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Our Fishing Heritage
Chapter 22. Fish and Offshore Oil


My experience with the Shell Oil company of Nigeria gave me a glimpse of the problems created when you have the extraction of enormous wealth from an area where local people live in dire poverty. I had similar experiences with Caltex in Indonesia. The Niger delta pays a heavy price in environmental damage for the oil extraction business, and one can understand why this has led to attacks on installations, and to bloodshed at times. To give Shell its due, the company attempts to provide compensation, and in the Delta area it operates an agriculture extension service bigger than anything the federal or state governments could mount. My judgment was that the reason this did not placate the locals was the manner in which the service was provided. Shell’s pandered and well-paid local officers (all black, - the whole company is locally staffed), strutted about like little lords and treated the people accordingly. The locals were not really consulted, - they were simply told what Shell would do for them, and how they had to cooperate.

Similarly, my recollections of Caltex in eastern Sumatra, are of a beautiful modern floodlit complex behind a high barbed wire fence. Just outside the fence, local fishers had to manhandle their baskets of fish up a steep muddy path from the river below to a miserable shack set on top of a rubbish dump, where their fish were auctioned. There were no facilities worth the mention, - no clean water, toilets, or proper access for fish vans or tricycles. And the fishers had to pay 10% of their sales income for the privilege. Perhaps conditions have changed since, but the contrast then was obscene.

Oil, perhaps more than any other resource, creates serious social tensions in poor countries where the enormous income is grabbed by the ruling elite, with little distribution down the economic ladder. Professor Michael Klare writes : “When countries with few other sources of national wealth exploit their petroleum reserves, the ruling elites typically monopolise the distribution of oil revenues, enriching themselves and their cronies while leaving the rest of the population mired in poverty – and the well-equipped and often privileged security forces of these “petro-states” can be counted on to support them. When the divide between privileged and disadvantaged coincides with tribal or religious differences, as it often does, violence isa likely outcome. The Western press may describe such conflict as “ethnic” in character, but it comes largely from the perverse effects of oil production.” 1

On the positive side, the oil industry has offered redundant fishers alternative work and income, as has happened in the North Sea. Without the timely opportunities provided by the oil sector, the EC imposed fleet reductions would have impacted more heavily on the coastal communities of Scotland and England. Such benefits are less evident in the poorer countries whose fishers lack the technical skills and qualifications to work on oil rigs or service vessels, except as deckhands and labourers. Also, due to the large numbers of fishermen in the tropics, the employment uptake of petroleum companies is too small in comparison to have the kind of impact it has had in the North Sea where fisher numbers were much less.

Much debate has taken place on the environmental impact of offshore oil drilling. My own assessment is that despite some dumping of heavy equipment off of rigs, the petroleum companies have behaved responsibly. In contrast, some fisher associations showed a disappointing lack of imagination. Under initial agreements, the North Sea oil companies agreed to restore the sea bed to its previous condition after the rigs were removed at the end of their working life. The fisher associations insisted this be done. Understandably, the oil companies suggested that complete removal of well heads and their fixtures might not be necessary. In fact, in my view, they could have formed the core of artificial reefs that could be developed to provide habitats and protected refuges for local fish populations.

In 1989 I was asked by the UN Industrial Development Organisation to assist them in a global study of the patterns of fish industry development. The study was not being undertaken on conventional lines. Rather than look at the usual features and parameters of national fishery sectors, the exercise focused on variations that were influenced by secondary and tertiary influences. To assist UNIDO in the study, the Organisation had secured the services of a highly recommended Harvard computer programme analyst, Dr Cliff Zinnes. An intelligent, fascinating and stimulating colleague to work with, Cliff explained to me in layman’s terms, how a computer analysis tool could identify factors that would not be readily apparent to the human mind. The reason I had been invited to join the team at UNIDO’s Vienna headquarters was that they needed a specialist with intimate knowledge of the sector, to help them interpret the clusters that were identified by the programme.

So we got to work, feeding into the programme, relevant data on the fishery sectors of around 80 countries with significant marine industries, regardless of their size, production, or degree of modernisation. The results were printed out on reams and reams of paper which Dr Zinnes perused like a true researcher, seeking that key indication of significance. To an uniformed observer the print-outs were just a myriad of meaningless numbers, but Cliff would run his trained eye up and down every column, then circle one or two numbers that captured his professional interest. Selected data outputs were then fed back into a carefully designed programme that identified clusters of countries with similar patterns in the structure and development of their fisheries.

At first the clusters appeared to have little meaning, but with guidance from the computer scientist, they became remarkably significant. In most cases they grouped fish industries together which had a number of similarities. What astonished me was that we had given the computer no information on some of the commonalities, but it had identified them from secondary and tertiary values. For example, oil-producing states might be in one cluster, though that ‘external’ factor was not in the inputed fishery sector data. But the nature of the development of fisheries in Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Venezuela, Iraq, Iran, Brunei, and other major petroleum producers, had elements that were common to each other. I will come back to this point shortly, but let me mention a few other findings.

Some fishery sector clusters contained only states that were suffering from insurgencies, conflicts, or outright wars, though again these were not features we had included. But they were obviously conditions that affected local industry, and this was picked up by the computer programme. General economic factors appeared in other clusters, linking countries which had large foreign trade surpluses, or which were highly dependent on imports. Countries with well-developed, profitable financial sectors were also placed in particular groups. In a few cases the computer appeared to recognise a pattern that involved two, three or more national features that on the surface had little relevance to fisheries.

Some may understandably question the value of this kind of research. A comprehensive investigation of any nation’s economy or resources, or stage of development, would identify most of the features that appeared in the fish industry programme clusters. While that is true, I think that the Zinnes / UNIDO study (still available as a UNIDO publication), gave us insights we might have otherwise overlooked, and made fish industry sector development advice and assistance more informed. Directions that a particular country or its aid partners might think helpful for the fishing industry, but which in the light of the patterns followed in countries of similar make-up, might be unwise or unhelpful in the long term, could be avoided. When planners consider how to promote growth in any sector, they usually aim for one or more benefits the investment would produce, such as increased employment, income, or food supply. But there may be other benefits, costs, risks, or drawbacks that should be borne in mind, and some of these are not readily apparent in a standard investigation.

But to return to fishery sectors in oil-producing countries, these present a set of issues and risks that have huge social and environmental implications. Offshore oil extraction and fisheries have worked reasonably well together in the North Sea, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Persian Gulf (Arabian Gulf). The latter region has seen an enormous amount of pollution and destruction of marine habitats, but that was the result of the Iran / Iraq conflict, and the USA / Iraq war, rather than any fundamental problem with the oil industry per se.

The serious fisher / petroleum conflicts of the Niger Delta have been brought about by mainly onshore oil pollution, and the gross indifference of local oil executives to the social and environmental damage their operations caused to the coastal communities. Despite the efforts of Shell Nigeria to win friends and achieve the cooperation of local communities around Port Harcourt, their local executives and extension officers behave with arrogance bordering on contempt for the fishing community leaders. I have watched them in action, and am not at all surprised that more radical elements in the delta villages have adopted a hostile and sometimes criminal attitude towards the oil company. This was relayed to Shell Nigeria and Shell UK in my confidential reports, but as far as I know, elicited no corrective response.

1 The Dependency Dilemma, in Blood and Oil, by M. Klare, Penguin, 2005


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