Why We Need to Protect West Africa’s Marine Wildlife
Tuesday, 11 Apr, 2023
Many people are familiar with Africa's iconic terrestrial wildlife, such as lions, giraffes, and elephants, and understand the importance of protecting these majestic creatures and their habitats. However, the amazing marine wildlife inhabiting Africa's oceans often goes unnoticed and underappreciated. From vibrant coral reefs to unique endemic species and essential migratory corridors, Africa's waters are teeming with life that plays a crucial role in maintaining the planet's biodiversity.
The Surprising Biodiversity of West Africa’s Waters
Sea Shepherd crews patrolling West African waters on our campaigns fighting against illegal fishing have witnessed firsthand the diverse and unique marine ecosystem along the Atlantic coastline. The marine wildlife in this region is unique for several reasons, one being its impressive biodiversity.
People don’t often associate Africa with whales and dolphins, yet the Gulf of Guinea is a great place for whale watching, particularly during the summer migration season when Humpback whales travel through here from their feeding grounds in the Southern Ocean to their breeding grounds in the warmer waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Other whale species, such as sperm whales and Bryde's whales, also inhabit these waters.
Our crew onboard Sea Shepherd vessels always rush to the deck when dolphins are spotted swimming and jumping playfully as they ride the bow of the ship. Common dolphins, bottlenose dolphins, and Atlantic spotted dolphins are some of the species found in these waters. The region is also home to the critically endangered Atlantic Humpback dolphin, endemic to West Africa’s coastline.
Although elusive and difficult to spot, the West African manatee can also be found in some of the region's rivers, estuaries, and coastal waters. With an estimated population of just 1500, they’re currently listed as vulnerable due to habitat loss, hunting, and accidental entanglement in fishing gear. [source]
This region is a crucial habitat for turtles, including the world’s largest sea turtle, the Leatherback, which feeds on jellyfish. These beaches are also among the most important nesting sites for the critically endangered Hawksbill turtle and the endangered Green turtle.
The region is known for its abundance of pelagic fish, including sardines, anchovies, mackerel, and tuna. These fish species play a crucial role in the food chain, providing sustenance for larger marine predators. Demersal fish like grouper, snapper, and hake inhabit the seabed and are important for the region's artisanal fisheries supporting local communities. The region's coral reefs, mangroves, and estuaries provide essential habitats for many of these species. West African waters are also home to various species of sharks and rays, including hammerhead sharks, manta rays, and the critically endangered sawfish.
Crustaceans & Mollusks
Various species of crabs, shrimps, and lobsters inhabit the West African marine ecosystem and are an important food source for other marine animals. Squid, octopus, and – in more shallow waters – oysters, can also be found in the waters along Africa’s Atlantic coast.
The West African coast is home to a diverse array of seabird species that either breed, forage, or migrate through the region. Some of the species that can be spotted include terns, albatross, gulls, boobies, herons, and the white-tailed tropicbird with its distinctive long white tail streamers.
Healthy Ocean, Healthy Planet
This amazing biodiversity of marine wildlife thrives thanks to West Africa's variety of habitats, such as mangroves, seagrass beds, coral reefs, and estuaries, which provide crucial feeding, breeding, and nursery grounds for countless species, including migrating populations of whales and critically endangered sea turtles.
The Gulf of Guinea is known for its upwelling systems, such as the Canary and Benguela Currents, which bring nutrient-rich cold water to the surface. This supports large populations of phytoplankton, which in turn form the basis of the marine food web upon which marine wildlife depends. The abundance of food attracts a diverse array of marine species, from fish to marine mammals and seabirds. These upwelling systems also contribute to the absorption of atmospheric carbon dioxide, thereby playing a role in mitigating climate change [source].
Scientists have been consistently emphasizing the crucial role oceans play in sustaining our planet. Serving as both climate regulators and carbon sinks, oceans help absorb significant quantities of carbon dioxide, thereby alleviating the effects of climate change. However, to perform these vital functions effectively, oceans rely on a diverse and healthy marine wildlife population to maintain their equilibrium.
The Threats to West Africa’s Marine Wildlife
Regrettably, these ecosystems face mounting threats. Factors such as illegal fishing, harmful fishing methods, plastic pollution, climate change and habitat degradation wreak havoc on marine wildlife populations and jeopardize the health of the ocean.
The escalating demand for fish has given rise to unsustainable fishing practices, which result in dwindling fish populations and endanger non-target species due to bycatch and habitat damage. In West Africa, one of the foremost challenges stems from illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, especially by foreign commercial fishing vessels that take advantage of the region’s limited capacity for surveillance, patrolling, and prosecution.
“West Africa is very interesting for illegal fishermen because there are still a lot of fish in those waters, and unfortunately the enforcement is not as strong as it would be, for instance, in Europe or North America, where the coast guards are patrolling their own waters. Protecting West African waters can be challenging due to the vastness of the area and the difficulty of enforcing regulations. This is where Sea Shepherd comes in.” - Alex Cornelissen, Sea Shepherd Global CEO.
On our IUU campaigns around the African continent, Sea Shepherd Global has assisted local authorities with the arrest of 84 vessels since 2016. “When we come across illegal fishing in the sovereign waters of a State, we work with that country’s law enforcement agents to assist efforts to board, inspect and arrest the perpetrators of wildlife crime,” says Captain Peter Hammarstedt, Sea Shepherd Global Director of Campaigns.
Another related threat to marine wildlife and their habitats is plastic pollution. While most people focus on single-use consumer plastic bottles, bags and straws, the deadliest form of plastic pollution in the ocean comes from fishing gear such as abandoned or lost nets, known as “ghost nets”. Whether on the ocean surface, tangled in coral reefs on the seabed, or piled up on beaches, ghost nets go on killing marine wildlife indiscriminately for years.
In 2019, Sea Shepherd and Biosfera -- our local partners in Cabo Verde – worked together to clear over four tons of discarded fishing gear that was choking the beaches of the deserted island of Santa Luzia, one of the most important Loggerhead sea turtle nesting beaches in the world [read about it here].
Conservation efforts are being made to address these threats and protect the unique marine wildlife of West Africa. These efforts include the establishment of marine protected areas, partnerships to help monitor and enforce fishing regulations, and increased environmental awareness and education.
It’s vitally important to raise awareness about the wonders of African marine wildlife and the urgent need to protect them, as the survival of these incredible ocean dwellers is vital for the health of our oceans and the future of our planet.