Big scale mining vs small-scale fishing: Concerns from East Africa

The potentially disastrous impact of offshore and coastal mining on fisheries has been shown through the explosion at the British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon oilrig in the Gulf of Mexico, and oil spills caused by Shell in Nigeria. Both cases are still in court, with Nigerian fishers taking their fight for proper compensation to the UK. Tension between mining and fisheries is also becoming apparent in East Africa, where local fishing communities are greeting an offshore mining boom with trepidation. Over the past five years, East Africa has become one of the most exciting places for mining companies, primarily those interested in oil and gas. One industry magazine described new discoveries of oil and gas as “East Africa’s rays of a new dawn”. 

Estimates on how much gas and oil sits under the sea in east Africa vary, and figures are being constantly updated as new finds are discovered. In Tanzania, government reports for 2013-14 estimate the country has 41 trillion cubic feet of gas reserves, and in Mozambique the latest estimates suggest the country has proven gas deposits at sea of over 100 trillion cubic feet. Tanzania and Mozambique should become major global exporters of natural gas over the next decade. The situation offshore in Kenya is less clear, with most excitement being placed on the discovery of large oil deposits on-shore, near lake Turkana, to be pumped to the northern coastal town of Lamu for export. But there have been recent discoveries of both gas and oil in Kenya’s sea and coastal areas, and following the situation further south, the country is experiencing a significant rise in offshore exploration and investments.  Almost all areas of East Africa’s Indian ocean are now mapped out into oil and gas blocks, sold to the highest bidder for exploration and eventual mining. 

The amount of money that could be generated for both home governments and foreign companies is potentially enormous. Yet amid all the positive images of future development spurred by this new found wealth, is fairly widespread anxiety with the thought of East Africa experiencing the ‘resource curse’ – the various problems that seem to manifest where governments become dependent on mining wealth; depreciation in value of other exported commodities, deteriorating commitments to democracy, heightened inequality and conflicts. Some reports suggest these problems are already happening. There are also rising fears for coastal communities and small-scale fishers.  

A fisher protesting against oil during World Fisheries Day celebrations organised by CANCO and CFFA in 2013, Kilifi, Kenya. 

Community Action for Nature Conservation (CANCO) is a Kenya based NGO that works closely with fishing communities to advance their rights and support sustainable use of marine ecosystems. CANCO is now engaged specifically on the subject of oil and gas as it impacts on fishers, and it has established working groups with community co-management groups (known as Beach Management Units) along the coast. So what are the fears and complaints of fishing communities? Is a boom for oil a doom for fisheries?

The problem with seismic mapping

The headline stories of oil spills and massive pollution caused by accidents on rigs and tanker ships capsizing probably come to mind when thinking about the environmental dangers of offshore mining. Apparently these are getting less common than they used to be, although when they do happen, as we have seen in Nigeria and the Gulf of Mexico, the impacts can be horrendous and long lasting. In East Africa, where we are still some years away from seeing large amounts of production at sea, the most immediate point of tension stems from seismic mapping – the process of determining where and how much oil or gas is stored under the sea. Seismic mapping involves firing extremely powerful airguns underwater and analyzing the sound as it bounces off the seabed. Airguns and receptors are towed on long lines behind survey vessels (stretching back a few kilometres)  and the guns are fired normally every 20 seconds. Surveys can last several months.  Apparently the reverberations from seismic operations can be heard throughout the oceans, and as far away as 4000 km from the source.

Information on what is the ecological impact of these sonic booms under water is contested. The NGO Oceana has led a campaign against this in the US, claiming that seismic mapping kills fish and fatally harms marine mammals, including whales and dolphins. It is has called for a ban on seismic mapping in sensitive areas of the sea, and the use of various mitigation strategies to limit the negative impact on marine life - see their latest report here. However, the industry calls on studies that suggest NGO fears are exaggerated. Statoil, Norway’s multinational oil company and now active in East Africa, produced a research report a few years ago claiming that the impact of seismic activities in the ocean had a minimal effect on fish. 

“Airgun operations cause little direct physical damage to fish at distances greater than 1 to 2 m from the source…Due to the avoidance behavior, there should not be any physical damage to free swimming fish caused by the airguns. The catch rate in close proximity to surveys can be affected, but the reduction in catch rates is, however, not expected to be long lasting. The reason for reduced catches is probably the fact that fish dive to the bottom or they disperse when exposed to high-level sound. It is standard industry practice to “ramp up” the airguns when starting a seismic survey, in order to "warn" the fish and marine mammals in the area. Marine mammals are clearly reacting to the seismic signals at ranges of a few km., but the reactions may well be due to curiosity rather than a direct negative effect on the animals.”

Similarly, where Environmental Impact Assessments are available in Kenya, consulting firms list the risks posed by seismic surveys to fish species as “low to insignificant”, although it is recognised that measures are needed to ensure the airguns and survey vessels do not come too close to whales and whale sharks. However, fishers in Kenya tell a very different story. Up and down the coast they are complaining that the seismic surveys are causing negative impacts. In a meeting with fishers and the BMU in Ngomeni (just north of Malindi), it was described that since seismic surveys started in 2012, populations of lobsters have declined markedly. Local divers can barely find any in their pots. The head of the BMU also described that 4 whale sharks have died at sea in the last year, which he believes was caused by the fish straying too close to the seismic vessels. Dolphins were common in the area, but haven’t been seen for two years. These allegations remain hard to prove – there is always a chance that other factors have caused these problems. But there is enough evidence now to believe that boats dragging powerful airguns across the ocean, sending out strong blasts in waters that have complex and vulnerable marine life, will probably have negative outcomes. The scientific evidence that refutes this, cited by mining companies and some consultants doing their EIAs, is not entirely convincing.

The Commonwealth Fishing Association in Australia compiled a comprehensive summary of scientific studies on this subject (they reviewed over 40 scientific papers). They wrote a report in 2013 that was submitted to the Australian government in an attempt to get marine seismic activities listed as a ‘threatening process’ under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, thereby increasing pressure for the government and industry to take necessary ‘precautionary’ steps. CFA argue that “there is growing scientific evidence that seismic survey activities are harmful to marine life, causing physical damage, displacement from habitats and disruption to breeding”. Beyond studies on the impact of seismic operations on whales, evidence to substantiate this view included:  

  • Some crustaceans, including the commercially important scallop, seem to get stressed by blasts, having to move more often, resulting in exhaustion and premature death. The impacts might be worse during breeding seasons. Seismic surveys are the most plausible explanation for decreases in scallop populations in parts of the Australian ocean. Likewise, numbers of scampi, a deepwater crustacean, have decreased following seismic surveys, potentially because blasts cause them physical damage.
  • Excessive exposure to blasts have been linked to increased mortality in squid populations, and controlled experiments show that abnormally loud noises damage squid’s internal organs responsible for balance and positioning. There is some evidence to suggest squid change their spawning and feeding behavior through exposure to seismic mapping operations.
  • Although there have been no studies on the physical impacts of seismic blasts on tuna, evidence suggests seismic operations interfere with their migratory and aggregating behaviours, undermining efforts to rebuild overfished populations and gather data on population dynamics. Similarly, the decline in abundance of Blue Warhou has been linked to changing spawning patterns brought about by seismic operations.
  • There are concerns that the recovery of organge roughy – a deep-water fish that once aggregated in huge numbers but has been heavily overfished – is disrupted by seismic operations. The problem may be caused by seismic blasts fragmenting the remaining populations, meaning their spawning efficiency is reduced.
  • Seismic operations could have negative impacts on the breeding success of turtles, particularly where seismic operations occur in important breeding areas. Some evidence suggests seismic blasts causes temporary or permanent hearing damage in turtles. Turtles may also get caught up in seismic apparatus.

The picture emerging from these various pieces of research therefore suggest that seismic operations have complex, long-term impacts on marine ecosystems, with these impacts being different for certain species. Scientific studies on this remain scattered and inconclusive, and it is of course tremendously difficult to isolate the impact of seismic operations. Yet fishers themselves link seismic operations to reductions in the populations of some commercially important species, and there are unpredictable changes in fish behaviour. As CFA concluded in their report,

“...there are a number of information gaps in holistically determining the impacts of marine seismic activities. However, given the clear potential for marine seismic activities to result in significant and irreversible environmental impacts, the precautionary principle must be adopted in terms of managing marine seismic activities. The need to adopt the precautionary principle is particularly prudent in this instance because marine seismic activities occur at a large spatial scale, and the potential impacts are varied and complex requiring a considered and holistic approach to assessment and management”

So perhaps the complaints being made by Kenyan fishers are valid? Indeed, throughout Africa where seismic mapping for oil and gas deposits is taking place, there is anecdotal evidence that the outcome is not good for fishers. In Namibia, for example, fishing companies complain that tuna have been dramatically reduced from their traditional fishing grounds since seismic surveys have started (see here and here). In Ghana, there has been a marked increase in the beaching of whales, while local fishers are convinced that seismic operations are reducing fish abundance and unfairly forcing them out of the sea (read the Guardian Newspaper story on this here).

Mitigation and compensation        

Although the mining industry plays down the negative impacts of seismic operations on marine ecology, in most countries, including Kenya, companies should follow some basic guidelines to limit potential impacts. These include beginning surveys with a ‘soft start’ – gently ramping up the sound waves to scare off whales and turtles. Then there should be people acting as lookouts for larger marine animals and fishermen, and if these are straying too close to the survey equipment, the survey should be stopped immediately. The New Zealand government claims it has the highest standards in the world to manage the marine environmental impacts of seismic surveys, and its ‘fact sheet’ on this makes for interesting reading.  In Kenya provisions are in place through the Marine Mammals Management Plan to ensure there is a representative from the fisheries department on board the survey vessels to ensure measures that mitigate environmental and social impact are adhered to.  Moreover, inevitably seismic surveys disrupt some fishing – fishers have to vacate the area where the survey vessels are working, which might be for a few days or for a few weeks or more. Compensation should be paid, and this is normally mentioned in EIA documents. There should also be a grievance mechanism in place in case the seismic vessels damage fishing gear.

However in Ngobweni the company carrying out seismic surveys in the region visited the fishing community in 2011 to explain that fishing can not be allowed too close to the seismic vessels, and that the company was committed to sharing information in advance about where it was working, and that when this resulted in any loss for fishers, they would be compensated. Yet since that meeting, fishers and the local BMU claim they have never been visited since, there is no warning about where the seismic surveys are taking place, and despite the fishers complaining that the survey has significantly disrupted their livelihoods, there is no offer of compensation. The local BMU reports that four fishers have had their gear destroyed by getting caught up in the seismic apparatus. The fishers say they have no way of getting in contact with the company to lodge a complaint.  Understandably, the fishing community is angry.

 Community meeting in Ngomeni, Kenya organised by CANCO/CFFA, January 2015.

Community meeting in Ngomeni, Kenya organised by CANCO/CFFA, January 2015.

 Mining in protected areas?

In Kilifi County, a large oil and gas block – known as block L16 – covers protected areas on land and at sea. The block covers marine protected areas in Watamu and Malindi, while it also covers the national coastal forest reserve, Arabuko Sokoke. The company awarded L16 made plans to start seismic survey for oil in the forest reserve in 2014. Local protests and petitions from various environmental and community based groups forced the company to back down, although it will continue to conduct surveys among communities living adjacent to the reserve, which is a matter of considerable concern to local conservation groups. In what is a familiar story in many countries, communities that are being moved off their land near the reserve for oil exploration, claim to be coerced into signing agreements, and the compensation paid to them for their land and crops is thought by many to be way too little.

The Arabuko Sokoke saga also revealed a great deal of problems with the EIA process. Although the company carrying out this EIA reported positive community consultation, prominent local community groups argue that they were not consulted at all, there was no opportunity to review the EIA, and the list of signatures used by the company to show community consultation are described by many people as bogus. The EIA itself has been criticised as shoddy, containing passages that seem to be cut and pasted from an EIA report written for elsewhere (the EIA said the reserve contained endangered wildlife that has never existed along the coast). The EIA report was not shared with the public and local authorities either. Kenya has excellent rules and regulations on EIAs, managed by the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), but in this case rules did not seem to have been adhered to. Community groups also complain about intimidation and misinformation. The oil company employs a former head of an environmental NGO to do its community outreach, but people are worried that money and promises from the mining companies are deliberately dividing communities and undermining genuine ‘bottom up’ participation. Similar stories are heard in Ghana  

Members of the Watamu Marine Association as well as local BMUs and fishers contributed to the protests against seismic surveys in the forests. There is a link between this and the fate of marine ecosystems and fishing – the health of coastal forests are intimately bound up with the health of coastal ecosystems. Furthermore, WMA and local fishers sense that given the experience with Arabuko, the marine reserves in Watamu and Malindi may be next. No one is sure if the lease agreement for block L16 prohibits exploration in marine protected areas.

The environmental impact of explorations and potential drilling close to sensitive fishing and conservation grounds is the biggest worry for members of the WMA, as well as local BMUs: “we don’t want to become the next Nigeria” as one put it. There are also anxieties about how companies and the government will handle compensation. Most local fishers do not have formal fishing licenses, fishing is often seasonal and official data on the catches and activities of fishers is unreliable. In this context, it is going to be extremely difficult for fishing communities to claim rights and get adequate compensation if they are moved off their land or experience disruptions to fishing from gas and oil operations and accidents. There is simply no baseline data – or an effort to collate it – that would inform decisions on how to pay communities a fair price. Some worry that when it comes to small-scale fishers in Africa, international pressure for social justice is a bit less strong than it can be elsewhere - again, an article in the Guardian argues that the impact of oil spills in Nigeria dwarf that which happened in the Gulf of Mexico, but the US and EU government reaction in Nigeria has been far less. More oil is spilled in Nigeria's delta region every year than was lost in the Gulf of Mexico, and far more people have had their livelihoods there ruined as a result. 

The issue of compensation for disruption to fishing has become a controversial issue in Lamu, where hundreds of fishers will be impacted by the construction of a new port to facilitate the export of oil. While arguments over compensation for land owners rages on, the issue of how fishers will be compensated remains far more vexing. The EIA report for this development encourages the companies involved to provide funding to help modernise fishing so fishers can fish elsewhere. It seems a rather superficial recommendation, and the details on exactly how this will be done are vague.  

Going forward

Although there are valid arguments against oil and gas mining – not least the reality that the majority of oil and gas will have to be left in the ground to meet global commitments on climate change – the reality in East Africa is that governments and companies will go ahead with the mining boom. Fishing and costal communities will be confronted with exploration and mining operations. This is not just with oil and gas, but with many other forms of mining for metals and minerals. The work of CANCO is based on the belief that serious efforts are needed to better regulate the interactions between mining companies, the government and fishing communities. This will not eliminate problems, but it may help ensure abuses are minimised and fishing and oil and gas can co-exist. So far there has been very little space created for fishers to have an informed voice on these developments.

There are already many good rules and regulations on how mining needs to be done transparently and with public participation. Unfortunately we know that on the ground the reality is not always so positive. Public consultations and access to information must be assured throughout the process, which includes serious efforts to compile credible social and environmental impact studies, meaningful public discussions and regular forums for information exchange. Simple commitments, such as sending information to fishing communities about seismic operations, paying for onboard observers from BMUs and compensating fishers for days lost at sea, must be adhered to.

CANCO has already helped establish regional oil and gas working groups along the Kenya Coast. Working with other organizations, including the Coalition for Fair Fisheries Arrangements, the next step for CANCO is to help fishing communities share information among themselves, and learn more about the mining sector and the challenges facing fishers in claiming their rights. An independent meeting for BMUs and fishers on oil and gas will be organized in 2015. This will consider local fears and complaints, international best practice, and options for further advocacy work. This national forum should feed into international efforts to share experiences and develop policy recommendations for fishing communities – the situation in Kenya and East Africa shares many similarities to the experiences of fishing communities and mining in West and Southern Africa as well.  

[This article has been prepared through work led by Becha Hadley from CANCO in Kenya, working in partnership with Andre Standing from CFFA]

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