ocean near the equator and about 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii. It consists of 33 mostly uninhabited islands scattered over a patch of the Pacific as big as the United States. Most of the 100,000 or so people of Kiribati live day to day. They get along by fishing and growing bananas, breadfruit and papaya. About 16 percent of them have paying jobs. One of the biggest sources of national income is foreign aid.

A little more than a year ago, the government of Kiribati (pronounced Kir-uh-bahs) broke into the world news. At the suggestion of American conservationists, it designated a section of its territory the size of California as the world’s largest marine environmental preservation zone. Fishing, polluting and tampering with coral reefs would be forbidden. The eight Phoenix Islands were included and the place was named the Phoenix Islands Protected Area.

Remote and rarely visited by anyone, the vast expanse is one of the least disturbed marine areas in the world and is regarded as a near-perfect natural laboratory for climate change and the study of coral reefs, fish and tropical birds. The place is swarming with sharks and tuna and more than 500 other species of fish. Rare birds hang out in the islands.

“In most places in the world it is very hard to understand what the real impacts are of climate change on coral reefs because so many factors are involved,” said Sue Miller Taei, the director of the Pacific Island Marine Program of Conservation International, an American organization with headquarters in Arlington, Va.

But since Kiribati has been virtually untouched, Ms. Miller Taei said by phone from her office in Samoa, “it gives you a chance to understand the response of the system to climate change.”

The capital of Kiribati is on Tarawa, which, like most of the other islands, is a roughly donut-shaped atoll with a central lagoon and barrier reefs. Tarawa has one main road, many thatched huts and a few tin-roofed stores and warehouse. It is the most populous of the islands with about 40,000 people. During World War II, Tarawa was a killing ground for United States Marines and Japanese soldiers. Christmas Island, the largest land mass in Kiribati, attracts wealthy sport fishermen pursing the notoriously hard-to-catch bonefish.

About 35 people live on one of the now protected Phoenix Islands and they are only there on government assignments. There are no people on the seven other islands. There is no airport in the Phoenix Islands and the islands are several days by boat from Tarawa.

Creating the Phoenix Islands Protected Area meant that Kiribati would lose millions of dollars in fees it has long collected for letting commercial fishing boats from Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, China and the United States work its waters. But American conservationists agreed to make up the loss.

The money is coming from Conservation International which has been working for years to protect rain forests and smaller sections of oceans. Christopher Stone, an executive of Conservation International’s Global Conservation Fund in Arlington, and Betarim Rimon, an official in the President’s office in Kiribati, said a trust fund was being started with an initial $2.5 million from Conservation International. Ms. Miller Taei and Mr. Rimon said Conservation International was seeking matching funds to increase the trust to $5 million and hoped eventually to have $50 million in the fund. Kiribati’s compensation is to come from the investment earnings of the endowment.

The Phoenix Islands area is one of those places people dream about but never find. Dr. Greg Stone, who is in charge of Global Marine Programs at the New England Aquarium in Boston, got a look at the pristine reefs and waters of Kiribati in 2000 and immediately began thinking preservation. Mr. Stone, who colleagues on the project said was on a research boat in the protected zone and could not be reached for this article, presented the idea to Conservation International and to the leaders of Kiribati. In 2006 Kiribati announced it was preserving part of its territory. Two years later it greatly expanded the protected zone.

Kiribati’s president, Anote Tong, graduated from the London School of Economics. He sees a lot of benefits for his people. Running the endowment office will give jobs to some of Kiribati’s people. Australia has already provided a patrol boat and at least two more are thought to be needed. The boats will need crews and maintenance. High-end ecotourism is being contemplated. Ms. Miller Taei said investors in tourism are already applying for operating licenses.

“If the coral and reefs are protected,” Mr. Tong told reporters when the first phase of the protected zone was announced, “then the fish will thrive and grow and bring us benefit.” #

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