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Experts decry NOSDRA’s ‘sketchy’ report on dead fish along coastlines

A group of environmentalists has questioned the basis and integrity of the report released on Wednesday, May 13, 2020 by the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA) on dead fish found on Niger Delta coastlines in Nigeria.

Dr. Mahmood Mohammad Abubakar
Minister of Environment, Dr. Mahmood Mohammad Abubakar

Reports of dead fish washing up on an extensive stretch of the Niger Delta coastline first broke out on February 20, 2020 when community people from Ogbulagha Kingdom in Burutu Local Government Area of Delta State raised an alarm on the schools of dead fish floating and littering their shores.  Reports also came from fishing communities of Ondo, Bayelsa, Rivers and Akwa Ibom states.

In a reaction, NOSDRA officials reportedly took samples of the dead fish, sediments and water from some of the affected areas for analysis, albeit after sustained series of outcry from community people and civil society organisation (CSOs).

In a press release titled “Alleged Mass Fish Kill Along The Coastline of Bayelsa, Delta and Rivers States” issued on Wednesday, NOSDRA attempted to clarify the situation, saying that industrial toxic discharges, and not spilled crude oil, caused the death of the fish.

But, in a statement issued by the Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF) on Friday, May 15, the experts rejected NOSDRA’s statement, saying that, apart from playing down on and even questioning the fact of the massive fish kill that was evident in many locations, the title of the report appears to render the result of the said analysis conducted by the agency questionable.

“We expected a detailed and in-depth analysis from NOSDRA working in cooperation with  agencies and institutions including the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), Nigerian Institute of Oceanography and Marine Research (NIOMR), National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency  (NESREA) and Federal Institute for Fisheries Research which they said were informed of the tragic occurrences.

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“While the result of the laboratory analysis maybe reflects the true composition of the samples, the data interpretation may be misleading. For example, it is a known fact crude oil comes with a mix of heavy metals heavy metals such as Cadmium and Chromium and that they are some of the pollutants from that sector,” the environmentalists submitted in a statement endorsed by Stephen Oduware, an HOMEF project officer.

According to him, NOSDRA’s conclusion that “In the light of the foregoing, noting that hydrocarbon were not responsible for the death of the fishes, the plausible cause(s) could partially be attributable to other anthropogenic activities which are probably land-based” is capable of sweeping “these serious issues under the carpets, while the affected communities are left to continue to live with the impacts and uncertainties”.

Responding to the NOSDRA statement, Ako Amadi, a marine ecologist, was quoted as saying: “Fish deaths commonly result from oxygen depletion in the aquatic medium. In the case of this recent occurrence in the Niger Delta, mortalities were reportedly concentrated on the genus Pseudotolithus, the croaker, a bottom-feeder.

“It points to the fact that if the deaths had been as a result of ingestion of toxins the entire food web, that is, the benthic fauna of invertebrates including shrimps, crabs, zooplankton and juvenile fish, must have been affected. Evidence could then be deduced from toxicological examination of stomach contents, gills and bladder, or other respiratory and filtration organs of both dead and living croakers for comparison. This has not been the case.”

Amadi, former Head, Fisheries Resources Division of NIOMR, went further: “The Nigerian Institute for Oceanography and Marine Research (NIOMR) in Lagos, and ancillary institutions in Port Harcourt and Calabar have enough expertise in this regard. The residence time of suspected toxins in the benthic environment and land-based or ship transport sources are easy to determine. Aquatic toxins do not affect only particular species of fish but all fauna in an affected area. I also fail to see statements on tolerance of croakers and associated living organisms to variations of environmental change in the inshore waters of the affected system.”

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Amadi summed his response by stressing: “The NOSDRA report hardly shows any evidence of possible linkages to sudden increases in water temperature and current variations in the Eastern Gulf of Guinea that could have caused ecological hypoxia (oxygen depletion), such as ocean acidification fortified by increased waste (including oil) and heat discharges from coastal industries and shipping as well as from agricultural runoff and mangrove deforestation.

“The NOSDRA conclusions appear not to have been followed by immediate investigations, which infuses credibility cracks into the report. I hope that we can see more logical results to these investigations than what NOSDRA has currently presented.”

According to HOMEF, NOSDRA declared in its report that the contamination was not from hydrocarbon sources, preferring to point fingers elsewhere, saying “it is commonly observed that most industrial and domestic wastes which contain heavy metal found their ways into drainages and onward transfer to the water bodies”.

The HOMEF statement added: “Assuming this is true, it means the incidence was never an act of nature but a pure case of poisoning of the water bodies from sources that have to be stopped. HOMEF believes the report of laboratory analysis as presented by NOSDRA does not resolve the problem and can be diversionary.”

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Director of HOMEF, Nnimmo Bassey, in his reaction, expressed concerns about the fate of community people who depend on the affected water bodies for sustenance and noted that the situation compounds the struggles by affected community people as they battle the hardships brought by the restrictions occasioned by the COVID-19 outbreak.

Bassey added that what NOSDRA said is a basic and tentative explanation aimed at ruling out the possibility of the cause being from hydrocarbons. He stressed that NOSDRA mentioned the possibility of other chemicals being the cause but “went ahead to say that this would only affect fish in restricted areas and couldn’t cause widespread dying of fish”.

Bassey submitted: “The NOSDRA statement doesn’t help the situation and doesn’t erase the anxieties of the peoples of the region. We do not see anything curious about a specific fish species dying as this has happened in other countries where, for example, species have succumbed to thermal or temperature increase shocks. It is true that NOSDRA focuses on hydrocarbon pollution and has restricted its review to sources in that field. Seeking to shift blame to other factors, sectors or communities cannot be the end of the story.

“The Ministry of Environment and relevant agencies have a duty to tell Nigerians what killed the fish so that we know how to respond to this and future incidents. We are not satisfied with NOSDRA’s report as this does not bring a closure to the saga. Explaining why we experienced a massive death of fish on our coastlines is not beyond our scientists within and outside government,” he concluded.

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