Photos and news reports of dead whales washing up on the shores of Ghana in recent weeks raise very serious worries about the state of the marine environment there. If it were a question of one or two whales washing up, perhaps there would be no cause for alarm. However, we are talking of sixteen whales washing up dead since 2009 and many of those in the last few months.
Experts tell us that if these giant sea mammals die due to ecosystem disturbances we can be sure that huge numbers of smaller aquatic life forms would already have perished without anyone noticing the calamity.
Serious oil activities began in Ghana in 2007 predating the period when the deaths began to tumble in more frequently than in the past. We note that environmental impact statements had earlier warned that oil exploitation would likely affect the whale population off the Ghanaian coast, as they are vulnerable to disturbances. According toreports, an impact statement in 2009 noted that at least 18 different species of dolphins and small whales in the region would be affected by oil exploration. The oil companies promised to put in place some mitigation measures. Did they do that? Your guess is as good as mine.
In Nigeria, we recollect that following Chevron’s massive gas rig explosion at their Apoi North Field on 16th January 2012, at least one dead whale and a dolphin washed up near the Niger Delta coast. Dead whales have also been seen in the Akassa as well as Brass/Opoama axis of the Niger Delta.
Following the alarming mortality rate in Ghana that country’s Environmental Protection Agency claimed that the deaths were not related to oil exploration or extraction activities. It is surprising that the impact assessment had already predicted that these fatalities may occur and here we see the “protecting” agency excusing the oil companies even before formal studies had been carried out.
In Nigeria, except for some incidents that have been directly linked to the gas rig explosion and some oil spills, the local folks often regard the deaths as natural and simply shrug them off.
In early August, I joined young environmental activists and the people of Lofoten, Vesteraalen and Senja (LoVeSe), northern Norway, in a town square mobilisation against oil drilling off their shores. One of the persons I met at the event was Bjørnar Nicolaisen, secretary of the fishermen union, Andoy Fiskarlag. He shared with me the profound findings made by fishermen in the area in their research to identify links between oil activities and the impacts on fisheries in the area.
The interesting thing about their study is that it was carried out by people with deep practical knowledge of the sea and the normal behaviour of fisheries in the area. It was thus easy for them to note abnormal behaviour as well as impacts on their catch following exploratory seismic activities. Note that this was a popular study, not one commissioned by some company wishing to cover their tracks,
In a report titled “Consequences of Seismic Surveys” the fishermen stated that although oil activities have been going on for over 40 years in Norway the generality of the people were not aware of the consequences of seismic activities on fisheries. According to the fishermen, when they for the first time brought those consequences to the public, many people and politicians onshore became aware of all the damage seismic shootings and the shock waves created by those do to fisheries and the environment in the sea.
The fishermen found that when the seismic surveys began in the summertime of 2007 “all the catches were reduced immediately. Only small fish were caught, and fishermen explain this by the fact that small fish have limited abilities to escape from the pressure.” The big and more valuable fish were scared away. They also experienced 50-70 per cent loss in their catches from the first day seismic shootings started. They found in addition that catches did not recover even three years after the seismic surveys were conducted.
The Norwegian fishermen wrote of whales being driven crazy by seismic shootings. They mention one particular killer whale that appeared to have lost the ability to feed itself and would approach fishing boats and had to be fed by the fishermen. They also stated: If our conclusions are correct, all life connected to the sea is badly damaged by seismic shootings.
In looking at all these, we see an extended web of destruction of marine life caused by unrelenting oil exploration and extraction activities. It would be easy to despair, but in all these we see a strong sign of hope as fishermen facing the threat of big oil are coming together in solidarity to build resistance and to share experiences on how to deal with their common menace.
As we write, there are moves by fishermen at Bodo in northern Norway and Bodo in Ogoni to build links beyond sharing a common name. When ordinary folks unite, there will be a push back against officials who believe that all they are appointed to do is to parade a narrative of bland denial of the fact that oil activities are deadly to marine life forms, humans and the planet.