Fishing Communities Constrained by COVID-19

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West Point, Liberia's largest slum community, is one of the affected coastal communities in the country. (Photo: William Q. Harmon/Daily Observer)

Women most affected

The COVID-19 pandemic, which has seemingly affected every sphere of human existence globally since its emergence late last year, has created special challenges for those living in coastal areas of Liberia. Especially for those who rely on fishing (in particular, small-scale or artisanal fishing) to earn their living, it is these additional challenges which have created – at least in their minds – a problem that seems bigger than the outbreak itself.

The impact of COVID-19 on poor and vulnerable people is severe, and people of coastal communities – many of whom are slum dwellers who depend on the ocean for their livelihood – are some of the hardest hit, according to an investigation conducted by the Daily Observer, to ascertain the impact of the pandemic on various communities in the country.

Most of these coastal residents rely on artisanal fishing as their means of survival – which has been disrupted since the outbreak began, as a result the stringent health emergency regulations handed down by government.

These disruptions include a complete shut-down of some fisheries, economic effects from market disruptions, increased health risks for fishers, processors and communities, and additional implications for marginalized groups, among others.

Residents of these fishing communities are bewailing the impact of the health crisis on small-scale fisheries, as well as on their income and livelihoods.

Abioson Koffi, an artisanal fisher from Popo Beach, in the borough of New Kru Town, says people like him are experiencing a serious negative impact and increased hardship created by the pandemic. Koffi is worried that he does not have access to markets anymore.

Before the outbreak, he sold his catch to big restaurants and supermarkets. However, as many of these businesses have been forced to drastically reduce their operating hours, Koffi’s income has been gravely affected.

“The health crisis caught us off-guard. We were not prepared for this and it is hitting many of us hard,” said the 46-year-old man and father of three children.

Abioson Koffi, an artisanal fisher from Popo Beach, New Kru Town

“You want to observe the [curfew] time and don’t want to be caught violating, so your hustle is limited to certain hours. And because of the imposed social distancing regulation, we no longer hustle in group, which is one of the hardest things to do. This trade is not a one- or two-persons’ thing. We depend on each other.”

The unprecedented impact of the pandemic on the hospitality industry and foreign travels means that hotels and big restaurants now have fewer customers, and therefore cannot purchase their normal consignment of catch from local fishers.

Another fisherman, Moses Karwah, says the closure of restaurants, hotels and catering companies has cut off their link with the hospitality sector.

“Things have become very difficult for us. We no longer get customers like before. Feeding our families now is becoming a huge daily challenge,” Karwah said.

For Dweh Torby, COVID-19 is creating a growing food insecurity. He’s worried that the response efforts against the pandemic do not consider the artisanal fishing industry.

“The stimulus package that the government promised cannot reach us, and we have waited so long but to no avail,” he said.

More predicaments to women

Many women involved with the local fishing sector say they are also feeling the impact of the health crisis, with many of them seeing a massive reduction in daily sales.

Esther Karyah, a resident of the Hotel Africa community, relies on the sale of lobster to support her family of nine – including four children and three grandchildren, in addition to her jobless husband and herself. She has seen her daily customers sliced by more than half as she also struggles to deal with the drastic drop in the price of lobsters on the local market.

“This sickness represents a double threat to women,” Esther said. “It is not just the presence of the virus, but also how it impacts the role women play in the household.”

Women are integral in the local fishing sector. They often serve as the link between fishers and customers, helping to keep the supply chain of seafood alive.

As fishmongers, women also provide fishermen with market intelligence and sometimes pre-finance fishing expeditions

They occupy a significant part of the fisheries workforce, representing half of the entire world labor force in this sector, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). The UN agency estimates that women comprise 15% of the harvesting workforce, 70% of the aquaculture workforce, and somewhere between 80 and 90% of the seafood processing workforce.

In Africa and Asia, women also represent 60% of seafood traders and retailers, the FAO says.

In Liberia, women play a very dynamic role in the fisheries sector – though official statistics are unknown, despite requests to the National Fisheries and Aquaculture Authority (NaFAA).

Women, Ms. Karyah says, put food on the table and now have to teach their children who cannot go to school. They also play a significant role in the pre-harvest of fish, by preparing men to go fishing, and also lead in many post-fishing activities, which include cleaning and preserving of fish.

From their daily sales and interactions with customers, women also provide fishermen useful market intelligence that informs their daily catch. In some cases, this involves the women (fishmongers) pre-financing a fishing expedition, which includes procurement of special nets, bait and other supplies, depending on the species of catch required. Essentially, the women sometimes play intermediary roles between fishing supplies dealers and the fishermen.

With public health regulations limiting the hours people now spend outdoors, fisheries activities involving women are significantly affected while delays in supplying food to these communities, as part of the government’s stimulus package, is adding insult to injury.

Similar doubts are clouding a loan payment scheme that the government promised to cover for vulnerable people like Ms. Karyah.

“We don’t know who the payments will benefit and those who are benefiting already, but we hope it is extended to some of us also,” she said, with optimism.

Many women’s rights activists believe that though they can’t yet fully predict what the consequences of the pandemic will be on both genders, they are certain that the coronavirus outbreak will hit women – particularly single mothers with little or no education – the hardest. It will also threaten progress made in empowering women of every sector.

A staunch women’s rights advocate and chairperson of the National Civil Society Council of Liberia (NCSCL), Loretta Pope-Kai, says the situation is dire for women of coastal communities.

Madam Loretta Pope Kai, Chair, NCSCL.

“Women are affected in normal situation, then what about such pandemic? It is no secret that they are severely impacted and their situation has become worse. Many women are no longer on the market due to the tough time,” she said.

Rebecca Saydee, a women’s leader in New Kru Town, agrees with Pope-Kai. She says COVID-19 has created major challenges for small-scale fishers. Not just in Liberia, but around the world.

In her opinion, the pandemic has deepened the difficulties and challenges women endure daily, adding that fishing communities used to be self-reliant, making a living off the sea and rivers for themselves.

This provided livelihoods for coastal communities which, apart from putting food on the table, gave them access to basic services, housing, medical services, and education for their children.

According to some fishers, NaFAA – the government’s agency that supervises the fisheries sector – has provided little help to the sector since the outbreak began.

The Authority’s only intervention, according to them, was the distribution of assorted hygiene materials to a few communities including West Point – the largest slum community in Monrovia. The initiative was carried out in collaboration with the European Union. Beneficiaries of the donations include people in Montserrado, Grand Bassa, Grand Cape Mount and Margibi Counties.

Amid these uncertainties, many people of coastal communities say it is the COVID-19 regulations that are hindering their livelihood, more than the virus itself.

They believe the regulations further remove communities from being able to find food and make a living, especially during the enforcement of stringent measures during the months of March, April and May. It has also caused problems inside households.

Alex Nimely, a youth leader, says “because there is no food, there is no cohesion” within many families.

“Children go to bed hungry, somehow creating disunity within the family,” he said. “How do you expect the children to respect you as a father when you cannot feed them?”

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