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How to improve fisheries management in the Congo? Call in the foresters!

This backwater in the rainforest surrounding the Sangha river filled up with water and fish during the rainy season, when the river overflowed. The fishers create simple ponds by building small dykes, then use baskets to empty the ponds one by one to catch the fish during the dry season: fish à la corbeille
A local fish – the giraffe catfish (Auchenoglanis occidentalis). This example is well over a meter in length

The Central African country of the Republic of Congo enjoys substantial fisheries resources. Their inland water sources, lakes and rivers, are replete with numerous fish species.

Until now, the relative abundance of fish and the low levels of fishing meant that the need to devise fisheries management plans was not considered a priority. Going forward, however, it will be essential to develop such plans, outlining how much can be fished to allow their fish stocks to remain at biologically sustainable levels and to ensure that overfishing does not occur.

Fish is widely consumed in the Congolese diet, with an average of 26.5 kg of fish consumed per capita annually. This should be measured against estimated averages of nearly 20 kg per capita at a global level and an average for Africa of only 9.8 kg per capita.

“The Congo has an impressive level of fisheries resources,” according to Felix Marttin, FAO Fisheries Resources Officer and an inland fisheries specialist. “Fish is also an important part of the Congolese diet. This is why it’s a shame to see that so much of the fish consumed by the Congolese is imported from abroad, and often frozen rather than fresh.

The major obstacle to Congolese consumers obtaining their excellent, fresh local fish is the difficulty in reaching the market due to the poor infrastructure within the country, particularly the roads but also landing sites and storage.

So rather than taking advantage of the substantial fisheries resources within the country, the Congo spends large amounts importing frozen fish from abroad. Moreover, this practice discourages the development of local employment and leads to a large carbon footprint.”

When FAO, working closely with the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) to develop the inland fisheries and aquaculture project, considered various ways to change these patterns, the solution they eventually arrived at was not so obvious. 

A meeting with a local fishermen’s association at the sawmill town Pokola. Agreements with the logging companies will allow these fishermen to buy ice and transport fresh fish to market, increasing their income

The Congo is also home to rich forestry resources, and commercial logging takes place in the northern departments of Sangha, Cuvette and Cuvette-Ouest, among others.

Some of the largest logging concessions are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. This ensures that the timber companies are protecting biodiversity, water resources, and wildlife and their habitat, as well as supporting the livelihoods of local communities.

Navigation in the River Sangha can be extremely difficult during the dry season because sand banks accumulate, making it easy for boats to get stuck
A chalkboard menu at a shop in Pokola. The fish sold here at subsidized prices and listed on the chalkboard menu are all imported frozen from abroad
Smoking fish using Marantaceae leaves from the forest to prevent drying out

“Unfortunately, despite progress made with reduced impact logging and social responsibility investments, some timber companies in the Congo risked losing their environmental certification,” said Simon Rietbergen, FAO Senior Forestry Officer. “This was not due to any unsustainable logging practices, but rather, to over-hunting wild game for food. Animal husbandry is challenging in a tropical forest region where diseases such as the human sleeping sickness caused by the tsetse fly are rife and veterinary care is scarce.

So, in order to have sufficient animal protein, the logging company staff and their dependents were forced to go out and hunt wild game, or buy it from commercial hunters.

This, in turn, led to many corrective action requests being made by the auditors evaluating the logging companies for forest certification.”

“When we talked with local officials and logging company managers about this problem, we kept coming back to the untapped fisheries resources surrounding these logging villages.

Many of the loggers would prefer eating fresh, affordable fish from local water bodies and rivers rather than having to end long working days hunting for their dinner or buying increasingly expensive game meat, but the lack of infrastructure and technology made it difficult for nearby fishers to get fresh fish to the camps.”

Smoked fish, mostly from northern Congo, for sale in the Poto-poto market in the capital Brazzaville

“We discovered that collaboration between fishers and foresters was an ideal solution for both sides. The foresters have electricity and potable water in their logging bases, and they have the ability to make food quality ice – something unavailable to the small-scale fishers in the area, and crucial for the transport of fresh fish.”

The foresters have agreed to sub-contract ice production to local entrepreneurs, who would sell the ice to the fishermen at a reasonable price. The direct supply chain thus created between the fishers and the logging communities consuming the fresh fish will not depend on subsidies, so it will continue long after the project ends.

“We’re very excited about this component of the larger project to strengthen fisheries and aquaculture in the Republic of Congo,” said Felix Marttin.

“The Blue Growth Initiative we’re promoting at FAO encourages us to look broadly at the environmental, social and economic aspects of our fisheries work, but it also provides us with a framework for working across sectors. We hope that this example of cross-sectoral collaboration between fishers and foresters can prove successful, and help serve as a model for all the Congo Basin countries as we work to find creative solutions for getting domestically produced fish to local consumers.”

For more information about the project, please see this post in the FAO Investment Centre site: Developing the Republic of Congo’s inland fisheries and aquaculture industry.

We’ll be providing more information in future posts on the full project to develop fisheries and aquaculture in the northern Congolese departments of Plateaux, Sangha, Cuvette and Cuvette-Ouest. 

A fish landing site. The live catfish are brought here in buckets by boat, and then transported to the cities further South by car

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