BHEARD scholar studies Liberian fish populations

Sustainably managing fish populations is vital to the Liberian fisheries industry, but a lack of resources, funding and data make that a difficult job.

Sustainably managing fish populations is vital to the Liberian fisheries industry, but a lack of resources, funding and data make that a difficult job.

Austin Saye Wehye, a Liberian studying fisheries science at the University of Ghana, wants to help fill the data gap. The main goal of his research is to determine the population status of commercially important fish species within Liberia's territorial waters, and to recommend possible management regimes to safeguard those stocks. Some of his recommendations already are being used by the country’s fishing industry.

Wehye, pictured above with a fish sample, is a scholar in the Borlaug Higher Education for Agricultural Research and Development program. The goal of BHEARD, supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development, is to develop agricultural scientists and increase agricultural research capacity in partner countries. The program is named after Dr. Norman Borlaug, an American biologist, humanitarian and Nobel laureate who has been called “the father of the Green Revolution.”

According to Wehye’s research, world fish consumption has almost doubled in the last few decades, while the proportion of marine stocks fished within biologically sustainable levels has declined. It’s estimated that nearly a third of the world’s fish stocks are overfished. This has contributed to an overall decline in the global marine fisheries industry – and led some scientists to forecast the collapse of ocean fisheries entirely.

Liberia, a relatively small country along the Atlantic Ocean in western Africa, has seen its own declines in fish catches. In order to develop the management strategies needed to keep its industry afloat, accurate data on fish populations and biology must be gathered. That’s where Wehye is stepping in.

The coastline of Liberia is about 570 kilometers long, comprising relatively warm waters with low nutrient contents. The country’s annual per-capita fish consumption has decreased over time due to damaged infrastructure from recent civil conflicts, over-exploitation of resources and a shift from subsistence to trade-based fisheries. The fishery sector contributes about 10 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product and provides employment for 37,000 people, but its full potential is still unknown, Wehye said.

One of Wehye’s studies evaluated the population parameters of two local fish species from the Sciaenidae family, Pseudotolithus senegalensis (also known as Cassava croaker) and Pseudotolithus typus (Longneck croaker). Increased exports to Asian markets, a doubling in price and access to outboard motors have intensified recent fishing of these two important commercial species.

Wehye’s research has revealed that P. senegalensis is slightly overexploited by the Liberian industry, while P. typus is at the optimal level of exploitation. The research also has revealed signs of growth overfishing (catching fish before optimum maturity) for both species, which could have severe implications for fish population size and for food security within vulnerable fishing households.

To avert the potential consequences of growth overfishing (including population collapse), Wehye recommends the enforcement of sustainable measures like monitoring fishing efforts and increasing mesh size in fishing nets (to catch more mature fish).

Wehye made similar recommendations for Sardinella maderensis (Madeiran sardinella), another commercially important species subject to intense fishing pressure. His study appears to be the maiden work done on S. maderensis in Liberian coastal waters, so the information gained will serve as a springboard for further research.

Wehye expects to earn his master’s degree in November 2017. When he returns home, he intends to work in the research and statistics division of the Liberian Bureau of National Fisheries.

– Matt Milkovich

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