As fish van­ish, so do Tombwa’s riches

Warm­ing wa­ter off the An­golan coast is a death knell for this once-boom­ing town

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY MAX BEARAK AND CHRIS MOONEY PHO­TOS BY CAROLYN VAN HOUTEN

tombwa, an­gola — His an­ces­tors were Por­tuguese colo­nial­ists who set­tled on this oth­er­worldly stretch of coast, wedged be­tween a vast desert and the south­ern At­lantic. They came look­ing for the one thing this bar­ren re­gion had in abun­dance: fish.

By the time Mario Car­ceija San­tos was get­ting into the fish­ing busi­ness half a cen­tury later, in the 1990s, An­gola had won in­de­pen­dence and the town of Tombwa was thriv­ing. There were 20 fish fac­to­ries strung along the bay, a con­stel­la­tion of churches and schools, a cinema hall built in art deco, and, in the cen­tral plaza, mas­sive dry­ing racks for the tons upon tons of fish hauled out of the sea.

Since then, Tombwa’s for­tunes have plum­meted; San­tos’s fac­tory is one of just two re­main­ing. The cinema hall is shut­tered. Kids run around town bare­foot in­stead of go­ing to school. The cen­tral plaza is over­grown by weeds, its statue of a proud fish­er­man cov­ered in bird drop­pings.

“Six or seven species have dis­ap­peared al­most en­tirely from here, sar­dines and an­chovies in­cluded — the ones th­ese fac­to­ries were made for pro­cess­ing,” San­tos said in his of­fice, af­ter in­spect­ing the day’s catch. “We’ll just have to close shop at some point.” The grad­ual dis­ap­pear­ance of fish is a death knell for Tombwa, a town of 50,000 that has lit­tle else to of­fer res­i­dents. The ap­proach­ing bust is the re­sult of three pow­er­ful forces: Fish

are suf­fo­cat­ing in oxy­gen-de­pleted wa­ters, huge for­eign trawlers are grab­bing what’s left, and the wa­ter is heat­ing up far more rapidly here than al­most any­where else on the planet.

Sea tem­per­a­tures off the An­golan coast have risen 1.5 de­grees Cel­sius (2.7 de­grees Fahren­heit) — and pos­si­bly more — in the past cen­tury, ac­cord­ing to a Wash­ing­ton Post anal­y­sis of Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion data.

In re­cent years, mul­ti­ple stud­ies have iden­ti­fied the wa­ters along Tombwa’s coast in par­tic­u­lar as a fast-warm­ing hot spot: In one in­de­pen­dent anal­y­sis of satel­lite-based NOAA data, tem­per­a­tures have risen nearly 2 de­grees Cel­sius (3.6 de­grees Fahren­heit) since 1982. That is more than three times the global av­er­age rate of ocean warm­ing.

Ocean warm­ing in key hot spots around the globe — from Canada to Ja­pan to Uruguay, where tem­per­a­tures have risen 2 de­grees Cel­sius (3.6 de­grees Fahren­heit) or more — is dis­rupt­ing an ar­ray of fish­eries, in­clud­ing lob­sters, salmon and clams, The Post’s re­port­ing has found.

The im­pact is es­pe­cially acute in An­gola, among the most vul­ner­a­ble coun­tries in the world to cli­mate change, even though the en­tire coun­try’s car­bon diox­ide emis­sions amount to about 0.1 per­cent of the world’s out­put each year.

The warm­ing ocean tem­per­a­tures com­pound the ef­fects of two other eco­log­i­cal catas­tro­phes play­ing out in this south­ern African coun­try of 30 mil­lion: Il­le­gal fish­ing de­pletes the ocean of tens of thou­sands of tons of fish each year, and in­creas­ingly oxy­gen­poor sea­wa­ter makes coastal ar­eas in­hos­pitable to a di­ver­sity of ma­rine life.

Fish­eries data from the south­ern coast of An­gola, a coun­try racked by civil war un­til the mid2000s, is sparse. But a num­ber of species in­te­gral to the area are be­ing hard hit by the dis­rup­tive con­se­quences from this triple threat:

A species of fish crit­i­cal to sub­sis­tence fish­er­men in Tombwa, the black­tail seabream, is los­ing its abil­ity to re­pro­duce here as wa­ters warm: Its re­pro­duc­tive out­put is es­ti­mated to have de­clined by 20 per­cent per decade over the past 30 years. In­stead, the fish are mov­ing south, to cooler wa­ters, ac­cord­ing to a study by War­ren Potts, a ma­rine bi­ol­o­gist at Rhodes Univer­sity in South Africa.

The dusky kob, a mas­sive fish that can grow over six feet long and is pop­u­lar with an­glers in south­ern An­gola, is also shift­ing south­ward, spark­ing a bizarre evo­lu­tion­ary event: Two kob species that had been sep­a­rated for some 2 mil­lion years have re­con­nected and are in­ter­breed­ing, Potts has found. That devel­op­ment im­plies that warm­ing lev­els here may have breached a new thresh­old.

Beyond the south­ern coast­line, a species key to the An­golan diet has been dis­ap­pear­ing from the coun­try’s wa­ters: Cunene horse mack­erel lev­els in the re­gion dropped from an es­ti­mated 430,000 tons in 1996 to 137,000 tons in 2013, a “his­toric low and crit­i­cal level,” ac­cord­ing to a tech­ni­cal re­port writ­ten to help An­gola man­age the species.

Ul­ti­mately, unchecked warm­ing could also cause An­gola to lose 20 per­cent of its fish­eries, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent study by Rashid Sumaila, an oceans ex­pert at the Univer­sity of Bri­tish Columbia in Canada. The pro­jec­tion uses eco­log­i­cal and eco­nomic mod­el­ing to de­ter­mine what could hap­pen to fish­eries if coun­tries fail to cut emis­sions.

Oceans are com­plex ecosys­tems, and ma­rine life is highly sen­si­tive to even the slight­est shifts in tem­per­a­ture and oxy­gen lev­els. Potts, who is alone in study­ing the warm­ing near Tombwa first­hand, says the chain re­ac­tion the changes will wreak here is hard to pre­dict — but al­most in­evitably dire.

“Imag­ine that one species of fish is able to adapt to the warm­ing, but it so hap­pens they’ve evolved to only eat an­other species that wasn’t able to adapt. Then what?” said Potts, 45, an avid fish­er­man who, like many South Africans, was ini­tially drawn to south­ern An­gola for its leg­endary an­gling.

Potts and his team of post­grad­u­ate re­searchers travel to south­ern An­gola at least once a year. They don scuba gear and dive to col­lect sen­sors that take the tem­per­a­ture of the wa­ter.

In Fe­bru­ary 2016, those sen­sors reg­is­tered a strong ocean heat wave. Tem­per­a­tures spiked above 28 de­grees Cel­sius (82.4 Fahren­heit) mul­ti­ple times dur­ing the month — well above av­er­ages that have hov­ered around 21 de­grees Cel­sius (69.8 de­grees Fahren­heit) in re­cent years. The en­tire month was more than 3 de­grees Cel­sius (5.4 de­grees Fahren­heit) warmer than any other Fe­bru­ary that Potts’s team has recorded.

An­gola lacks the ca­pac­ity, es­pe­cially in vul­ner­a­ble fish­ing towns like Tombwa, to ad­just or adapt to the dras­tic changes.

Tombwa’s in­hab­i­tants are mostly mi­grants from even poorer re­gions of a coun­try that suf­fers from other cli­matic calami­ties, such as cy­cles of drought and flood. Even as fac­tory jobs dwin­dle, along with the ton­nages hauled and the sizes of the fish them­selves, people con­tinue to set­tle here.

Most of Tombwa’s fish­er­men now go out on their own, in home­made crafts of plas­tic foam and chopped-up pieces of buoy, hop­ing to catch the fish that re­main.

“Together with the mas­sive ex­ploita­tion go­ing on, Tombwa isn’t likely to ex­ist in 20 or 30 years,” said Potts.

That pre­dic­tion inches closer to real­ity each day for San­tos, the fac­tory owner. His boats used to leave early in the morn­ing and his fish­er­men would be back on shore by lunch.

“Now we travel much far­ther than we used to — nine, 12, 16 hours on our boats,” he said. “We are no match for the changes.”

‘Just surviving’

On a long, de­serted stretch of beach, two women watched ex­pec­tantly as Joao Bautista pad­dled his tiny craft back into Tombwa from the open sea. He’d spent the whole morn­ing bob­bing out there alone on his sim­ple flota­tion de­vice, us­ing plas­tic plates as oars, his legs dan­gling in the wa­ter.

They were hop­ing he’d caught enough fish for them to buy and then sell for a small markup at the mar­ket, where fish are salted and shipped to dis­tant towns. That is mostly what drives Tombwa’s econ­omy nowa­days.

But the look on his face as he landed on shore that morn­ing in May was of ex­haus­tion and dis­ap­point­ment. His haul af­ter six hours at sea was measly: nine small squid. The women were unim­pressed, but they bought the en­tire catch for 450 kwanza (roughly $1), enough for the fish­er­man to buy two meals.

Bautista, 26, has been fish­ing for a liv­ing since he was 10, in the same wa­ters that older folks say used to pro­duce glis­ten­ing catches with just the dip of a net.

“I am not mak­ing a liv­ing any­more, just surviving,” he said.

What Bautista is see­ing plays out along the south­ern An­golan coast­line.

Some of the drop in num­bers of ma­rine crea­tures can be at­trib­uted to over­fish­ing. But what’s hap­pen­ing off the coast of Tombwa is a strik­ing ex­am­ple of how tem­per­a­ture-driven changes in wind and current pat­terns can have ex­treme con­se­quences in small patches of the globe.

As the Earth has heated up, the warm air in the trop­ics around the equa­tor has been ex­pand­ing out­ward. In the South At­lantic, the warmer air pushes a gi­ant high-pressure zone south­ward. That zone comes with high winds that drive cur­rents such as the Benguela, which car­ries cold south­ern wa­ters north along the south­west African coast.

This wind cir­cu­la­tion once con­sis­tently drove the top layer of the ocean away from the south­ern An­golan coast, forc­ing cooler wa­ter from the depths to rise — a process called up­welling. It’s crit­i­cal to fish­eries be­cause the cooler, deeper wa­ters tend to be rich in nu­tri­ents that fish need to sur­vive.

But the shift in the high-pressure zone has meant slow­ing winds and less up­welling. As the wa­ter there stag­nates, warmer cur­rents seep in and take the Benguela’s place.

That means much less cold wa­ter has been reach­ing the sur­face. Be­tween 2009 and 2014, the vol­ume of cool wa­ter that rose to the ocean sur­face in the north­ern Benguela current re­gion shrank by more than half com­pared to av­er­age fig­ures from the prior 30 years, ac­cord­ing to re­cent re­search.

Th­ese shifts have driven the dra­matic rise in ocean tem­per­a­tures here, said Ed­ward Vizy, a cli­mate sci­en­tist at the Univer­sity of Texas at Austin. He and his col­league Kerry Cook con­ducted a NASA-funded study of the re­gion that used NOAA satel­lite data to doc­u­ment the above-av­er­age warm­ing here.

“We talk about global warm­ing, but what people feel are the re­gional and short-term ex­tremes,” said Michael McPhaden, an oceanog­ra­pher at NOAA’s Pa­cific Ma­rine En­vi­ron­men­tal Lab­o­ra­tory.

The ma­jor heat wave that Potts’s team recorded in Fe­bru­ary 2016 put this process on full dis­play. Weaker winds and a prob­a­ble re­sult­ing de­cline in up­welling were key fac­tors in the spik­ing wa­ter tem­per­a­tures, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent study led by Joke Lübbecke, an ocean re­searcher at the GEOMAR Helmholtz Cen­tre for Ocean Re­search in Kiel, Ger­many.

Sud­den, dras­tic warm­ing can have dis­as­trous ef­fects on fish.

“Wa­ter con­ducts tem­per­a­ture a lot bet­ter than air, so if the wa­ter tem­per­a­ture is 28.5 de­grees [Cel­sius], the [fish’s] body will most

likely follow suit,” said Alexan­der Win­kler, a post­doc­toral re­searcher work­ing with Potts.

In Tombwa, the people most keenly aware of the rise in lo­cal sea tem­per­a­tures are those who own boats equipped with ther­mome­ters, like Paulo Peleira, a 42-year-old cap­tain of the mid­size Principe das On­das, or Prince of the Waves.

Even though his liveli­hood de­pends on haul­ing fish out of the sea by the ton — which are then vac­u­umed out of his boat into a pipe at one of the re­main­ing pro­cess­ing plants — he said he feels sorry for the fish.

“Our fish can deal with wa­ter 18 to 22 de­grees [Cel­sius], but even just this week it was like 26 for days. Imag­ine what it must be like for them,” he said, stand­ing on the dock with his crew of eight.

“You know, fish­er­men are typ­i­cally hope­ful people, go­ing out ev­ery day not know­ing what we’ll find. That’s why, at first, we thought the warm­ing was just a phase. Well, it’s not. Seems to me we’ll spend the rest of our lives zig­ging and zag­ging in this ocean just to find the fish.”

Mul­ti­ple stud­ies, in­clud­ing by Vizy and Potts, have doc­u­mented the rapid warm­ing trend along this coast over the past three decades. But in the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity, a dearth of longer-term data has led to some dis­agree­ment over the de­gree and causes of the warm­ing, es­pe­cially be­fore satel­lite data be­came avail­able in 1982.

Mathieu Rouault, an ocean sci­en­tist at the Univer­sity of Cape Town in South Africa, doesn’t doubt the re­cent warm­ing trend near Tombwa. But he em­pha­sizes that nat­u­ral ocean cy­cles, which de­liver oc­ca­sional pulses of warm trop­i­cal wa­ter to the area called Benguela Niños, are also cru­cial to un­der­stand­ing what’s hap­pen­ing.

For in­stance, tem­per­a­tures here were warmer in the 1960s than dur­ing the cool 1980s, when the current sharp warm­ing trend be­gan. This sug­gests that tem­per­a­tures were driven by nat­u­ral vari­abil­ity, rather than show­ing a clear up­ward trend. But over a longer pe­riod, since 1880, NOAA data shows large warm­ing, above 2 de­grees Cel­sius (3.6 de­grees Fahren­heit) along the An­golan coast. Sci­en­tists are not cer­tain whether to trust the re­sults, how­ever, be­cause along this coast­line very few tem­per­a­ture mea­sure­ments were taken by ships in the late 19th cen­tury.

An­other change that goes hand in hand with warm­ing: de­clin­ing ocean oxy­gen lev­els.

Wa­ters along the coast of An­gola are los­ing dis­solved oxy­gen at the rate of about 2 per­cent per decade, which is among the fastest losses seen across the global ocean, ac­cord­ing to Lothar Stramma of the GEOMAR Helmholtz Cen­tre for Ocean Re­search.

Deoxy­gena­tion can have dire con­se­quences for fish­eries. In oxy­gen-thin wa­ter, lower parts of the food web, such as zoo­plank­ton and small fish like sar­dines and an­chovies, suf­fer the most. The im­pacts can rip­ple through the en­tire ecosys­tem.

Potts says the de­clin­ing lev­els of oxy­gen in wa­ters around Tombwa mean the fish found there are typ­i­cally smaller, be­cause younger fish need less oxy­gen. At the same time, more adults are now found far­ther south, in Namib­ian wa­ters.

The sea tem­per­a­ture changes have come so quickly that even younger lo­cal fish­er­men re­mem­ber the days when wa­ter over 21.1 de­grees Cel­sius (70 de­grees Fahren­heit) was wor­ri­some. Nowa­days, it can push to 26.7 de­grees Cel­sius (80 de­grees Fahren­heit).

“With what we see around here, with the cur­rents fight­ing for po­si­tion and the warmer current win­ning out, we’d ex­pect to see a re­duc­tion in ev­ery­thing fish­wise: sizes, quan­ti­ties, even a re­duced ca­pac­ity to with­stand tem­per­a­ture shocks among those that re­main,” said Potts. “It’s a weak­en­ing of the ecosys­tem.”

Ev­ery­one in Tombwa — from Bautista, whose legs dan­gle in the un­usu­ally warm wa­ter off his makeshift pad­dle board, to Potts to Peleira to San­tos — feel like they are watch­ing their boom­town go bust.

“It is just a race now to get ev­ery­thing out be­fore it all goes away,” Bautista said.

‘Run­ning out of time’

In the race to fish south­ern An­gola’s warm­ing seas, ev­ery­one here agrees: The win­ners are huge com­mer­cial fish­ing trawlers and the losers are those who have made Tombwa their home.

To 60-year-old Vi­tal Sousa Marção, it is in­fu­ri­at­ing.

“It is done by people who do not sleep here, eat here, know here,” he said, on the brink of tears. He runs the town’s boat­yard and once was a union leader when there were more than 5,000 fish­er­men here — about five times as many as there are now. “The trawlers, they are com­mit­ting a ter­ri­ble sin.”

An­gola’s wa­ters are largely un­reg­u­lated, whether for trawlers or what the gov­ern­ment calls “ar­ti­sanal” fish­ers, like Joao Bautista.

The avail­able ev­i­dence in­di­cates that most il­le­gal fish­ing off An­gola’s coast is car­ried out by pri­vate, in­de­pen­dent-owned ves­sels that orig­i­nate in China and South Korea.

The An­golan gov­ern­ment has in­suf­fi­cient pa­trol boats to guard its wa­ters against trawlers that use gi­ant nets to catch huge quan­ti­ties of fish with­out per­mis­sion. Com­pound­ing the problem is An­gola’s in­debt­ed­ness to China. Fish­eries make up about 4 per­cent of An­gola’s gross do­mes­tic prod­uct, but the coun­try’s econ­omy is dom­i­nated by a mas­sive oil in­dus­try. Most of that oil is bought by China, which in turn owns about 70 per­cent of An­gola’s debt, or around $23 bil­lion.

Marção and San­tos say that in­debt­ed­ness ex­plains what they see as the An­golan gov­ern­ment’s ap­a­thy in crack­ing down on the trawlers.

“I don’t think there’s any­thing we can do to stop cli­mate change,” said San­tos, who says trawl­ing is speed­ing his busi­ness’s de­cline. “But the least the gov­ern­ment could do is stop the over­fish­ing.”

An­gola’s Min­istry of Fish­eries did not re­spond to re­peated re­quests for com­ment.

At a much smaller scale, the in­flux of ar­ti­sanal fish­ers is also con­tribut­ing to over­fish­ing, though of species found at shal­lower depths closer to shore, a trend the fish­er­men are acutely aware of as they see it ev­ery day in di­min­ish­ing catches.

Wel­witschia Mirabilis Adolf is one of the thou­sands who have re­cently moved to Tombwa. His par­ents named him af­ter one of the few plants that can sur­vive the An­golan desert, a wilted-look­ing shrub that even when healthy looks as if it has melted into a pud­dle of agave-like leaves.

In his na­tive re­gion of Huambo, he says the sun has been more scorch­ing and the rain less fre­quent. His fam­ily’s liveli­hood in Huambo — herd­ing cat­tle — has be­come al­most im­pos­si­ble. Nei­ther the cat­tle nor the people have suf­fi­cient food.

“There’s hunger where I came from,” he said. He is now part of a five-man squad that fishes from a small wooden row­boat. “At least here you can catch a few fish and eat.”

There is no mon­i­tor­ing of the ar­ti­sanal fish­er­men — no land­ing sites where quo­tas might be en­forced or polic­ing body that could pun­ish in­frac­tions like not throw­ing back preg­nant or ju­ve­nile fish. Those sim­ple prac­tices can help pro­tect vul­ner­a­ble fish­eries.

“Ar­ti­sanal fish­ing is sim­ply anar­chy,” said Car­men Van Dúnem San­tos, an An­golan pro­fes­sor who col­lab­o­rated with Potts and who leads a gov­ern­ment-run ocean sciences academy an hour north of Tombwa. “But the trawlers, they are the kings. They can do what­ever they want, and many of them have no re­spect for the fu­ture.”

She is part of the An­golan gov­ern­ment’s del­e­ga­tion to the Benguela Current Com­mis­sion, which in­cludes officials from Namibia and South Africa, and aims to pro­mote sus­tain­able fish­ing. It was es­tab­lished more than a decade ago, but she says An­gola hasn’t adopted any kind of coastal man­age­ment pol­icy.

“There are lots of pro­pos­als, but no action,” she said. “I am afraid we are run­ning out of time.”

Christina Nangam­bela, right, washes horse mack­erel on a beach in Tombwa, An­gola. Lately, women like her have had fewer fish to clean, salt and sell.

FROM TOP: Even as jobs at fish fac­to­ries dwin­dle, mi­grants from poorer re­gions of An­gola con­tinue to set­tle in Tombwa’s neigh­bor­hoods. Fish­er­men return from a day at sea to give women their catches to be cleaned and salted. Fish are pro­cessed at Mario Car­ceija San­tos’s fac­tory in Namibe, a city 60 miles north of Tombwa. San­tos also owns a fac­tory in Tombwa. It’s one of just two that re­main in the town.

TOP: Olga Lu­cas waits for fish­er­men to return from sea. Lately, women like her have been pray­ing that the fish­er­men have caught enough fish for them to buy and then sell for a small markup at the mar­ket. ABOVE: Men work on ves­sels at a boat­yard in Tombwa. The boats are no match for trawlers, many of which come all the way from China and South Korea to plun­der An­gola’s loosely pa­trolled wa­ters.

JOHN MUYSKENS/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Source: NOAA Op­ti­mum In­ter­po­la­tion Sea Sur­face Tem­per­a­ture data via Ed­ward Vizy, Univer­sity of Texas at Austin

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